Local government and logs at Kato

While on the face of it the incident in April where children of the Kato Primary School were enlisted to fetch logs may appear to be relatively minor, it demonstrates vividly the need for urgent rejuvenation of local government.

Apart from their every-day problems, Kato and other parts of the interior suffer significantly as they are out of the public eye and remote from the centre of power and decision-making. Therefore, problems like the recruiting of students for adult work and others even more intractable go unnoticed unless hardy souls are determined to let it be known in the capital city and have access to influential channels. This state of affairs doesn’t say much for the local government organs and the groups that purport to represent the peoples of communities such as Kato.

Following an investigation ordered by Minister Manickchand, it was learnt that on April 17th, kitchen staff at the school noted that they were short of firewood and then asked the teacher in charge Ms Andrea Pereira to mobilize the children to gather same from a clump of bush about half a mile away.

Undoubtedly we all wake up sometime or the other and discover we’re short of this or that breakfast item. However, the absence of firewood from the school’s kitchen is a problem of a different order and bespeaks of wider issues.  It is unclear to date whether there were other occurrences of this sort however there is no doubting that primary school boys and girls made a trek to collect the firewood. This is unacceptable in this day and age. It is also not clear whether compulsion was involved or the students volunteered for the task. What has also not been explained to date is the absence of the substantive teacher in charge. She was reportedly unwell but the investigation commissioned by Minister Manickchand has thus far not produced evidence that any documentation to cover this was submitted. At the level of the regional education department there are evidently problems and it would be a safe bet that this is something that permeates all districts and many unsavoury occurrences fly under the radar. The Education Ministry should seek further clarifications on this matter.

Region Eight, one must remember, is now headed by a Chairman who was chosen by the opposition parties in Parliament. It is a region in which the Alliance For Change claimed chairmanship for the first time in its history. The region is therefore a theatre of skirmishing between the council and central government but also offers a golden opportunity for the AFC to show that its representatives on the council are pioneering a newbrand of local government.

It appears however that it was the Minister of Local Government, Mr Ganga Persaud who addressed the matter. He visited the region a month after the incident and convened a meeting with the regional administration, programme managers and councillors. Based on the report presented by Minister Manickchand, Minister Persaud explained the manner of acquisition, management and expenditure of funds for the National School Feeding Programme presumably with the objective of ensuring better management of supplies and ensuring that children weren’t mobilized for this task again..

How and why Minister Persaud became involved is unclear but it underlines a fundamental shortcoming of local government which is manifested in Central Government creating the atmosphere where officers in the region feel that the centre has to be involved in all things. Surely the preferred channel of communication would have been from the Regional Education Officer to the Regional Council and if necessary the latter could then interface with Central Government. This is not what happened.

Astonishingly, the Chairman of Region Eight, Mr Mark Crawford, professed to Stabroek News last week that he had been completely unaware of the incident until it was reported in the media. How could the Chairman not know of this matter when the education department of the region was fully cognizant and one of Mr Crawford’s fellow councillors was also aware of the matter and was the one who had taken the photographs of the children fetching the logs? The AFC also has some accounting to do for the lack of awareness of the Chairman about the matter and the visit to the city last week of one of its councillors, apparently to drop off photographs but not to engage the authorities on what had transpired  since the incident in April and whether the situation had improved.

The deformities of the local government system and the disconnect between communities/villages and the regional councils is legend. It has been exacerbated in various regions by the determined effort by central government to ensure absolute control over Regional Executive Officers and other officers to ensure that the PPP/C administration’s agenda is pursued and not necessarily that of the regional council in its role as the proximate representative of the people.

It can’t be stated often enough that local government elections are needed to rehabilitate the decrepit infrastructure in the region. Medium-term matters like whether regional elections should be held together with local government polls rather than at the general elections also have to be considered.

The bottom line remains that the ironfisted control by central government of local government conferred by antiquated laws has stultified the people’s ability to really take control of their lives. This is exactly why the reform of these laws via the suite now under consideration by a select committee of Parliament must be expedited and bought into effect.

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