February 15, 2020
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Miracle Isle

Miracle Isle
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JUST because Indians are the majority community in Mauritius and Hinduism is the predominant religion, don't imagine that this palm-fringedIndian Ocean island is anything like the mother country. There are no bullock carts, no cycle rickshaws, no auto-rickshaws, no Ambassadors, no potholes, no cows on the road, no paan stalls, and no station coo-lies. What's more, no one plays cricket and no one tries to sell you tissues at the traffic lights. The simple fact is, little Mauritius, 1,500 km east of the African mainland, has a lot of money. It's made the leap from a one-crop country entirely dependent on sugar to a diversified economy with a strong textiles sector, upmarket tourism, offshore banking and finance, and trans-shipment facilities for the countries of the Indian Ocean rim. Unemployment, inflation, population growth are all remarkably low, while economic growth and business confidence are high. No wonder Mauritians speak rather smugly of their economic miracle.

It's a miracle which has worked its magic for the Indian community in Mauritius (and in the curious local lexicon, 'Indian' means Hindu, as the island's Muslims, though clearly of Indian origin, deny all links with the Hindu Raj back home). Hindus make up just over half the population. And whatever their doctrinal, caste and regional differences—there are plenty—they have made common cause to keep political power firmly within their grasp. The parties in Mauritius are not divided along racial lines. All communities have always been represented in government. But there has been an informal portioning out of the spoils. The small European community dominates the private sector, Muslims and the Chinese own most of the small businesses, and Hindus have the upper hand in the civil service and the professions. A carve-up which has left the African Creoles—the 30 per cent of the population who are largely of slave descent—on the margins of power and prosperity.

Not that all Indians are wealthy. I visited a sugar-growing village in the east of the island and spent some time with an Indian family whose forebears were brought over from Bihar three or four generations ago to work in the cane fields. The women were sifting rice in preparation for a family wedding, and the men were lounging around watching them work. All the adults of the family laboured on the sugar estate, for what was, by Mauritian standards, a low wage—around 5,000 Indian rupees a month.

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