The wrong and the restless

The simmering civil unrest that now seems to be part of the prevalent pattern of public protest against perceived mismanagement of public safety and public utilities erupted into an ugly showdown in Ruimveldt in mid-October.

Communities from Skeldon to Parika for several years have resorted to blocking roads and burning tyres to call attention to their problems and to protest what residents usually claim is administrative mismanagement. There seems to be no end to either the problems or the protests.

In the case of Ruimveldt, the complaint that triggered the recent unrest was the wrongful mass-disconnection of the area’s power supply by Guyana Power and Light Inc, the para-statal electricity monopoly. The corporation might have been correct in its decision to disconnect particular consumers who were in default. But because in some cases a single power line fed several meters attached to a single range-style building, both the innocent and delinquent were made to suffer. As a deliberate policy, this is unacceptable.

Residents could not comprehend the corporation’s thinking behind disconnecting consumers both without warning and without discriminating between those who were in arrears and who were up-to-date with their payments. Several hundred households were affected and, as usual, the aged, disabled and children who had to study were affected first and most. Householders lost perishable items in their refrigerators and small businesses had to shut down. Residents rightly called for the immediate restoration of electricity to the area which at night is dark and could be dangerous.

Members of the Guyana Police Force were called out to maintain order and the Guyana Fire Service had to be summoned to extinguish the fires that were lit on Mandela Avenue. Restless youths, nevertheless, energetically ensured that every road in the area was obstructed with old vehicles and pieces of wood and iron to hinder access by the corporation’s crews. The next day, in an act of defiance, refractory Ruimveldt residents reconnected a transformer to restore power that had been cut off.

In a similar performance a fortnight after the Ruimveldt rumpus, the corporation’s disconnection crews – this time accompanied by armed police – pounced on Ann’s Grove, Bee Hive and Clonbrook villages on the East Coast Demerara, seizing several illegal meters and disconnecting more than 150 homes. This might be legal but is really an expensive way to run a utility, much less a country.

The crisis in the corporation’s confrontational relations with its consumers is symptomatic of two big mistakes made by the administration in dealing with both the urban and rural poor over the years. The first miscalculation is the ready resort to raw police power. Strong-arm tactics are simply too costly and tend too easily to overestimate the effectiveness of police power in dealing with the poor. It is little wonder that the administration has to spend so much on law enforcement and still cannot ensure public safety.

Second, the administration’s over-centralised style of direct action, copied by the corporation, too often inappropriately excludes municipal, regional and neighbourhood administrative institutions. Anti-administration attitudes in some communities have also been easily exacerbated by disregard for community sensibilities and interests.

The fact is that an unprecedented number of people in this country are now living in slums, squatter settlements, shantytowns and depressed villages. For example, the former plantation Sophia has already mushroomed into Georgetown’s most populous, but also the poorest, ward. These poorest parts of the country are usually badly served by public utilities and amenities, a fact that is generating a social crisis that is affecting the public services and public safety.

The poor are often more exposed to risky events and situations than the rich. The combination of wrong-headed policies with a restive poor population tells a depressing but dangerous tale of present day corporate governance in this country.

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