Just the tip of an enormous iceberg

It has become commonplace for officialdom in Guyana to turn a blind eye – or at least to pay relatively less attention – to development issues that do a great deal of damage to our society and our country, while focusing much more on concerns which, while not undeserving of diligent attention, do less damage to our country as a whole.

There exists, for example, a perception that the problem of corruption – with all that this implies in terms of schemes that divert returns from the public treasury and damage investor confidence in the country – attract a relatively low level of official corrective intervention.

Last week’s ban on the scrap metal trade was probably merited in the light of what has been not only the failure by the sector to rid itself of the dishonest practices that have long hung like a Sword of Damocles over its collective head but also because of evidence that metal thieves have now extended the scope of their operations to new targets including important national institutions like the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) and the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA). The thieves, these days, even target whatever metals they can find in the protective barricades around tombs in graveyards and in abandoned old-style buildings. It is not just the cost of metal theft which, these days, is an issue, but also the sheer shamelessness and lack of any kind of respect for things sacred that make the practice unacceptable.

As a feature story published in this issue points out, scrap dealers will probably find the government much more robust and unyielding in any future negotiations regarding the unbanning of the trade. The timeline for the ban of “until further notice” is attended by an undertone of finality which suggests that the government is in no real hurry to engage the metal dealers; and if the truth be told the authorities have demonstrated a considerable measure of patience with the metal dealers.

What makes the ban relatively easy for the government to impose, of course, is the fact that the scrap metal industry does not make what can be described as a significant contribution to the national economy and as far as we were told more than two years ago only about 40,000 people depend on the industry for a livelihood; though this is not, by any means, intended to imply that the livelihoods of those 40,000 souls ought to be dismissed as unimportant. The fact is, however, that for the second time in about four years, government has moved swiftly and, we stress, not without justification, to restrain the excesses of the industry.

However, what the ban on the scrap metal trade also does is to put into perspective what one might call the proportionality of official action in relation to serious transgressions. This newspaper has raised, for example, the excesses of other private and public sector operators like, for example, Guyana Revenue Authority functionaries and private businessmen who conspire to defraud the public treasury; well-connected gold miners who transgress every environmental law in what the Prime Minister himself described some years ago as a “gold rush”; bidders for state contracts who, in some cases secure contracts without the necessary compliances; the private contractors who deliver sub-standard work to the state and walk away with billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money; the public officers who, year in, year out, callously manipulate ministerial tender board and other procedures in nepotistic conspiracies designed to assign lucrative contracts to their friends and families and the myriad other disturbing procedural discrepancies and irregularities in the administration and spending of public funds unearthed in the Auditor General’s 2008 Report.

Are we ever likely to see similar firm and decisive action by the authorities to at least help to reduce these practices or is it that it is simply more convenient to turn a blind eye to these issues.

Of course we get the point about the public shame associated with the robbing of graveyards, a point which the state makes in its own media as part of the justification for banning the scrap trade; and of course we understand that GT&T and GuySuCo and GPL and the NDIA suffer when metal thieves raid their installations and that when those entities are affected critical services to consumers are also affected.

The other thing that happens, however, whenever terminal decisions are made on matters like the operation of the scrap metal trade is that people dismiss those decisions with cynical sighs and ponder those other far more blatant, far more persistent and far more costly delinquencies which do no less to hurt us as a country but which, for the sake of not making waves which, understandably, will take much longer to subside, are simply and shamelessly ignored.

No one who has followed closely the direct interventions of both the President and the Prime Minister to work with the scrap metal industry to help it get its act together can reasonably complain about what now appears to be government’s position that enough is simply enough and that firm action needs to be taken once again to try to curb the excesses of the trade. On the other hand, the firmness of the decision which the authorities have made in the case of the scrap industry certainly raises questions that have to do with what appears to be a relative absence of decisiveness in dealing with those other equally disturbing negative trends – like corruption, for example – that inflict no less damage on our country.

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