(This is the sixth part in a series on local government)
By Mario Joseph
After retiring as a Chief Inspector of the Guyana Police Force upon completion of 35 years of service, Ewart Bowen turned his hands towards endeavouring to rescue his community, Mocha/Arcadia from its current path of degradation. He has however encountered some major roadblocks hindering his progress and a serious illness putting him completely out of work for a long time.
Bowen, who was born and raised in Mocha is now 58 years old. He was appointed councillor of the NDC governing the East Bank Demerara community five years ago after being sought to fill the unending vacancies the council had been facing. He is currently vice-chairman and a fervent supporter of the call for Local Government Elections (LGE).
The Mocha/Arcadia Neigh-bourhood Democratic Council (NDC) office is located in Mocha and is supposed to comprise some 18 councillors who host a statutory meeting on the first Monday of every month at 9:00am. The NDC is north-bounded by #3 canal between Mocha/Arcadia and Providence, south-bounded by a canal between Mocha Housing Scheme and sugar cane fields, west-bounded by the Sideline Dam between Herstelling and Mocha Housing Scheme and east-bounded by a canal between Prosperity and Mocha. The area boasts two schools, a health centre, a police outpost and a library. It employs two staff: an overseer and a cleaner and hires labourers as needed. The only equipment they possess are two brush cutters. The council is currently being controlled by six councillors affiliated with the PNC, headed by current chairman, and original 1994-elected councillor, Gregory John. John declined a request by Stabroek News for an interview. The council is currently seeking persons within the public service to fill the other 12 vacancies.
In an interview with Stabroek News, Bowen began describing the source of the community’s problems as a result of non-co-operation among residents in the community in development activities. He was taken back to memories of his childhood when several youth organisations existed and worked proactively in cultivating discipline and leadership qualities which translated into a more informed and well-adjusted society. Some of the institutions that he named included 4H, Boys Brigade, Boys Scouts and a Women’s institute. He also said that there existed a busy playfield which allowed the youths to partake in all sport disciplines. This, he said, fostered development of individuals and was a critical aspect in keeping youths occupied and suppressing criminal activities. He added that children and adults were well informed with regards to social issues and therefore proactively involved in formulating resolutions. Since these institutions no longer exist, there is great waywardness among the people, he lamented. He added that parents who surfaced from this era have an acute inability to properly mould their children and thus perpetuate the problem into what may become a vicious cycle.
“In the olden days we had burnt earth which was used to make roads, well dug drains, road potholes quickly filled and operable and a village council headed by an overseer who used to have a hands-on approach towards community development activities, who constantly engaged the people on the current work and planned activities”, said the vice-chairman. Today, he said, the infrastructure is deplorable and the same system is weak, which he attributed to the hijacking of autonomy by central government’s micro management activities. The “political interference” is what causes the breakdown, Bowen said, as he stressed that the overseer cannot function effectively in her current capacity. This problem, he went on to say, is not just for Mocha/Arcadia but for all local democratic organs across the country.
Outdated legislation and lack of enforcement infrastructure is a major debilitating factor for the NDC, Bowen said. He explained that the first hindrance is the way rates and taxes are calculated using the outdated 1972 valuation of properties, thus cheating the council of its rightful revenue, with certain sections of the community not paying any rates and taxes at all. He said that the backlogged magistrate’s court is no help and a litter fine of $20 encourages rather than deters offenders. He said that all these matters have been brought up in the past with proposed resolutions to go along with them. Such
would include the proposal to revalue the properties, which Bowen said was promised eons ago by the responsible minister to no avail, a special magistrate’s court to deal with local government issues, which the government deemed low priority and legislation to impact the litter issue and overall functioning of the council. People capitalize on these shortcomings, Bowen said. “Once one sees another get away with the default, others follow suit. The only way to fix it is to revamp the laws
and apply them. This would require the full support of the government”, an upset Bowen posited.
Venturing further into the problems faced by the council, Bowen stated that their 2014 budget estimate was only approved in May, five months into the year; this he called embarrassing. He said furthermore that the time to get any expenditure over $99,000 approved, extends sometimes to several weeks. He highlighted the drainage problem, boldly declaring that the modern engineers of road and drainage infrastructure lack vision and are careless in their work. He said that road and infrastructural work done in the past disrupted the original drainage system, flawlessly designed by the Dutch. “When the Dutch built the drainage system they envisaged it perfectly and if they were the ones building communities over the former cane fields, there would be no flooding regardless of the level of rainfall”.
As it relates to the Mocha/Arcadia council, Bowen had this to say, “The council has failed the people. Everybody is not in the same boat. Some councillors just have the name, not the purpose. Every member needs to man up and get vigorously involved. Members are expected to be of good standing and constantly engaging the public. The fact that the chairman refused to do this interview is appalling …. A leader needs to be fearless, flexible and on the forefront and that is what the village of Mocha/Arcadia needs”. When asked about LGE, he said that the elections are desperately needed to restore the capacity of the council. He went on to say that party politics needs to be put out of the communities and power restored to the people. To quote him, “This is not PPP nor PNC people, this here is Mocha/Arcadia people and Mocha/Arcadia people need to decide for themselves what is done in their community, that’s democracy”.
Bowen is currently unwell which he says explains his inaction recently. His illness, he says stems from being misdiagnosed with diabetes and taking medication for the illness resulting in him falling into a coma in February this year. It was then that he was accurately diagnosed with another problem. His recovery since, he attributes to God’s grace, which he says emboldens him to continue the fight to deliver the people in his community from the decay and scourge of failed institutions, lack of discipline and the height of ignorance.
What the people say
Mocha Housing Scheme resident Roxanne Armstrong said, that the community needs street lights now to deter the countless choke and robs and rapes that have been occurring in the village. She said that she has been a resident for over 15 years and is jealous of the new Herstelling housing scheme at the front which already had street lights in place before people started moving in because that community she claimed, “has links”. She said that she is very concerned for the safety of women in the villages and was very happy the media visited the community, to give her a voice. She described her routine of catching the bus at night, in fear, like many others and having to traverse the dark roads, with bush on either side where young men lurk, waiting to pounce. She had much more to say about the issue but was persuaded to speak on local government and the work of the NDC. She said that LGE needs to be held to replace the ineffective council and went on to demonstrate the need for a ball field/playground to occupy the youths to deter crime.
Mark Anderson, a 27 year old labourer from 1st Street, Arcadia said that the roads are the major problem in the area and also stressed the need for street lights, citing crime as the main reason. He said that the communities are connected and surrounded by bush which makes for easy escapes and no justice. Asked about flooding and garbage, he said that they don’t experience those problems in the front but did object to having to pay a private contractor to provide garbage collection services.
Questioned to gauge his understanding of local government and the operations of his NDC, Anderson knew little of either. He however said he has been listening to the news and can conclude that they need new councillors and to have that, they need LGE, to vote. Asked how he felt about the elections not being held for 20 years, he said, “I feel that is disrespectful to all Guyanese”.
Terrence Harry of Pepper Hill Street, Arcadia volunteered to speak after observing Stabroek News traversing his neighbourhood engaging the residents. He forthrightly said that the village chairman is doing nothing for them and immediately voiced his support for the call on the Government to give the people LGE. He went on to lambaste both the government and village council for the condition of the deplorable roads, poor drainage and vegetation-filled parapets and trenches. He also went on to mention another major problem affecting the community unrelated to LGE but important none the less, that is, the lack of jobs for the youths which, he says, contributes to the level of crime experienced in their community and
Continuing on the trajectory of crime and the need for jobs was New Settlers Street, Mocha resident, Orin Allen who said that the most important issue is the need for jobs in Mocha. He went on to describe other problems faced by residents of the community, which include, the poor condition of roads, which he says destroys the buses and cars that traverse them and the poorly built drainage system which results in flooding during heavy rainfall. He continued, “we need street lights on the main road to prevent the rapes, robberies and accidents involving animal collisions”. He also mentioned that a repulsive odour emanates from the Eccles landfill during heavy rainfall but wasn’t sure if anything could be done about that. He still requested that if there is a solution that it be implemented.
With regards to local government, Allen had much to say, Admitting that he has little knowledge, he said that he’s sure the NDC has few resources to do the work they’re supposed to do. He
made it clear that they don’t get enough funding and that they have no machines to do any work. He however expressed his concern with the meetings held stating that the council engages in no community consultations and makes him feel as if he and his fellow residents have no representation. He spoke of LGE and said that some time ago, the Guyana Elections Commission had visited and sensitized them on the issue, but not much information stuck with him. Agreeing with the call for LGE, he said this, “20 years is too long, it’s not good, it’s not fair. The village deh bad and we ain’t seeing no development”.
Mocha Housing Scheme resident, Fitzroy Joseph, who had been listening to the interview with Allen chimed in to have his say regarding local government issues. He said that he agreed with everything said by Allen but wanted to add that they need a playfield desperately to keep the youths occupied. He even highlighted a case where, someone from the Mocha Cricket
Association paid to fix up the school’s playfield so that sports could be revived in the community only for it to be thwarted by a senior member of the community. Joseph also said that the school itself needs to be upgraded but acknowledged that it would be the work of central government to do so. An important aspect of what Joseph posited was the need for all the finances of this council and other councils to be audited.