An island in transition

Unspoilt beaches and water sports attract many western tourists to Mauritius.
Unspoilt beaches and water sports attract many western tourists to Mauritius.

Mauritius is giving itself a makeover. The jewel in the ocean is changing from a paradise island where leisure is celebrated to an IT enclave ready to reap the benefits of the cyber revolution, writes A.J. Philip

WITHIN minutes of leaving Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport at Port Louis, one is struck by vast stretches of sugarcane fields. They are a sea of green as the plants have not flowered. A gigantic cane harvesting machine passes by as we head towards the city centre on the way to our hotel on the Balaclava beach.

The first steps that all immigrants took.
The first steps that all immigrants took.

"We are in the sugar capital of the world" jokes a fellow journalist who is on his first visit to Mauritius. At Rs 3 a kg, sugar is the cheapest commodity in the island nation. Mauritian sugar fetches a good price thanks to the benefit of subsidy it enjoys in the European market. There is fear of what would happen once the subsidy goes under the WTO regime and sugar price crashes.

For nearly three centuries, sugarcane provided sustenance to the Mauritian economy. This once uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean, situated 5,000 km from New Delhi as the crow flies, had its first human contact in the 10th century when Arab seamen visited it but did not find it attractive enough to settle there.

In the modern period, it was the Portuguese who stumbled upon Mauritius in the wake of Vasco da Gama’s voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. The island first saw settled life when in the 17th century the Dutch arrived in small groups and named it after their Head of State, Maurice, Prince of Orange.

Dutch effect

Vivekananda International Conference Centre.
Vivekananda International Conference Centre.

Periodic cyclones and other hardships on the island drove the Dutch out of Maurititus. They made yet another attempt of settlement a few decades later but that too was in vain. During their brief stay, the Dutch realised that the land was good for sugarcane cultivation. However, it was not the sugary thing that caught their fancy but the molasses with which they could brew the stuff that cheered them on their long voyages.

By the time the Dutch finally withdrew from the island, the dodo, a unique bird found only in Mauritius, had become extinct. Nobody knows how the bird came to the island. But when it reached there, it found the land free of wild animals. As they faced no threat, there was no need to fly. Over a period of time, the birds lost their natural capacity to fly.

When the Dutch came with dogs and cats, they found the dodo an easy prey. The bird now survives only in the English lexicon in the form of an idiom – as dead as the dodo. After the Dutch departed, the French East India Company saw Mauritius as a base for attacking the British in India.

They remained in control for nearly a century, i.e., till 1810 when the British troops landed in the island and wrested control. The British brought slaves to bring a larger area under cultivation. But the abolition of slavery in 1834 struck at the root of the Mauritian agriculture.

In order to supplement the labour, the British thought of the indentured labour system whereby agricultural labourers, mostly from India, were brought to Mauritius. They had to enter into a contract with the British under which they were assured a certain wage. They could seek a return voyage on completion of their contract period. But they could not refuse to work except at the risk of severe punishment.

When the British realised that return was an option many of those who arrived dreamt of, they ended it in one fell swoop. So, those who arrived had no option but to stay on in the country. An estimated 4 lakh people arrived, mostly from eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Andhra and Maharashtra between 1849 and 1910.

Indian diaspora

Tribute to the Unknown Immigrant: To honour the memory of those who left India’s shore and founded a home in Mauritius.
Tribute to the Unknown Immigrant: To honour the memory of those who left India’s shore and founded a home in Mauritius.

Today their descendants constitute 70 per cent of the 12 lakh population of Mauritius. For every one of them, the Appravasi Ghat in the Trou Fanfaron region in Port Louis is virtually a pilgrimage centre. The Ghat served as the gateway of the Indian Diaspora. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the 14 steps to enter the Ghat to unveil a copper plaque to commemorate the occasion early last month, he was weighed down by the historical significance of the act.

The sculpted plaque shows the traces of two steps of the immigrant and a map of the place of the landing with the buildings which already existed there. It has the following words inscribed on the plaque: "To honour the memory of those who left India’s shore and founded a home in Mauritius". He wrote in the Visitor’s Diary: "I bow my head in homage to those who climbed these steps in the centuries gone by and through their toil created a jewel in the Ocean – Mauritius – that shines bright today and will shine even brighter in the years to come."

The Indian immigrant has come of age. There is prosperity all around. In the Caudan Waterfront area where we went for a late night drink, we found youngsters hanging out sipping coffee or beer with their spouses and friends. Lakshmi Pahuja is a stewardess at a restaurant. She was happy to know that we were from India. Her grandparents came from Bengal. She spoke besides French and Hindi a smattering of Bengali.

Indians are conscious of their identity and cultural heritage. All along the roads, one finds temples of various hues and in different architectural styles. The imposing gates that are the hallmarks of South Indian temples are conspicuous as are mosques and churches. The roads and lanes are absolutely clean and the people courteous to the core. They go out of the way to help visitors.

Mauritius is a haven for tourists: A hotel on the beach
Mauritius is a haven for tourists: A hotel on the beach

Small wonder that Mauritius attracts high-spending tourists from Europe and the Americas. Indian passport holders are given visa on arrival, a facility which India has not yet reciprocated. The beaches are full of tourists enjoying the sun or taking part in water sports.

Scuba diving is as popular as underwater photography, particularly of corals. Unlike in India, nobody disturbs the tourists who are allowed to have their way. With a per capita annual income of $3600, the average Mauritian has a higher standard of living than an average Indian. The island is roughly the size of Delhi, though it is as mountainous as it is plain. It has even volcanoes. Since Port Louis has only one arterial road, the traffic is as chaotic as in Delhi, particularly during peak hours.

Though people of Indian origin are the single largest group and they, therefore, control politics, they are nowhere in industry and business, which are still controlled by the Franco-Mauritians.

"Among the companies listed on the stock exchange, those owned by the Indians are a handful," says Hiten Desai, a Gujarati engineer who retired from a government department and is now busy keeping track of political developments in India through the Internet. A hardboiled Hindutva supporter and fan of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, he is unable to digest the fact that the linguistic groups are retaining their distinct cultural and linguistic identities rather than getting subsumed in the larger Hindu identity. "It is all a conspiracy of the white to keep us disunited."

Desai has an ultra-romantic view of India. In his student days he used to go to "the father-in-law of former Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s daughter to read out a newspaper to him as he was illiterate. I developed a fondness for the newspaper which I continue to this day."

A colleague and I had to suffer his arguments for a "Hindu Rashtra" for fear that he would drop us on the way if we did not listen to him. After all, he was giving us a lift when we got stranded at the Swami Vivekananda International Convention Centre that the Prime Minister had dedicated to the nation.

State-of-art centre

The Centre, built with Indian assistance, has state-of-the art facilities for holding international conferences. Built against the backdrop of a verdant hill at Domaine Les Pailles, it is an imposing structure that will do the architects proud.

Indian assistance to Mauritius has been of various kinds but the most beneficial have not been the numerous buildings that have come up but the scholarships India provided to countless Mauritian students, which enabled them to study in Indian institutions of excellence.

I met a local journalist who did his postgraduation from Panjab University, Chandigarh. He has fond memories of the City Beautiful where he had a crush on an "equally beautiful" Punjabi girl. "I did not have the guts to propose to her, so I do not know how she would have reacted to it. I kept postponing my desire to open up to her till it became too late. So I came back, married a local girl and am leading a happy life," says the garrulous newsman.

A Mauritian engineer working in the state-of-the-art Cyber Tower
A Mauritian engineer working in the state-of-the-art Cyber Tower

Engineers and doctors, who passed out from Indian institutes of technology and medicine, are today in commanding positions in Mauritius. It is they who dream big and want to make Mauritius the knowledge centre in this part of the world. The country’s tryst with information technology began when President Anerood Jugnauth, who was then the Prime Minister, visited Bangalore and was impressed by the giant strides made by India in the IT sector. He realised that with IT, Mauritius could skip a couple of stages of industrial development. It took several decades for Mauritius to transform the purely agricultural economy into a semi-industrial economy. The then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee readily agreed to assist Mauritius. Thanks to a huge fiscal assistance made available by India, the 12-storeyed "intelligent" building—Ebene Cyber Tower—has come up in what used to be a sugarcane field. It symbolises the transformation of the economy that is taking place in Mauritius.

The Cyber Tower built entirely by Indian companies using Indian material is not a one-off project. Even before it was inaugurated by Dr Manmohan Singh, work had begun on another less ambitious Tower for which funds have been raised locally. A third one is in the pipeline while work on developing infrastructure in the Cyber City—of which the twin-towers are a part—is sluggishly progressing.

The Cyber Tower has already found tenants like Infosys, Ceridian Centerfile and Accenture. "We could have filled up the Tower in a couple of weeks but we have accepted only those companies not anchored in Mauritius or those who wished to recruit while at the same time expanding their activities.

Paula Lew Fai, Directress of Astek Mauritius, one of the first companies to move into the Cyber Tower, sums up the philosophy when she says, "Mauritius should distance itself from the image of a paradise island where idleness is the religion. We are now selling a performing island."

Mauritius has already started reaping the fruits of Cyber Tower. The scope for call centres is immense. In fact, Mauritius is better positioned than even India in attracting call centre companies. Because French is spoken as fluently as English in Mauritius, educated youth can answer calls in French and English simultaneously and with equal felicity. It is an advantage the country hopes to benefit in its quest to develop Mauritius as a knowledge hub of the world.

For all its Indian connections, trade relations between the two countries have not been very encouraging. "India exports not more than $160 million worth of goods, accounting for less than 7 per cent of Mauritius’ imports. Half of that is cotton that goes into the textiles and garments that Mauritius turns out for such brands as Marks and Spencers, Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren."

India cannot import sugar and textiles from Mauritius as it produces plenty of them. A visit to a shopping mall in downtown Port Louis was quite revealing. There were virtually no Indian items on display compared to Chinese, French and even Bangladeshi goods. But public sector organisations like the Indian Oil, Life and General Insurance Corporations and Bank of Baroda have a presence. It is not unusual to find Maruti vehicles on the road. However, the dealership is in the hands of a person of non-Indian origin.

Mauritius will soon go to polls. Last time, it was a landslide victory for Anerood Jugnauth’s MSM and Paul Berenger’s MMM, which fought the elections together. But this time the favourite seems to be Navin Ramgoolam’s MLP which has been in the opposition. People of Indian origin constitute the majority though Afro-Creoles to which the incumbent Prime Minister belongs have a sizeable 25 per cent presence.

If political leaders in Mauritius are united on anything, it is on strengthening Mauritius’ relations with India, which date back to the time when indentured labour arrived at Appravasi Ghat in search of greener pastures. Through their hard labour, they have transformed this idyllic island into a forward-looking prosperous modern nation where unity in diversity is the mantra of progress and survival.

— Photos by the writer.