Rajesh Bhagwan: “All the government is good at is boasting”

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Following last week’s parliament session when the cost of ministers’ tickets but not the cost of their travels was finally tabled, Weekly speaks to the MP who had requested the information six months ago. Mouvement Militant Mauricien MP Rajesh Bhagwan tell us why he thinks the information provided does not tell the whole story and why the government might be hiding the real figure.

You asked last week about the cost of ministers’ travels and you got the figure of Rs18 million. It’s not so shocking is it? 
What’s shocking to me is the lack of transparency. The prime minister only replied to a part of the question. The Rs18 million is only part of the cost. It has been a bad habit of this government to hide information as far as amounts spent on per diem, entertainment and other allowances. There is complete opacity on that. The question was not only about air tickets, but also money spent out of public funds for the whole of the travels and missions. Because the figure would be so revealing, since last year, the government has been delaying its publication. When they finally made the cost of the tickets available, they refused to disclose the amount spent from public funds. All they said was that all other expenses are made ‘as per approved rates’. What are these approved rates? The taxpayers won’t go and do the calculation. The minister has the duty to explain all this to the public. That’s why we at the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) are not satisfied and we will be querying that again in the months to come. 

Have you done the calculation yourself? 
I am a parliamentarian. How would I know the figure?

What is your estimate? 
My guess is that the per diem can go up to Rs25,000 per day depending on the country visited and the status of the person travelling. The prime minister, ministers, civil servants and so on are paid different rates. But let me ask you this: Why is the government refusing to disclose the figure spent? Isn’t it because it is so high that there will be a public outcry? Last year, the prime minister gave the assurance that there was a need for control and that he would put order into all this, but has he?

Hasn’t he? Aren’t ministers travelling less than they were before? 
No! From what I see, every opportunity is good to travel. 

Isn’t it normal for ministers to travel? 
Yes, but not to this extent. We have missions and advisers overseas. They should be allowed to do their work. We can’t have ministers travelling all the time in large delegations, particularly when the economy is not doing well.

In that case, aren’t there more important things to ask questions about than ministers trips? Problems like law and order perhaps?
If you have been following parliament, you will have seen that I have put questions on law and order as well and so many other issues. Had it not been for the MMM, since 2014, so many scandals would not have been brought to light. My good friend Reza Uteem raised the question of the Double Taxation Avoidance Treaty for example at adjournment time, and Aadil Ameer Meea asked a question to the minister mentor on the drug situation…

But the minister mentor gave no answer and no clarification…
Then the population must judge for itself. If the government wants to hide information and wants to keep the population in the dark, people are not being duped. They see everything live on TV. They saw the debate on the mental health bill and listened to Paul Bérenger’s speech on that. He has known that file since 1998. We are a small team, but we are doing the job that we are paid to do as parliamentarians and we are proud of that.

To your colleague Aadil Ameer Meea’s question about drugs being sold openly in some parts of the island, the answer given by the minister mentor was, “if you know where drugs are being sold, why don’t you report it to the police?” Isn’t that a fair comment?
It was an arrogant reply. The minister mentor, with due respect, does not walk on the streets and does not know what’s happening in the police force. He and other ministers have the security service, the Anti Drug and Smuggling Unit (ADSU) etc. Drugs are everywhere, even in my own constituency (No 20: Beau Bassin/Petite Rivière – ed), we see the same phenomenon. The ADSU is not given proper means or enough staff, there is a lack of leadership in the police and the whole force has to be revamped. And I don’t see the minister mentor coping with this. Modern Mauritius needs better policing, and the police are not motivated. I meet police officers and I know the equipment shortages and allowances not being paid etc. How do you have a motivated police force if you don’t cater for their betterment.

Is that why the law and order situation is as bad as it is? 
There are multiple reasons, but the fact that the police are not motivated is one of them. Others are things like drugs, social problems, unemployment and the government has failed on all these  fronts. I am somebody on the field. I am not an MP who sleeps at home. I travel and discuss with people on the street and I know that the situation is very bad. 

What should be done? 
Leadership in government is the main problem. Also there is a lack of leadership in the police force and this is causing so much frustration. Go and see the police quarters and the environment in which they are working. If you want to have a good police force, you must invest in it and give the police officers enough consideration. All the government is good at is boasting. They cannot see the frustration within the police. Have you seen a country where the police have to protest? 

Isn’t that a healthy thing that the police can demonstrate? 
The police demonstrate when there is cause to do so. And they really are fed up. 

But if they are so fed up, wouldn’t the government know? 
It’s a question of leadership. I saw that in 2014 and it’s happening again. All the issues dating years back have worsened since 2014. Now they have reached a stage where the police cannot take any more. Hence the protests.

The question is that if the population has had enough, wouldn’t the government know that and not for example schedule a by-election? 

The government is arrogant. Those people in power think they will stay there for centuries. They do not see what is happening; they are blind because they have advisers who do nothing but praise them all the time. At the end of the year, the people will give their verdict. 

Do you think there will be a by-election? 
This country urgently needs a general election. 

The prime minister says the government will go for a by-election. Do you think it will? 
What the government decides to do in its Lakwizin is its problem. We at the MMM have maintained, and Paul Bérenger said this on Saturday, that this country does not need a by-election. This country needs a general election.

Do you think it’s a good idea for the whole of the opposition to resign to provoke a general election? 
For us in the MMM, we have said that the country needs a general election. This is the official reply of the party.

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