No trees after 12 years: A fascinating allegory

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Vunivau Village landowner Isoa Baleirotuma plants a Dawa tree. Picture: LUKE RAWALAI

All environment conscious people agree that it is essential that we plant as many trees as possible if the world is to be saved from climate catastrophe.

But whose job is it?

The usual answer in an aid dependent Fiji is that it is Government’s job to do so.

Just as Government is usually expected to do everything for everybody.

Just as today the Coalition Government is expected to fix a Fiji wrecked by the Bainimarama/Sayed-Khaiyum government over the past 16 years although the bulk of the people stood safely on the sideline and watched society unravel.

But what about the general public?

What about the schools throughout the country?

What about the average household and you and me?

Don’t we all also have a duty towards fixing Fiji and protecting the environment?

Sadly, these views are not shared by those who make the decisions in our society, even when some resources are generously and freely made available to them.

I give an example here arising from a 2012 Guest Lecture (11 years ago) I was requested to give on the birthday of the great Mahatma Gandhi at one of Fiji’s best academic schools whose board failed to do the right thing.

I suggest that this planting of trees story is a fantastic allegory on the many other social values which Fiji has failed to defend and strengthen over the past 16 years, such as constitutionality, rule of law and freedom of the media.

[Students: read up what is meant by this fascinating term “allegory”.]

Governments do act

Of course, governments do their bit when it comes to planting trees.

Historians remember that the entire mahogany industry in Fiji owes its origins in large part to the support given it by Fiji’s first prime minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

When the dust settles in Fiji, historians will also remember that even the Bainimarama Government (and acting prime minister Inia Seruiratu) launched the Ministry of Forestry’s grand initiative to plant 20 million trees over a 15-year period.

I am sure millions of trees have been planted under that initiative using taxpayer funds.

But surely, that massive government effort needed to be complemented and matched by the general public doing the same throughout Fiji.

A Mahatma Gandhi Day initiative

One economist tried to do his bit after he was given the honour by the Board of an elite Secondary School (no prizes for guessing which school) to deliver the guest lecture on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi.

You can watch the videos of my entire presentation here: https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/what-would-mahatma-gandhi-stand-for-in-fiji-today-chief-guest-lecture-at-mahatma-gandhi-memorial-high-school-2-october-2012/

I had first outlined to the students and teachers what were many aspects of Gandhi’s views on which there has been much controversy over the years with many leaders and experts disagreeing with him then and even now.

1. Why are you students celebrating Gandhiji’s birthday?

2. Who have been Gandhiji’s great admirers in history?

3. What principles did Gandhiji stand for?

4. Gandhiji’s disagreements with his colleagues and friends.

5. Gandhiji’s personal contradictions and possible negative impacts on India economic growth.

6. What would Gandhiji say in Fiji today?

It was this last section that attracted scathing criticism from a prominent and active Bainimarama Government supporter then, but opponent today.

What would Gandhiji say in Fiji today?

You will remember that 2012 was in the middle of Fiji’s censorship years when all critical voices were silenced or bitterly attacked by the Bainimarama Government and its supporters.

To my dismay then, my speech was scathingly condemn

To my dismay then, my speech was scathingly condemned by a public relations Qorvis employee for the Bainimarama Government then, Graham Davis, who wrote a blog criticising me as “Hijacking the Mahatma”.

“It was meant to be a celebration of Gandhi’s life, but had all the hallmarks of a local political rally with the students asked to applaud two other prominent government critics in the audience, human rights campaigner Shamima Ali and workers’ advocate Father Kevin Barr.

Lest there be any doubt about the overtly partisan nature of the speech, to follow is the relevant passage in full.

Decide for yourself if the MGM High School was an appropriate venue for such a rousing address.”

Graham Davis quoted from my speech: I believe: Gandhi would be a strong supporter of democratically elected governments and opposed to military coups.

He might agree with certain measures such as ethnic equality of all races and a common name for all Fiji citizens; he would agree with the fight against corruption; he might even agree with the need to reform institutions like the Great Council of Chiefs.

But he would totally disagree with using a military coup and guns to force changes down people’s throats.

Gandhi believed in using peaceful rational arguments to change people’s views – and not try to coerce them.

He would be a passionate seeker of the truth: the truth behind our military coups, the truth behind our economy, our society, our religious
organisations, our politicians.

He would disseminate his findings and his views to the people, without fear; without concern for media censorship, without fear of laws that might imprison him for seeking and speaking the truth.

He would support organisations such as the Women’s Crisis Centre and its leading light, Shamima Ali, who also stands bravely for human rights of all citizens, including those of escaped prisoners, however much misery and fear they might cause us.

Please stand up, Shamima Ali, so our students here can see what brave fighters look like.

(applause from audience for Shamima).

Gandhiji would probably ask working men and boys to share equally in household work, so that working women and girls are treated fairly and also have time for their own personal development (as I explain in the books on Gender Issues in Incomes and Employment in Fiji, that I have given to all the senior economics students in this school).

In this day and age, Gandhiji would probably even cook for the family, to the delight of his wife Kasturbai.

Gandhiji would support studies which seek the truth about the exploitation of vulnerable workers in Fiji, such as the books Just Wages in Fiji, funded by ECREA, which have been given to all MGM economics students.

Gandhi would support those who fight for just wages for our workers, like Father Kevin Barr here (who I disagree with on the legitimacy of the military coup in Fiji but produced the report for ECREA, on which his Wages Council work has been based).

Father Barr, please stand up for the students. (applause from audience).

On a contrary note, when the Methodist Church was recently being unfairly treated, Gandhiji would have called on the religious organisations of Fiji (the Catholics, the Hindus, the Muslims and Sikhs) to stand up for the rights of their sister religious organisation, even if he did not agree with their call for Fiji to be declared a Christian State.

Gandhiji would have been disappointed that these organisations missed that opportunity recently.

But there is hope yet for them, the Yash Ghai Commission is still meeting.

Graham Davis acknowledged that Professor Narsey was entitled to hold these opinions “but is he entitled to air them at a school gathering of several hundred students without context and an opposing view?”

Graham’s criticisms of me did have some merit and can be debated as did many commentators on Graham Davis’ Grubsheet.

Sadly, there were also terribly hurtful anonymous comments on me as Gujarati person, forcing me later during the Ratu Tim Vesikula saga to think more seriously about the anti-Gujarati sentiments prevalent among the Hindustani Indo-Fijians.

In my Gandhi speech, I had tried to be balanced in my assessment of the Bainimarama government and developments since then, and indeed Graham Davis himself acknowledged, as did many of my friends, that he really believed in Bainimarama’s rhetoric of his desire for racial equality in Fiji, but came to change his mind when the evidence all built up against that rhetoric.

In my view, where Graham more than redeemed himself is that unlike the other supporters of Bainimarama who quietly went away when they got disillusioned, Graham became an incredibly powerful and effective critic of the Bainimarama/Sayed-Khaiyum government, especially in the run-up to the 2022 election.

But back to the trees story.

Towards the end of my guest lecturer on Gandhiji, I said: “Gandhi would be pleased to see the strength of our environmental movements, and Forestry Department initiatives such as “plant a million trees” that is taking place in Fiji (although run a bit out of steam at the moment, I think).

He would be pleased to see the thousands of children from the poorest of back-grounds, for whom their “caste” is of no concern any more, and who, through this MGM High School, have achieved the highest of goals in their lives.

Among them is a friend of mine for forty years (Nand Kishor Chetty, former Deputy Government Statistician) who was in the very first cohort to attend MGM High School, and who still remembers his great intellectual conversations with Gopal Bhai Patel, the first Principal.

Please stand up, Mr Chetty. [applause from audience for Nand Kisor Chetty].

Another MGM alumni is his brother Krishna Samy, former head of Datec, who was in the first class to do University Entrance from MGM.

Gandhi would be a firm supporter of the education and empowerment of women: he would be pleased to see Kailash Rajput sitting here as the first female Principal of this school.

She is also a great product of this school.

Mahatma Gandhi would have been pleased to see how many women this school has taught and who have moved on in the world to higher callings.

Among them would be my four sisters, who are all alumni of MGM High School and have achieved great things in life: Dr Padma Lal (first USP gold medalist in science and environmental economist in Australia and the Pacific region); Champa Chauhan (business woman in Fiji and Australia); Dr Mangi Tauh (gynecologist in Canada); Saras Narsey (economist in Australia and a classmate of Principal, Mrs Rajput)
Chairman of Gujarat Education Society, in the name of my four sisters and my mother (Maniben Narsey), I would like to donate this cheque of $5000 to assist MGM High School with a tree planting program for this and all the other schools you manage.

I would be happy to coordinate with Department of Forestry to obtain as many indigenous Fijian trees as we can get – so that our children know what a dakua, vesi, yaka, kaudamu, kauvula, buabua, and many other endangered indigenous species, actually look like.

Most of our students do not know our own indigenous trees.

I think Mahatma Gandhi would have been pleased to see this initiative that would reinforce the greenness and sustainability of our environment.

I thank you for giving me the privilege of being the chief guest today at your Gandhi Day celebrations.

But 12 years later?

Sadly, 12 years later my cash donation had apparently not been used.

When I inquired with my lawyer friend who is the current deputy chairman of this elite secondary school, his terse reply was “I have spoken to the president and your concerns will be actioned”.

There was no further comment or even a small apology.

There was no explanation why the donation was not used to purchase indigenous Fijian trees from the Forestry Department and planted all around the school buildings and school perimeter as I had envisaged.

Tree planters know that even 500 trees planted in 2012 would have completely hidden all the school buildings and created a wonderful oasis of green in Nabua, a haven for Fijian birds, hopefully more than just the mynah and pigeon.

When I try to understand why the management board of this school would not have taken advantage of the $5000 donation to plant trees around the school, I have to admit that the Gujarati “business philosophy” attachments of the board members probably did not go hand in hand with the enhancement of the environment and planting of trees.

I remind that as India’s post- Independence rulers also wanted industrialisation at all costs and did not approve of Gandhi’s advocacy of
protecting the environment and fostering cottage industries as an important development strategy.

Yet this was an elite secondary school which regularly came in the top five in Fiji in all national examinations.

Why would the school board members not see the enhancement of the green environment as an essential part of the education of school students, whether primary or secondary just as they fostered the passing of academic exams?

Is this a problem endemic in all schools in Fiji, regardless of their academic success at national levels?

I don’t know.

Will there be any serious attempt by this school board to buy trees, plant them, and protect and nourish them appropriately?

I don’t know.

Sadly, given my advanced age, I will probably not live long enough to get any answer.

 

• PROF WADAN NARSEY is one of the region’s senior economists and a regular commentator on political and economic issues in Fiji. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of The Fiji Times.

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