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Lindsey Collen on the Campaign Against "Squatters": Blaming the Victims

02.09.2009


The recent campaign against "squatters", who live in the area where the Ring Road is due to be built, is both dishonest and cruel. Although journalist Deepa Bookhun's pertinent questions in her interview of ex-Housing-Minister Ganoo, who knows his dossier, establishes clearly that "most of the people" living in the way of the Road are not squatters, the campaign continues. What kind of dark ages do we live in where the truth, once made clear, can so easily be ignored?

Housing, as everyone agrees, is one of the elementary needs of humans. Now that monopoly holdings on Mother Earth's land have gradually expropriated us, the majority of human beings, from our natural habitat over the course of some five thousand years (after the previous 95% of our history was passed in security), we are now reduced to a precarious situation. We can easily become homeless, as well as having no means of survival. The recent sub-prime crisis has highlighted this precarity in the world's richest country.

Even 150 years ago, the Colonial State here recognised the problem. In the generation following slavery's abolition, Section 353 of the 1867 Labour Laws said: "Every person employing labourers upon a country estate, shall provide them with sufficient and wholesome lodging". The State thus ensured that land-owners provided housing for ex-slaves and for indentured labourers.

A century later, when the Cyclone Carol left thousands homeless, Government set up the Central Housing Authority. For 30 years, it allocated housing on the basis of strict criteria to working families and single women. A Tribunal under the CHA Act judged complaints. All five Municipalities also used to build housing estates.

Then, as Mauritius was becoming a Republic, and during a world-wide wave of ultra-liberalism, the CHA was closed down. The State set up a finance capital operation around the MHC, PEL and NHDC, which were to run on profit lines. The then Housing Minister Cuttaree offered the first NHDC houses at Rs6,000 rent, while most workers earned less than Rs6,000 per month. People in precarious employment did not even have the pay-slip that the NHDC demanded.

The Great Mauritian Lie that "Over 90% of Mauritians are home-owners" spread. The truth is that often five poor families inhabit land which is not theirs, but some great uncle's. It is too small, or too complicated, to sub-divide. A real home owner is the person who holds the land deeds. The rest of the family often become the "homeless".

Meanwhile, central Port Louis metamorphosed from part-residential to all commercial property. Serious speculation began. Many families who had fled there and to Vallée Pitot and Plaine Verte during the 1968 race wars, now 25 years later, found that their housing, mainly rented, was being pulled down to make way for new commercial properties. They often needed to live near their places of work, but rent had hit the roof while their incomes remained low. Perhaps 80% of those in difficulty were, and still are, women heads of household. What many did in the 1990s was to take up tiny plots of land on the harsh mountain slopes, and occupy them illegally. One woman and her handicapped son were evicted from their room for inability to pay the Rs1,500 rent. Her income for ironing clothes in various peoples' houses nearby, was at the time, Rs1,100 per month. She and her handicapped son were the typical so-called "squatters". These people, after a long struggle led by Lalit got cheaper Firinga-type houses or State-leased land. The Ring Road was, even then, left unoccupied. But the present Government has drawn a new trajectory for it, which involves having to compulsorily move perfectly legal tenants.

But, if Government's housing policy does not cater for homeless people, there will by definition always be new people living somewhere illegally. It is obvious. A minority of those on the Ring Road trajectory are illegal occupants of the land. You regularize one wave of homeless people, and you get another, in these cruel times. Although 2,000 of the 3,000 illegal State Land dwellers as of 2001 received housing, and there were only 900 in 2006, this number has again grown to 1,222 today.

You look at the employment situation in Rodrigues and you understand why people come to Mauritius Island and soon find themselves homeless. You look at the wages paid for domestic work, factory work, hotel work, field work, lorry helpers, shop workers, small enterprise employees, street sweepers, and you know that people cannot afford much rent at all. Publishing the truth, by itself, can bring out the compassion us.

In Muvman Lakaz there was a man who was a 'recidivist' and who had once, amongst other things, been up in Court for illegally occupying State Land. The Magistrate asked him if he had anything to say in his defense, and this is what he said: 'Long ago it was god's own land. There was no-one in Mauritius. Then a French Company came and took the land. The British then came, and whatever wasn't already taken, they took, themselves, and called it Crown Land. After Independence, the Government took it and called it State Land. Now, my wife and children and I, finding ourselves without land, have taken a very small piece of this, which we inhabit, together with our dog. I don't see why I am being charged.'

Lindsey Collen
As a LALIT member
[A marginally shorter version of this article was published in L'Express, 1 September, 2009.]