Rich or mad?

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“We have all become rich. Or mad!” the KC Ranzé’s editorialist concluded last week in an opinion piece ironically entitled “Poor little us”. Bear that in mind as you listen to the budget speech this afternoon.

I don’t know about you, but the feeling of having suddenly become rich is something I have been experiencing recently. I used to count in millions. Hundreds of millions seemed like a lot of money, irrespective of whether it applied to budget expenditure, budget deficit or public debt. The first time I came face to face with anything above that was the Rs20 billion budgeted for the then-light railway system. It was shocking. So much so that we were up in arms, the then-leader of the opposition – now prime minister – wrote to the Indian prime minister to beg him not to embark us on such a crazy debt, and the rest is history.

“If you are asking where all these billions have been, the answer is ‘in the bank’. You just need to print them! See how stupid you’ve been all these years! Only Mugabe found that secret before us.”

Ever since, I have been hearing the word ‘billions’ more often than I’d care to. Rs20 billion and counting for the renamed Metro Express, Rs5 billion for a stadium that has served very little purpose since its construction. And Rs19 billion for Safe City cameras that no one understands the use of. Imagine the number of social houses we could have built with the billions spent on the cheapest of those projects! But we wouldn’t have looked, let alone felt, rich.

And suddenly money we didn’t have started falling from the sky. Literally! Rs18 billion were suddenly found in the reserves of the Bank of Mauritius. All that was needed was a small change in the law and billions were all yours for the taking. Pity nobody had thought about it before. Poverty could have been eradicated from the face of the earth! And before we could come to terms with the number of zeros in a billion, we started talking about hundreds of billions! Another ‘small’ change in the law and abracadabra! The now very independent Bank of Mauritius agreed to give another Rs60 billion grant to the government and Rs80 billion more were channelled to a newly-created entity called the Mauritius Investment Corporation (MIC)! If my arithmetic is correct, we are talking about Rs158 billion! If you are asking where all these billions have been, the answer is ‘in the bank’. You just need to print them! See how stupid you’ve been all these years! Only Mugabe found that secret before us. Thank God we are the only ones alive today to be custodians of it.

We will find out today – during the eagerly awaited budget speech – how some of this manna from heaven will be used. Don’t be distracted by the tap latab show. It will be wilder than before as the ministers and MPs are paid more, they are drawing more allowances and have done nothing so far with parliament having sat normally – allowing parliamentary questions – only once since the election. So, expect all the resulting gratitude to be expressed by breaking the National Assembly tables. Also, expect many admiring looks, smug faces and blissful smiles all around. The lower the level of understanding, the easier to impress.

Concentrate on the signals the government will send to the people. Will the ministers and MPs’ salaries be cut by at least 50% and their unjustifiable allowances eliminated altogether? Will the plethora of parastatals – many of which only exist to provide jobs for the boys – be rationalised and consolidated, shedding the dead weight heading many? In a nutshell, will the government reduce its lifestyle, which alone costs nearly 20% of our GDP, accounting for Rs100 billion? Or will the minister of finance send the message that the blatant waste of public funds will continue and that money will keep falling from the sky, eventually compromising the future of our children?

There is nothing in the actions of this government that suggest it has any intention of going beyond preaching, introducing targeted taxes to score some cheap points and calling for the poor to tighten their belt even more. But, believing in a budget speech is the triumph of hope over experience. Let us listen with an open mind. We know by now that we are mad. The only thing we will find out is whether we are mad enough to genuinely believe we are rich.

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