A tramway named deceit

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The setting was grand, the flower display outstanding and the ceremony manifestly well-rehearsed. Ten out of 10 for the PR exercise. A charming lady invited us to switch off our phones and buy in “the dream which has become a reality”. And we readily indulged her. Who wouldn’t like to dream of great things for one’s country? A priori, who would dispute the need for a modern, national, integrated public transport system?

But here’s the snag: We were told that the whole project has been modelled on the Edinburgh metro. Without further ado, here’s what The Daily Express says about that project: “5.3 million passengers used the service in 2015 – despite the network having the potential to carry 21 million people each year. It comes as yet another blow to Edinburgh Trams which is currently at the centre of a public inquiry into the massive problems which dogged the building project, which was completed in May 2014 at a cost of £776million, more than double the original price and three years later than planned.” You must have noticed, by and by, that they don’t call it a ‘metro’ over there, let alone ‘express’!

Before we look at the figures, let’s also get rid of a serious misconception which is being hammered into us: The Rs9.9 billion-grant given by India is not exactly a ‘gift’ as the spin doctors would have us believe. It is the trade-off for our offshore sector advantages. It came as a ‘compensation’ for the loss of the huge advantage we had through the Double Taxation Avoidance Treaty. It is a situation similar to the abolition of the sugar quota! So, there are a thousand ways in which that money could have been used to reform the sector and preserve employment. Having a tram in town is unlikely to solve the problems we are bound to face in a couple of years.

Now the figures: According to the government projections, as from year one, we will start making a Rs382-million operational surplus! In 10 years, that figure will go up to nearly Rs 1.3 billion and, in 20 years – we will all have aged but not the metro – we will start raking in over Rs 2.7 billion. By the time the MBC had done its job, most Mauritians must have been satisfied that the Metro Express will be the most profitable industry in the country – a first in the world!

What was left out of the flashy figures is the most important ingredient: the servicing of the loan, including the interest, factoring in the depreciation of the rupee as has been the long-term trend. Many engineers are also questioning the projected prices of running the tram. (See our cover story in Weekly.)

But the cherry on the cake has to be the creative accounting to keep cost at Rs 18.8 billion as a ‘fixed contract’ – a figure which does not include the preliminaries and other costs like the peripheral infrastructure associated with the project. Also, by removing all the elevated structures to save cost, we have ended up with a tram, likely to create more – rather than solve – congestion.

At the end of the day, the presentation of the Metro Express was shrouded in the same opacity the government has accustomed us to.  It left us with more questions than answers – and a great deal of apprehensions. It is clear by now that no document will be made public: we will never know the terms of the loan with India. We will never know the details of the contract with Larsen and Toubro. We will never know the real cost of the project. The prime minister has already said that he has disclosed ‘the important information’. Naturally, he decides what is important for us to know. The rest is none of our business.

So let’s close our eyes, breathe deep and keep dreaming… of miracles. 

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