(This is the eighth in a series on local government)
By Mario Joseph
In the community that blazed the trail for the village movement when former slaves pooled their capital to buy it, Victoria and others like it in the Haslington/Grove Neighbour-hood Democratic Council (NDC) face a different type of bondage today – the deep involvement of the Local Government Ministry in vital decisions.
Victoria, formerly Plantation Northbrook, thrived for decades off the rich and diverse farmlands but today has turned into a community of disorganisation, dysfunction, disrepair and apathy.
What makes the situation even more disconcerting is the fact that Victoria was credited with one of the first codes of local government in Guyana, established in 1845. At that time the owners agreed to a number of regulations that would facilitate the proper management and development of their community, for years to come. Some elders who opted out of being named said that the old system of an individual village office and overseer for each community and a well-meaning district chief was much more effective than the regionalized system that exists now.
Victoria, today is managed by the Haslington/Grove Neighbourhood Democratic Council which is a statutory body established by the Municipal and District Council Act 28:01 of 1972 now 28:02. Its boundaries extend from Haslington in the West to Plantation Chapman Grove in the East, approximately 4 1/2 miles and from the Atlantic Ocean in the North to the East Demerara Water Conservancy in the South, approximately 7 miles. The area encompasses nineteen Villages and coconut estates. The population is approximately 22,000. The district is administered by a Council comprising of a Chairman, Vice-Chairman and 16 councillors; staff consisting of an Overseer, Finance Officer, Superintendent of Works, three collectors of rates, a service mechanic, a tractor operator, four security guards, two cleaners and a labourer. Its head office is located at Nabaclis Middle Walk and they are two sub offices at Victoria and Ann’s Grove.
The office reputedly, the largest of the NDCs, is headed by Chairman, Bertie De Weever. He was on leave when Stabroek News visited and William Frank deputised. Frank told this newspaper that the council operates with eight out of the mandated 18 councillors with four being from the original PPP team and four from the PNC. In the 1994 election, the last to have been held, the PPP had won six out of the 18 seats, with the PNC winning the remaining 12. The NDC building, unlike the others visited, was observed to be in good physical condition and well furnished with filing cabinets, office furniture and equipment such as modern computers, printers and internet access.
Today, there are four secondary schools in the NDC district, among which is President’s College, an institution that mirrors the very decay the community has suffered over the years. Seven primary schools and seven nursery schools are also in the NDC. There is also a Women’s Institute at Cove & John and a Craft Centre at Victoria. There is one hospital located at Nabaclis, Dr. C.C Nicholson Cottage Hospital and two Health Centres at Clonbrook and Victoria and a Clinic and Laboratory at Cove & John. There are eight playgrounds and three community centres located at Victoria North, Golden Grove public road and Haslington which support three vibrant football teams and several cricket teams.
The Haslington/Grove NDC in its administration of the district, says it provides services such as the processing of building applications, various requests and permits, the supervision of two markets at Golden Grove and Ann’s Grove-Clonbrook,
two abattoirs at Nabaclis and Two Friends and seven cemeteries in several areas. The NDC also says it provides maintenance of several streets and bridges and internal drainage and irrigation. The Assistant Overseer’s profile report stated, “Revenue is derived mainly from Rates and Taxes, Rents, Leases, Markets, Abattoirs and a yearly subvention from Central Government”. According the office profile, the NDC is heavily dependent on major assistance from Central Government and the Regional Administration with drainage and irrigation, construction of new bridges, major roads rehabilitation and sea defence works. Collection of rates, control of garbage and valuation of properties are some of the major problems confronting the NDC. Adequate staffing due to small salaries and the limited scope for promotion is also a problem in the NDC. The report stressed that the NDC is limited in its capacity to tackle garbage removal and disposal, possessing only one tractor/trailer to aid in its responsibilities. The current year’s budget is projected at $38M.
William Frank, a 74-year-old councillor, said that the council is in need of more councillors, an issue they had written the Minister of Local Government about but have gotten no response. He added, that the councillors can’t seem to see eye to eye on anything, and what makes it worse is the lack of involvement of some who only turn up to statutory meetings to express their disgruntlement with the day-to-day management decisions made. Frank highlighted several challenges currently facing the council, prominent among which was the bureaucracy that he says stymies their ability to function. This red tape is so debilitating that works have to be abandoned because by the time the government
approves the expenditures to do works, the contractor who cannot sit around waiting becomes otherwise occupied, resulting in the council having to restart the process, Frank stressed. If their stars align and everything falls in to place by chance work is performed. This situation was used to defend the state of disrepair of certain roads and bridges within the communities.
Speaking about the garbage problem, Frank cited it as a major issue that the council just cannot manage. He says that there has been much controversy in the past with a private garbage collector removing peoples’ garbage and placing it at an illegal dumpsite. The other contentious aspect of the garbage problem is the profuse littering by residents who have little regard for the environment whilst others burn their garbage on parapets or on the side of the street. Other challenges identified by the acting chairman include a community centre with rotten floor boards and no roof. This, Frank said, is one of the problems that they tried to fix but were met with the standard red tape which caused it to fall through. The drains and trenches are filled with vegetation which prevents the free flow of water, a responsibility he said was that of the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority. Frank said that there are three bridges in Victoria, Nabaclis and Golden Grove which are in total disrepair. He said that the same bureaucratic issue is preventing him from initiating works on them, even taking Stabroek News to visit the one deep down in Victoria which looked like just a few logs were dropped over the trench connecting the two sides.
Speaking about the council, he cited the need for genuine persons who care about the interest of the people. “I can’t see a civil servant serving the needs of any council when they know nothing nor care for the communities being entrusted to them. Forget party, politics create the problem” he said. He continued, “The pulling and tugging is bad for the community. The cemeteries need rehabilitation work, the ground is washing away and the regional office is pushing us around. We need a better system”, he exclaimed. Addressing the cemeteries, Frank said there are no foot paths and vegetation has taken over. He went on to say that the contractor’s estimate to clean up the Victoria cemetery is $1.9M, approval for which he is awaiting.
Tried and tested
When asked to talk about Local Government Elections (LGE), Frank said he wished not to discuss that. Instead he said, “Let us return to the old system of each village having its own NDC and district chiefs that they would report to. That system
was far more effective than this regional system where several villages are bulked together under one NDC that just cannot facilitate the needs of the communities. They call this system a decentralized system but it’s actually a centralized system especially with the regional authority and central government having so much control of the day to day affairs of the compact NDCs. The old system was tried and tested and worked, why did we ever change it”?
Dhanpaul Sugdeo, a PPP councillor, from the original 1994 batch, said that the reasons for the reduced number of council numbers is because the individuals just don’t have an interest. Acknowledging that his party only won a small number of seats, he said that they have shown more interest than others despite being down two members. When asked about some of the challenges faced by the council, Sugdeo exclaimed firstly that salaries are a major problem because the council expends almost $5M a year paying persons who don’t perform or are not needed. He added, the other major problem is the state of our roads, setting the cost to rebuild one at $10-12M. To fix that problem, he stated that the Central Government help is needed. Lauding the CDB-funded Community Road Improvement Project (CRIP), for extensive work done in Golden Grove, he had one criticism, that is, as he questioned, “Why was Golden Grove blessed with 19 roads?” He even provided an answer, saying that he suspected it was because a former council employee swayed the authorities because he lived in the community.
Sugdeo, went on to raise another controversy surrounding the sale of already sold lands to individuals in 2005. The specifics of the situation could not be provided by the NDC nor the name of the alleged perpetrator except that there were approximately 38 house lots located at the back of Golden Grove, valued at approximately $80,000 each , sold in some cases to two persons and other cases, three persons. In a partial resolution, the council has started refunding those willing to accept the refunds whilst several are still engaged in the controversy. To make matters worse, Sugdeo said that squatters have gone and occupied the area and that for three years now he has been trying to have the issue resolved through the Region Four Regional Democratic Chairman, Clement Corlette to no avail.
Addressing the issue of garbage, he called it a tremendous problem. People littering and creating illegal dumpsites clog and pollute the canals and trenches in some of the villages the NDC is responsible for.
Sugdeo thanked the Government for the yearly subvention of $3M and for their contribution towards the rehabilitation of the playfield in Clonbrook. Sugdeo pledged his support towards
the call for LGE but said until then, an internal election is
needed to elect a new chairman and vice chairman to address the leadership dilemma the council is facing. He concluded that the NDC is going in the right direction but that more vibrant personnel is needed to engage the residents and act proactively.
Resident Joseph Elias, a 38-year-old farmer who lives at the edge of Victoria, at the beginning of the farmlands, says the community is not being managed well. He described the roads as deplorable, and called the infrastructure a shame. He said that garbage heaps made by undisciplined people is another sore issue affecting the community. He added that the NDC is picking up garbage selectively, that you’d have to pay them on top of the rates and taxes they already collect. He like most people burns his garbage, which he acknowledged, is harmful to the environment, but indicated the lack of an alternative.
He described the NDC as having poor judgment and lacking co-ordination, which are the reasons they are so ineffective in doing their work. He said that many residents feel this way, which is why some would refuse to pay their rates and taxes. Speaking of LGE, he said, “Things would be much better if the elections was held”. He continued, “The NDC would be ineffective
because they have too many communities to manage. A much more decentralized system needs to be put in place”. Supporting the call for LGE, he said, “We want LGE to control the affairs of the community because we don’t trust the elders and those in authority.
Shining a positive light on the Victoria, he said that many youths are returning to farming, and coming off the streets. This move he says is allowing him to develop leadership skills as many turn to him for help with their work. However, he made it clear that the farming industry needs the support infrastructure of proper roads, strong bridges and proper drainage and irrigation to be provided and remain intact. ‘The lack of the support is what caused farming to take a back seat in the first place”, he opined. He also says that every year on Emancipation
Day he tries to revive the African Heritage of the community by hosting commemorative activities and fund raisers that go towards directly feeding the elderly and poor. He added that if LGE can happen, he may have a chance to strengthen his uplifting endeavours and bring more youths in line.
Melanie Frank, a 38-year-old teacher at the Victoria Primary School, says that she has lived in Victoria all her life and is dissatisfied with the state of her village. She complains that her street, called Montrose Street, a continuation of the Railway embankment road called Moravian Street is in total disrepair. She added, that other streets and even small alleys are in better condition that her street, which she finds unfair. Melanie says that she reported the matter to the NDC only to be told that her street is not a real street and is not on the map and therefore works cannot be effected to it. The mother of two says that the street is filled with mud and when it rains the street floods easily and gets really dirty. She, too, burns her garbage but did not complain of their being a garbage problem. She made it clear that she is definitely not satisfied with the work the NDC is doing especially since she pays her rates and taxes. When asked about LGE, she proved to generally understand, but was unaware of some facts. She then opined that the effectiveness of the council has been reduced drastically because of the councillors being in office for 20 years, which
made them complacent. She continued, “With only eight persons there for all of these villages, one being 74 and two being security guards, how can we expect the council to be effective?” She went on, “It is for this reason that LGE is needed”.
A village elder, Ismay Hope, says that she has lived 40 out of her 80 years of life at Victoria and has mostly kept to herself because she’s quiet and doesn’t like trouble. She said some roads are bad and some are good. The reserved woman then supplemented her views saying that the drains need to be cleaned because the small streets that have mud flood easily. She however made it clear that her yard doesn’t flood. When prompted to speak on the NDC and LGE, the woman seemed baffled at the terms but asked to be educated. After having explained it to her, her memory was jogged regarding the NDC but nothing resonated with LGE. When asked for an opinion of the state of the country’s democracy after 20 years of no LGE, she said, “Boy that’s bad, I don’t know what else to say”. She then pledged her support for the call and offered to vote if it comes to pass.
Nabacalis resident, 78 year old, Hyacinth Ross, mother of 10, philosophically stated, “Life is what you make it and I have lived a happy life. You want me to tell you what bothers me in my
community when I try to ignore these things”. She continued, “Well if I had to say what bothered me, I’d have to say this road (Middle Walk) bothers me because the health centre is right there on the side street and the ambulance or whichever sick person has to travel on that bumpy street”. She called the neglect, “disgraceful”. However, the overseer at the NDC said that she is currently making representation to have the road repaired because the council cannot afford it. Ross went on to highlight another issue of the evening shift at the health centre having no doctors at the institution “as if people don’t fall ill at night”. Tasked to speak on the NDC and LGE, Ross proved to know little of the former and none of the latter. She appreciated having it explained to her and gave this comment, “20 years of no elections is not good at all. If we’re supposed to have it every 3 years, then let us have it”.