The combined opposition late Thursday night voted down allocations totaling $6.7 billion for transport works, including the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) Modern-isation Project.
Despite objections, some $1.3B in funding for work on the Amaila Falls access road, managed to clear the Committee of Supply after the AFC opted to abstain from voting.
The rejected $6.785 billion, under the heading “Transport,” was part of the $22.3 billion allocation for the sector in the proposed $220 billion budget that was presented by Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh two weeks ago. Last year, the entire $5.63B air transport programme allocation, including earmarked funding for rehabilitation of hinterland airstrips and final payment to the European Union for the Ogle Airport, due to typographical errors in the opposition motion.
AFC MP Moses Nagamootoo said his party fully supported allocations for hinterland and coastal airstrips but last year the party took a certain position in the vote on the issue because “these things are bundled with the CJIA airport modernisation and though we had indicated our support for the extension of the runway at the CJIA airport we have expressed our disapproval of a new airport.”
He noted that absence of dialogue has created a dilemma and as a result the party would have no choice but to be consistent with its previous position.
All 33 members of the opposition eventually voted against the $6.5B allocation.
Meanwhile, the first person to address the Amaila Falls access road was Nagamootoo, who said that it was unfortunate that the inter-party dialogue that the Speaker had initiated was scuttled. Though his party had reservations about the Amaila access road being under the agency/project code, he said it faced a dilemma. “…Because this has been bundled with the Demerara Habour Bridge, infrastructural development for the West Demerara four lane road, the dredging of the rivers. It has been bundled with urban roads and drainage, the Lethem road, the improvements to the East Bank Road and the Corentyne Bridge…,” he explained, before saying that “it is child’s play to politicise on matter like this.”
“We want to indicate to this House, we in the Alliance for Change support the programme under public works 312 except the only area, the $1.3B for the Amaila access road. But we are left with the Solomon’s dilemma; whether to cut the baby in two or to let the baby live. And so out of a sense of responsibility and genuine commitment to this nation, we wish to indicate that when time comes to vote we will vote in accordance with our own national commitment,” he said.
Benn, in response, said that all the capital projects are always put together. “It is not bundling or shuffling or hiding or anything. I think the reference to bundling is unfortunate,” he said. On Nagamootoo‘s comments about a ‘Solomon’s dilemma’ with respect to Amaila road, he said that without the road to the Amaila Falls dam site and the creation of a hydropower dam, “Guyana would suffer and the ordinary people of Guyana will suffer and Guyana’s development will suffer. And there would be no person in this House who I would want to believe would want to see Guyanese people suffer in this generation or the next.”
Harmon questioned why $1.3B was being requested when there is no signed project called the Amaila Falls Hydro Project. He said that he and APNU joined with AFC in the position that they have taken. “We object to this particular line item for the expenditure of $1.3 Billion on a road that goes to no project,” he declared.
Benn said that he was aware that Guyana has a national project for the construction of the hydropower dam facility at the Amaila Falls in the amount of 160 megawatts of “cheap reliable, sustainable renewable power.” This comment was met with loud hitting of the table by the other government MPs.
A division was subsequently called and during voting the seven AFC members abstained, the 26 APNU members voted against the sum being approved while the 32 government members voted in favour. As a result of the voting, the sums would be sent forward for the National Assembly’s approval.
Earlier, Harmon asked about the $338M listed for the Demerara Habour Bridge. He asked the minister to state whether that is the amount required to ensure that the bridge is properly maintained for 2014 and whether there are any other funds available that could be utilised for this purpose, such as revenue from the daily operations.
Benn, in response, said that the funds from the daily operations take care of routine ongoing maintenance of the bridge. He said that the items listed for the bridge are large capital items. “I would say that the bridge is very well maintained and in fairly good condition. There is always some amount of risk with respect to these engineering elements. These are large structures. There is a question of fatigue at certain parts of the bridge which we are now assessing…,” he said.
Harmon indicated that he saw no provisions for the design and construction of floating ramps for the speed boats that traverse the rivers of Guyana. He asked the minister to indicate if any funds were set aside and if so where. Benn said that these floating ramps, which are “indeed delayed,” will be financed out of recurring monies from the Maritime Administration Department. He said that the sums involved are “fairly modest”.
In response to queries about what these “modest costs” are, Benn said that it ranges from $1.7M to $2.4M, based on the two designs that were done.
Harmon also asked about road works. Benn said that the $1B for interior roads that the ministry has now is a direct allocation from the Consolidated Fund and the previous sums mentioned by Harmon passed through the National Industrial & Commercial Investments Ltd (NICIL) and not directly from the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) from which the funds originate but through NICIL as the oversight accounting unit.
Harmon then said that he wanted to know if it was normal procedure for NICIL to be funding works on interior roads. “It is an important matter and I don’t think we should sweep it under the carpet,” he said. Benn, in response, noted that he had carefully stated that the funds originated from the GGMC, with NICIL acting as the oversight for the allocation with respects to the sum of money.
Harmon turned his attention to the $240M allocation for the Corentyne River Bridge access road and asked whether there is contract and if so if the minister can make it available to the National Assembly.
Benn said that the government of Suriname is the authority/agency which is financing the project. Guyana’s responsibility, he explained, is to build a road of some 3.9 kilometres and to create a new area for the handling of persons who would be coming over the bridge into Guyana. Similar facilities will be on the Suriname side. He said that for the sum listed, there will be contracts with respect to the bridge itself and that is an issue for Suriname. He noted that as far as he is aware, Suriname’s responsibility is to fund and build the bridge.
Harmon said he was offended by the manner in which “we are dealing with a matter of national sovereignty” and questioned how there could not be a contract when a bridge that will “run unto Guyana’s land” was being built.
At this point, Foreign Affairs Minister Carolyn Rodrigues intervened. She told the House that as she had said in her budget presentation, with respect to the Corentyne River, there was a draft treaty which was never signed and that is why there is a joint border commission that is working. On the issue of the bridge and its allocation, she said, what is being done is that the government of Suriname is presently in negotiation for the construction of the bridge, which means that Guyana will not be contributing to the cost of constructing it. On our side, she added, Guyana will bear the cost of the approach road. She said that there will be no start to this road unless there is a contract for the bridge. Rodrigues said that government thought it best to include the cost for the road in the budget so that if the contract is concluded during this year, money will be available for work to commence.
APNU’s Carl Greenidge then reminded the House of a negotiation with the European Union for monies for the establishment and organisation of a ferry between Guyana and Suriname. He said that while 90% of the negotiations were conducted by Guyana, upon the conclusion of the arrangement and the signing of the agreement, Suriname “it seems have almost exclusive control of that operation.” He said that the scenario explained by the Benn and Rodrigues was even more alarming. “There is no way that you can build a bridge from one country into another without both countries having a say about the arrangements in total. And it seems to me rather remarkable that you would seek money to put in place an access road and announce that the arrangements for the contract are to be concluded only by the other side without reference to us… we have no say… even in the design or where the people will land when they come on this side,” he pointed out.