Interview with Mahendra Chaudhry, Minister for Finance, National Planning and Sugar Industry, Government of Fiji.
May 20, 2007
By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, May 19: Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji Minister for Finance, National Planning and Sugar Industry, has said better days are ahead for the people of Indian origin in Fiji with the new interim government planning strategies to restore lasting democracy in this south Pacific island nation.
The interim government, in which Mahendra Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party is a coalition partner, will soon come out with a people's charter and include it in the country's Constitution. "This will end racial discrimination against the people of Indian origin and help in restoring lasting democracy," says the Fiji leader in an interview with this correspondent.
Mahendra Chaudhry has now emerged as the Messiah of a million strong people of this south Pacific island nation. As the Finance and National Planning Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry has before him the daunting task of restoring the bankrupt coffers of the government and also planning strategies to restore democracy and put an end to the coup menace.
In the December 2006 coup the military overthrew the elected government and formed an interim government. Mahendra Chaudhry's Labour Party joined the interim government to "set Fiji back on the rails of good governance, buoyant economic and administrative reforms".
"As the Labour Party leader, I have a major role to play to provide better living standards for and end discrimination against Fijians of Indian descent. I have also sought the help of the Indian government in holding credible elections in Fiji. I have requested for electronic voting machines to stop rigging," said Mahendra Chaudhry, who was in Hyderabad recently.
Fiji has witnessed four coups in the last 20 years involving the military. Two coups were aimed at the Labour Party. The Labour Party governments were overthrown in 1987 and 2000. In the 2000 coup the military was backed by ethnic businessmen. "I was then the prime minister. You all know I was held captive and my government was brought down," he said.
He said he had not analysed the reasons for the last coup in December 2006. As far as the three earlier coups were concerned, they were staged by the military backed by corrupt businessmen and leaders who lost power. The Fiji Labour Party governments were dethroned twice. We came to power in democratic elections in 1999 and within a year of coming to power the government was brought down in a coup. It was backed by corrupt businessmen with the support of some members of the Indian community.
"We have formed a commission to study the reasons and submit a report. The commission will also suggest us on good governance and democratic rule. There will be no more coups once we study the real reasons behind them. Indians will have a better and peaceful future in a new Fiji," he said.
He justified his Labour Party joining the interim military government saying his party took the decision in the national interest. "The December 2006 coup was to end six years of bad rule in the country. The military had no option but to intervene. The economy has run down completely. There was no financial or fiscal planning. The national debt had doubled. The percentage of people living with poverty crossed 40 per cent. There was a break down of law and order. The government was pursuing the rightist agenda against minorities, particularly those of the Indian origin. The situation was desperate. In these circumstances we joined the interim ministry. The idea was to put Fiji back on the rails. The coup was on governance issue and not racial in nature," Mahendra Chaudhry clarified.
Referring to the delay in holding elections in Fiji, Mahendra Chaudhry said the international community particularly USA, Australia and New Zealand wanted the Fiji government to hold elections in two years. Things are really very bad.
"And we need time to set right the mess. We have sought three years. There's a gap of just 12 months. The process is long. We have to conduct census, set constituencies boundaries and go for revision of electoral rolls. We have formed a constituencies boundaries commission. It has to submit its report. All this is time consuming but it is worth waiting. We have a better Fiji where everyone is treated equal," he hoped.
Asked whether the Fiji government was planning for a direct flight service between Hyderabad and Fiji, he said, "we are planning for Singapore as a hub. Hyderabad is linked to Singapore and this will have a direct connection between Hyderabad and Fiji. We plan to have direct flights either from Mumbai or New Delhi. Fiji has in place with India an Air Services Agreement. However my government will endeavour to upgrade this to an 'open skies agreement' similar to that which India has in place with the US and the UK and is currently negotiating with ASEAN.
In the near future a tourism office could be established in India for this purpose. You would also be pleased to note that Fiji has an open and straightforward visa requirement for Indian nationals wishing to visit Fiji. Visitors are granted visas on arrival provided necessary travel documents are in order and one has sufficient funds to sustain a trip.
Referring to the law and order situation in Hyderabad and Andhra Pradesh, the Fiji minister said his was the second visit to the city. The law and order is good. Pointing out at intelligence officer MA Saleem, who was attached to him as his security guard by the State government, Mahendra Chaudhry said Fiji had to learn a lot from Andhra Pradesh on the security front. "The governance here is good. We have to learn a lot from the administration in Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad has emerged as a truly international city. I liked the people here. They are dynamic," Mahendra Chaudhry observed.
Talking about his finance portfolio he said there was no money in the exchequer. "We are now working out a new budget. A revised budget has been brought to rehabilitate the economy. The International Monetary Fund is endorsing it as a right step in the right direction. We will evolve a people's charter of governance. We will incorporate it as a chapter in our Constitution. There will be checks and counter checks on governments".
On Fiji seeking help from India, he said the whole world was knocking at India's door as a result of its remarkable achievements and also due to the promise and potential it holds. "Fiji, however, has been a long standing ally and friend of India with bilateral relations dating back more than a century.
The governments of Fiji and India have closely engaged on many levels and have developed cooperation in key areas such as, agriculture, trade, ITC, health and pharmaceuticals, as well as tourism," he added.
Tourism promotion is on top of the agenda. Tourism is one of Fiji's most important industries and makes a significant contribution to the economy in terms of foreign exchange earnings and employment generation. It has acted as a catalyst for investment in our infrastructure development.
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