It happens only in Mauritius

What if you went to bed one night to wake up the next morning only to be told that education is absolutely free? This means you won’t have to pay the college and university fees for your children. The primary schooling is already free. You scratch your eyes and touch the blanket and the bed or the bedside table, to make sure you are in your senses.

And what if you woke up another morning and you learnt this time that your children will travel free to school. You won’t have the trouble to count the coins every morning for the bus conductor. And that’s not all. Your grandpa or grandma or your dad or mom past 60 would wander wherever and whenever they feel like without a single cent in their pocket, except for their food and shelter. They’d just have to show their pensioner’s card no questions asked.

Kidding? Dreaming? No, that’s absolutely true. It happens only in Mauritius. Provided you are in the elections periods.

In 1976 the Labour Party managed to entice the population with a free education promise. The bait worked.

In 2005 the rejuvenated Labour Party, came out with a promise of free transport to all school children and old age pensioners. This was estimated to cost around Rs 600 million (20 million USD). Peanuts, they said. We prone equal opportunities and want excellence in our education. No child should fail on account of pecuniary handicap. The hook was well baited again.

The popular impacts of such pertinent pompous proposals are far-reaching. Once in power the Government has to live up to its promise willy-nilly, although the economic pointers are on red. In no time the honeymoon turns into nightmare. The honey becomes bitter day by day as the people start paying the price of such bounties. You can no longer keep track of the price jets.

But when your children have studied for five years for the School Certificate (SC) or seven for the Higher School Certificate (HSC) and the time comes for the final examinations, you have to pay the exam fees as required by Cambridge. You now learn that the fees have gone up and you have to pay a lot more than you expected with your constantly depreciating rupee. On top of that the government has removed the 50% subsidy on such payment.

That’s the hard fact the people are facing today, and the reason for the sustained protest marches. Tens of hundreds of people, students, unions, political parties and socio-cultural groups have joined in to stage protests. They are asking to meet the government. A protest march held on the 9th and another one on 23rd March heralds what it’s going to be like when the movement gains momentum as the pressure groups keep the pot boiling through radio talks and poster campaigns.

The Government has already made it clear that nothing is going to make a difference. The new policy of cutting down the 50% subsidy on the exam fees was announced in the presentation of the last annual budget and everybody is aware of it. It’s only when the deadline for payments is approaching that the outcry has surfaced. In a spirit of compromise and understanding with the lower income groups the government has agreed to maintain its subsidy to those whose total family income does not exceed Rs 7500 per month (approx. 250 USD). Others will have to pay the full amount.

In a gesture of further compromise Government has just announced a 25% subsidy to those families with a monthly income higher that Rs 10000 (USD 300). Perhaps people will have to wait for the next elections to have a waiver. Who knows what the bait will be like this time. But the rallye scheduled for 30th March is being maintained. It would be another May 1975, they say.

Health is free. Education is free. Transport is free to school children and old age pensioners. A student will certainly go up to the SC or HSC free. But he may become a failure for want of exam fees, if their parents can’t afford. Despite Government’s initiatives to facilitate financing of the exam fees through soft loans at preferential rates and some companies even offering advances to their employees whose children would take part in the exams, there is still widespread reticence. This means another claim for a free ride. If only it were the eve of the elections. How long can we afford such bounties? Even the most developed countries haven’t ventured that much, I’m sure.

But that’s welfare state in Mauritius.

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