Sometimes one wonders whether the bureaucrats who sit in Georgetown really know anything about the basic geography of this country. Other than that, one would have to conclude that some of them are totally lacking in plain common sense. Otherwise, how could they require teachers, public servants and pensioners to travel between 139 and 233 kilometres simply to collect their salaries in circumstances where the journey might take anything up to a day, and the cost is anything from $10,000 up, depending on the season and the location. This is to bear in mind too that certain health workers only earn $35,000 a month, and there are some pensioners who collect a mere $12,500.
As we reported in our Sunday editions last week and the week before, the last time the Deep South Rupununi teachers, health workers, pensioners and public servants went to collect their money they were required to sign a circular from Regional Executive Officer Claire Singh instructing them to open bank accounts by April 21, because from then on salaries would be paid only into the bank. The circular also said that this was the final instruction, although the Aishalton employees to whom we spoke assured us this was the first time they had seen any such directive.
The only banks in Region Nine are in Lethem, and while there are some villages in the vicinity, more particularly St Ignatius, whose residents will not be inconvenienced by the new requirements, a trip to the Region’s capital for others is a major undertaking. If the somnolent officials in the Ministry of Local Government would only divert their attention away for a few minutes from the Mayor and City Council, and pull out a map of Guyana, they would discover that the Rupununi is really rather a large region, and the distances between settlements are very substantial. This is not the East Coast where one village runs into the next.
To repeat the examples which were given in our report, Shea is 139 kilometres from Lethem; Maruranau 147; Awaruwaunau 161; Aishalton 193; Karaudarnawa 213; and Achiwuib 233. There is also Parabara, which technically does not fall within the region, but accesses services from Lethem, and that is 247 kilometres distant from the regional centre. As was explained to our reporter, a seat on a vehicle from Aishalton to Lethem costs $10,000 return during the dry season, while the charge for hiring a motorcycle is $30,000. In the rainy season, of course, prices go up, and trails are not easily negotiated. It is not as if travel allowances are paid either, so in fact what will happen is that people will be paying out a huge slice of their salary just in order to collect it. This hardly seems either fair or rational. In addition, there has been no mention of time off being granted to retrieve the money from the bank, since we are talking about a major day’s excursion and not an hour or two on a minibus.
What has happened up to this point is that the salaries have been taken to Aishalton, and representatives from the various Deep South villages go there to collect them on behalf of their workers. One can understand at one level the concerns of officialdom in this era of banditry, but it may be that with this new directive they are exposing individual workers to a greater threat of robbery, since they will all be converging on Lethem towards the end of the month going to one or other of the banks − and Lethem is not the same kind of rural environment as Aishalton.
The source of this wayward instruction is not altogether clear, although the signatory on the circular, as mentioned above, was REO Claire Singh, and her immediate superiors are to be found in the Ministry of Local Government. Certainly the teachers in the schools of the Deep South have written to that ministry saying they cannot comply with the directive on the grounds of time and cost. Certainly if it did emanate from Local Government and then other ministries such as Education fell in line, they should certainly have known better. And so, for that matter, should REO Singh, who actually lives in the region and knows its geography, climate and topography. Did she not see fit to advise her bosses in Georgetown that this was really the most impractical suggestion since someone decided to start a potato-growing scheme in Kato, when air was the only means of transporting the product to the coast – or is she just operating like a cypher for city-based, geographically-challenged bureaucrats?
Did personnel from the Ministries of Local Government, Education, Health and Finance all meet together in a huddle one day, and come up with this perverse idea because that was what obtained on the coast? Did they not take advice from people who know something about the area? Certainly the Region Nine Chairman told us that he did not know about it until he read it in the newspaper (although he didn’t appear altogether averse to it), so it doesn’t seem that there was input at the level of the regional elected officials. Worst of all, of course, they didn’t bother to contact the very people who would be most affected by the decision – not that nowadays this should come as a surprise to anyone.
One would have thought that since the Amerindian constituency is so important to the ruling party in these anomalous times, they would not want to open themselves to an accusation that they treat indigenous citizens with callousness and are impervious to their genuine concerns, let alone that they are discriminating against those who live in the more inaccessible parts of our hinterland regions. If they want to dispel this impression, then they should rescind the directive for the time being, at least, and hold discussions with representatives of the Deep South to see if there are any arrangements which can be put in place which are acceptable to the residents, and would meet the concerns of whichever ministry decided to embark on this capricious path. If there isn’t then they should simply retain what obtains currently until Aishalton acquires its own sub-branch of a bank.