One might be forgiven for thinking that we have a government which is incapable of making simple deductions, or learning from experience, or alighting on an obvious solution to an old, old problem. And the temptation to accept these hypotheses about the administration’s limitations was never greater than on Wednesday of last week. There was the city and its environs, home to perhaps anything like a quarter or more of this nation’s population (no one can be quite sure since the results of the 2012 census have not yet been published), under several inches of filthy water. Schools in the capital and on the East Bank and East Coast had to be closed – 43 were still closed on Thursday and 15 on Friday – many businesses could not function and normal economic and social activity was severely disrupted.
Now one might have thought it would have occurred to those who rule over us that a situation like this occurring as it does with such unrelenting regularity would be totally unacceptable in any major urban area, let alone in a capital city. Georgetown is, after all, the hub of business and commerce in this nation, and it attracts people from a considerable distance seeking to access its services or earn their living. So what on earth is the government thinking?
The short answer seems to be that it isn’t. At least not rationally. No one needs a PhD to deduce that the two major causes of the duration of the flood (as was said in SN’s Thursday editorial) are garbage and clogged drains ‒ one should perhaps add to that silted-up outfalls; and it is no news to the average resident that the major causes of previous floods in recent times were the same as the one on Wednesday. So why can’t the government draw the obvious conclusion that in order to prevent a recurrence it should ensure that the garbage is cleared and the drains (and outfalls) are cleaned on a regular basis?
Part of the answer seems to lie in the fact that many of the members of the ruling party do not come from Georgetown or have not lived in it for any length of time at critical stages in their lives. They have, therefore, no sense of its history or its institutions; they feel no frisson of remembered pride in what it once was and evince little interest in what it could be; they do not care if that icon of nineteenth century public building ‒ City Hall ‒ crumbles into dust, in fact some of them might be quite happy if it did; the collapsing Kitty Market means nothing to them; and if they have the concept of a capital at all it would amount to little more than an aggregation of gargantuan excrescences ‒ concrete and glass, of course ‒ set down in a location where they really do feel at home.
And they don’t feel at home in Georgetown; they perceive it as hostile political terrain. Which brings us to the other major reason why they are prepared to watch the city sink beneath the refuse-strewn waters: in 1994 the citizenry declined to vote in a PPP council and we haven’t had a local government election since then. As a consequence the capital has been reduced in government calculations to nothing more than a political pawn, and the central administration’s energies have been directed to thwarting any sensible moves which might make the city more habitable.
And to reinforce the point there was President Donald Ramotar himself being reported in the Guyana Chronicle on Thursday as saying that the impact of the rain could have been significantly lessened had there been a better functioning city council. The state paper went on to quote him as commenting: “The APNU manages the City; they are in control of the City at this point in time, and we have seen a lot of neglect.” There was then reference to the millions of dollars the government had “pumped” into the municipality “to bail out a heavily indebted City Council as a result of mismanagement of its resources.”
The President clearly needs reminding that the municipality does not have nearly enough revenue to be able to discharge its functions. It was none other than the PPP’s own Interim Management Committee, installed before the 1994 local government elections which said so (quite apart from consultants and others who came later), and that was more than twenty years ago, when money was worth more than it is today, and when costs were not as high as they are today. And the President needs reminding that Attorney-at-law Mr Leon Rockliffe explained in some detail in more than one letter to this newspaper why recovering rates and taxes via the route of parate execution is very arduous because of a change in the law under the Hoyte administration.
The President also needs reminding that the PPP/C administration has systematically quashed any proposals for the city council to raise money to relieve its financial situation. So whatever mismanagement has gone on – and that has not been in short supply over the years – there is still, that apart, a serious shortfall in revenue, and it is the government, no less, which has made sure it stays that way. How on earth, therefore, when the city lacks the resources to even cope with the garbage can it suddenly find money to deal with the entire drainage complex of the capital?
Then the President needs to be reminded that the city council is not the real power in Georgetown; the acting Town Clerk Ms Carol Sooba is. And that lady answers directly to the ministerial duo in the Ministry of Local Government – after all, they put her there. And in her infinite wisdom she was the one who some time ago over the strenuous objections of the city council, terminated the contracts of two private garbage removal companies without replacing them. This precipitated a garbage crisis – considerably worse than the ongoing one which residents have to endure – that made the flooding situation even more unbearable than it otherwise might have been.
In a letter to this newspaper yesterday, Mayor Hamilton Green asked Mr Ramotar to persuade the acting Town Clerk “to settle with our private truck contractors, so that they can recommence the movement of silt and debris from around the city. This will allow us to utilize a working excavator now idle on Merriman Mall for over six weeks because there are no available trucks to cart away the mud removed from the canals.” So what does the President have to say to this? Mr Green also made reference to a cheque allegedly waiting for signature for several months that would make possible the repair of two of the municipality’s trucks. Now if all of that is true, the President is either not being kept in the loop – raising serious questions about who is really in charge ‒ or he is behaving with unbelievable disingenuousness.
One would also like to ask the Town Clerk (ag) whether all the kokers are functioning, and whether they are being monitored on a regular basis. It has to be said, however, that even if they are, the outfalls still have to be clear for them to do the job they were designed for. And where the outfalls are concerned, these don’t even come under the jurisdiction of the Mayor & City Council at all; they are the responsibility of one of the agencies associated with central government. Since it can’t play games on this one, would it like to explain why no desilting was done before the rains came?
The general principle is that drains, trenches and canals should be dug, and garbage mountains cleared in the dry season before the rains come, but again and again there has to be a crisis before the authorities are galvanized into action. On this particular occasion, it is as if the central government by its proxy actions in some areas and inaction in others precipitated the crisis once the rains arrived. Now the relevant ministries are running around in a frenzy of activity purporting to portray themselves as the saviours of the city. No one is deceived.
Did the President himself venture out of State House to see the state of the capital, particularly its southern wards? If he had done so, then perhaps he might have had a more realistic view about what it means for poor people to live in a city which his government perceives as little more than a political pawn.