Mahdia’s fire

A grievous blow has been dealt to the mining community of Mahdia by the July 1st fire that swept through its commercial centre, razing many small businesses, causing millions in losses and leaving several families homeless. It is a testament to the spirit of those who live there and the generosity of the mining community and others, that attempts are already underway to rebuild bigger and better. The global buoyancy of the gold sector is indubitably another reason for the swiftness in getting it back on its feet.

The government has also stepped up to the plate. Prime Minister Sam Hinds performing the functions of President led a Cabinet team to the community the day after the conflagration and this was followed up on Thursday through a visit by the Minister of Housing, Mr Irfaan Ali who promised the community that a new housing scheme will be created. This is a welcome development.

Mahdia’s fire and the dislocation that followed are however signal rebukes to this government and its disposition towards communities such as these that are fairly remote from the centre. As the fire raged in a community of around 4,000 people there was not a single fire tender or any type of dedicated service for fire-fighting. Residents were left to form brigades of various sorts and to battle the fire in any way they could. Even access to water was a problem as the residents drove and ran helter-skelter. There weren’t many options for Mahdia aside from letting the fire burn itself out. Moreover, the flimsy buildings had been erected in a completely unplanned manner, cheek by jowl and without adherence to the minimum standards that might be set in the industry. No electricity is supplied to this community and it was reliant on the goodwill of a businessman who used his own generator to provide power. Some residents however ran conduits without the necessary fuses and other electrical accessories. The total destruction of the arcade by fire was simply waiting to happen.

So how is it that a government could be continuously in office for more than 18 years and in all of its perambulations it never got around to addressing the vital needs of a community such as Mahdia which is a bustling gateway to the mining fields? There are several reasons why accoutring Mahdia with a fire station might have never popped up on the capital budgets of this government even though the mining portfolio is headed up by the Prime Minister. Critics may well argue that because Mahdia is not a known stronghold of the ruling party it has not been favoured. There could well be an argument for that but it is more than likely that the pure haphazardness of governmental planning and the absolute paralysis of local government reform inspired this grave omission in Mahdia and other communities.

While Bartica, Mahdia, Parika and others have been mentioned ad nauseam as ripe for transformation into towns the government has failed to accomplish this mission. Had it been able to do so there would have been plans catering for the orderly growth of these communities, regularising areas like the now burnt arcade and more than likely the construction and furnishing of a fire station.

More precisely such plans would have laid out the parameters of the financial viability of communities like Mahdia and in conjunction with local government reform would have worked up formulae for transfers from the centre to the regions and the levying of the appropriate quantum of taxes on residents for the purposes of sustaining their community.

This has not been accomplished and so the government presides in these communities and at times of severe need in a totally ad hoc manner whereas had there been a sufficiently potent local government system in place there would have been year-round attention to the community’s problems.

Mahdia is not singular in this disregard. The equally mining-important community of Bartica – a frequent victim of fires – is also without a fire tender. It however has a building earmarked for a fire tender – but no vehicle and no firemen. Who plans these things? Rose Hall’s business community and others had to come to its rescue recently before the town could have its own fire service.

Instead of having to rely on the beneficence of the oft-fickle central government, a properly functioning and resourced local government council would surely have long ago designated the need for a fire station in Mahdia as an absolute priority. That it didn’t have one on July 1st is a searing indictment of the government and a severe prod for it to hasten with local government reforms that will truly empower communities like Mahdia without prejudice to the efforts of the residents and the private sector.

While the government has grand visions of infrastructure and developments such as the Berbice Bridge, the Amaila Falls Hydro Project and the Marriott-branded hotel it is neglectful of obvious and simple wants which can immeasurably improve and protect the lives of thousands of Guyanese on a daily basis. The horrendous state of the Kwakwani trail was brought into focus by the gruesome accident that claimed two lives last week.

The deterioration and lack of maintenance of this trail has proceeded unhindered without the government addressing its mind to the privations posed to thousands of residents.

So in the absence of a properly functioning local government system which is self-regulating and sustainable the government capriciously draws up its lists for the flurry of handouts to various communities but absent any well-considered framework to ensure that these initiatives grow from strength to strength.

It is a pity that there will be no imminent renewal of the mandate of local government councils via elections but in the interim it would make good sense for the government to seriously consider the most pressing needs of substantial communities in terms of water, vital services such as fire-fighting, roads and orderly planning of development. It could help to avoid calamities like the one that engulfed Mahdia.