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FIJI: Status Quo should be cause for concern

 

Paper no. 587                            20.01.2003

by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

It is quite some time that the developments in Fiji have disappeared from the radar screen of Indian analysts and the media.  Even the fiery speech made by former Prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry during the celebrations relating to Indian Diaspora ( Pravasi Bharathiya Divas) from 9th to 11th January hardly drew a “blip” on the screen.

Distressed over the developments in Fiji, Chaudhry declared on that occasion that “India was not doing enough for Indians in Fiji.”  He said “Our common people, descendants of indentured labourers, who have done no injustice to the indigenous community, are today crying out for justice.  They need help… We are landless and defenceless.  Deprived of our constitutional rights, we face statutory discrimination in basic areas of living and our people are denied security and police protection in a situation of seriously declining law and order.”

But the government in Delhi had no time for Fiji during the celebrations which was more keen to offer “dual (dollar?) citizenship” than to those PIOs in most of the developing countries whose loyalty would come once again under suspicion after this offer. 

Chaudhry along with another great individual Basdeo Pandey of Trinidad & Tobago should have been entitled to special recognition medals given on that occasion.  These two individuals were elected as prime ministers in their own right in countries where the People of Indian origin were not in a majority.

Chaudhry’s outspoken address brought the expected response from the Fijian government.  The Assistant Information Minister Simione Kaitani made a statement that the government would lodge a complaint with the police asking for Chaudhry to be investigated for stirring political instability in Fiji. With the appeal on the multi party cabinet pending ever since the elections in  2001, the country could hardly be said to be politically stable.

The Supreme Court in Fiji is taking its own time to decide on the appeal relating to the case of violation of the constitution by the Qarase government over the cabinet formation.  The government appears to be in no hurry to expedite the case on the formation of the multiparty cabinet.  The Attorney General Qariniasi Bale made a strange statement that neither the government nor the Fiji Labour Party has the powers to force the sitting of the Supreme Court of Fiji to rule on the multi party cabinet issue.  Surely the government could make a special submission to expedite the case.  But why should it, when the government’s position on the multi-party cabinet is untenable under the 1997 Constitution and the discriminatory policies being carried out by them against the Indo Fijians could be consolidated in the mean time?

In a tongue in cheek statement, the Assistant Minister in Prime minister’s office said that while they would be ready to work with the Labour Party if the Supreme Court rules so, such an arrangement would be “disastrous” for the country which had just started re- building.  Qarase in the Parliament made it clear what he meant by “rebuilding” on 7th December. He said that the gap between Fijians and other communities (read Indo Fijians) is too wide for comfort.  He explained that there is a “gap in education, agriculture, the utilization of  (our) resource and a gap in profession” and that as a country they should try and bridge that gap.

From the frying pan into the fire- the case of transfer of lands to the “Native Land Trust Board”. For some reason the Qarase government appears to be in a hurry to amend the Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act (ALTA) to transfer the lands from the native holders to the National Land Trust Board.  This move would affect only the poor Indo Fijian farmers and needs to be carefully examined by the Fiji labour Party of Mahendra Chaudhry before offering any cooperation on the subject. 

Native land comprises 83 percent of the landmass in Fiji.  Indigenous lands were leased to a large number of Indo Fijians under the ALTA who have used the land for decades for cane and vegetable farming.  The leases have been expiring over the past few years and many of the Indo Fijians have been forced out of the land, as leases were not renewed in many cases.  The government wants the Native Land Trust Board to take over the land after amending the ALTA for the following reasons.

* The rentals offered to the Owners is far too less.

* The rights/benefits of indigenous as landowners of native land are made subservient to the rights of other citizens in the country under ALTA.  The 1997 Constitution gives equal rights to all citizens and hence the inbuilt contradiction.

It could therefore be seen that the government’s intention to transfer the lands to NLTB was not to help the poor Indo Fijian farmers who have been thrown out the lands they had been tending for decades but to get a better deal for the land owners.  Having taken over the lands the government could fix any sum as rent arbitrarily and could enhance it at will.  Thus the majority of the Indo Fijian tenants would be at the mercy of the government and there are no checks and balances.  The government as a sop is making an offer of a “fifty year” lease.  

The government’s position is that the uncertainty over the renewal of leases is affecting Fiji’s ailing sugar industry.  Qarase has got around the Great Council of Chiefs to accept the proposal.  The bill will first be taken up with the Great Council of Chiefs under the Fijian Affairs Act.  After gazetting it will be tabled in the Parliament for discussion, but the government would still need the support of Fiji Labour Party as a two third majority vote will be required for amending the ALTA.

In this issue Mahendra Chaudhry has taken the right decision not to discuss the amendments until the Supreme Court ruling on the issue of multi Party Cabinet is delivered and then the Labour Party can bargain for better concessions to the tenants. 

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