Mauritius: that tiny, overpopulated isle where democracy booms

``There's 500,000 too many people here for the economy. It's that simple,'' says a diplomat in Mauritius. ``Everyone's standing on everyone's head.'' Population explosion is a problem that penetrates every aspect of society here. This tiny, 720-square-mile island, located 500 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is one of the most densely crowded nations in the world, exceeded only by countries such as Rwanda, Singapore, and Bangladesh.

Mauritius is a huge racial melting pot, thanks to a colorful history of colonization -- first by France, then by Britain. The French brought slaves to Mauritius from Madagascar and East Africa in the 18th century. The British, who seized the island from the French during the Napoleonic wars, inducted indentured servants from India. The descendants of these slaves and laborers now number some 1 million people, including a smattering of Chinese who arrived in boats from Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1949.

But a large section of this population -- about one-quarter of the present workforce -- is unemployed. As a result, unrest here has swelled. The trade-union movement has become increasingly vocal. The unemployment problem tends to dominate all political debates, including foreign-policy talks.

The unrest has been partially allayed by the creation of jobs in an industrial ``export processing zone'' that manufactures items -- from knitwear to carnival masks -- destined for United States and European markets. The zone, initiated in 1971, now employs some 25,000 people in 120 companies. The government of Prime Minister Aneerood Jugnauth says employment expanded by 15,000 last year. Most of these jobs were snapped up by women, whose fingers are more agile at operating machines.

But this has merely left the unemployed men free to indulge in the national sport of politics. The island has fostered a society that is unusually outspoken for Africa. Democracy thrives so well in Mauritius that the rapid creation and dissolution of parties confuses even veteran politicans, most of whom have trouble naming the latest tally of ideologies and alliances.

This vigorous political activity gets its impetus from voters under the age of 30, all of whom were born during a baby boom that began after World War II when the population growth rate rose to 4.5 percent. Nearly half the current population is under 21.

The young voters have elected an up-and-coming class of young professionals who view politics as a stepping stone to lucrative careers in either business or law. As a result, the entire Legislative Assembly has an unusually youthful complexion. More than half of its members are under 40; eight of them are ministers.

All of this may change as the baby boomers mature. During the past two decades Mauritius has reduced the population growth rate. The current rate is 1.7 percent, says the government, which expects a further cutback to 1.1 percent for 1985 -- despite strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church.

The vehicle for achieving this reduction was direct and simple. About 20 years ago, billboards were posted throughout the island with a visual message aimed at illiterate field workers. They depicted a Mauritius so crowded that people were falling into the sea. The point hit home. Today about 55 percent of married women make use of the government's family-planning clinics.

But there is another side to Mauritius's population profile. The Hindus here form a 52-percent majority, and consequently dominate both the civil service and the economy. This has given rise to resentment from the Creoles and the Muslims.

``We can feel the Hindu community wants us to leave the country. There's no future for us here,'' says one Creole who wants to emigrate to Australia, as thousands of other Mauritians have done.

Nevertheless, Creoles who stay in Mauritius will not take the Hindu domination quietly. After all, they are as fiercely democratic -- and outspoken -- as any other Mauritians.

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