In the December 2nd edition of Stabroek News there was a report about a resident of Lusignan complaining bitterly about suffering from her neighbour’s daily burning of wood and garbage. Narissa Deokarran lamented that she has suffered from chronic respiratory illnesses as a result of the smoke and has been unable to get relief despite numerous complaints to the neighbourhood democratic council (NDC) in the area, the regional democratic council, the Ministry of Communities and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Her neighbour, Mohanlall Kissoon acknowledged the interventions by the various bodies and argued that they had found he was doing no harm even though Ms Deokarran refuted this by producing an April 4, 2015 letter from the NDC warning him to desist from burning garbage and pointing out that he had been reprimanded about this behaviour on numerous occasions by the Environmental Health Officer and the NDC. The authorities must take decisive action to relieve Ms Deokarran of this daily hazard.
Ms Deokarran’s complaint typifies one of the innumerable challenges that the various councils will face when local government elections are run off on March 18 next year for the first time since 1994. An entire generation has grown up without knowing or experiencing what it is to live in a functional and functioning local government authority. Ms Deokarran’s salutary experience is a result of the breakdown of authority and its replacing by anomie and a vacuum. Decades of lawlessness have enabled, even in the city of Georgetown, food businesses, houses of worship, rum shops, auto workshops, vending etc smack in the middle of what are meant to be residential districts where householders expect to enjoy their surroundings and peace. Many will be the complaints from householders to the new councils and this will be one of the early tests of a rejuvenated local government system which has at its core the well-being of those within its precincts, the efficient collection of rates and taxes and the discharging of functions such as clearing of secondary and tertiary drains and the upkeep of roads.
Once new councils are installed, they would have to be intimately aware of their boundaries, their interface with their upper council which is oddly elected at separate elections, their financial basis and accountability requirements, maintaining law and order, their remit as it relates to the infrastructure and their authority as it pertains to revenue gathering and development projects. It is a tall mandate in a broken down system and requires diligent examination of myriad laws, becoming acquainted with the duties of regulatory bodies such as the EPA, the Central Housing and Planning Authority, the lands and surveys commissions and the national drainage body etc.
While there will undoubtedly be clerks in the councils who will have some knowledge, the NDCs in particular will face immediate challenges after the elections given that many of them have been moribund for years and institutional knowledge has been lost. It is also the case that councils will be electing citizens from their communities in the hybrid first-past-the-post and proportional representation system. Many of them would have had no experience with the administering of a council and even though they would be able to apply their life’s training, there will be a deficit. As with every other vote, GECOM will no doubt be training its staff for election day and the various activities that follow. Who will take on the responsibility of training those who will be undertaking monumental task for much longer than the GECOM employees?
In the same edition of SN that the news item on Ms Deokarran’s plight appeared, there was a thoughtful letter by Sherwood Lowe who, adverting to the various pronouncements by government officials on what local government elections (LGE) would accomplish, raised the following insightful question.
“Are we expecting too much from local governance? And is the LGE in March 2016 being mis-advertised as the magic brew to metamorphose our local councils into models of high achievement?”
He then went on to cite a number of factors which could threaten the growth of local self-governance including public self-motivation and participation, managerial incapacity, likely jurisdictional firefights between the various tiers and central government and whether the much vaunted Local Government Commission over which there was endless bickering will be able to deliver.
He ended his letter with this warning. “Overburdening local councils could lead to operational breakdowns, deny citizens of expected services, waste money and other resources, and turn people off. Each local government unit must determine its own community goals in line with what it can properly deliver with the resources at hand”.
Now that the date for local government elections has been set, it is clear that the Local Government Commission, the National Assembly, the Ministry of Communities, civil society, the media and the various communities that will be participating have much work to do in educating themselves and their constituencies on the challenges ahead. Both the Local Government Commission, whenever it is in a position to do so, and the Ministry of Communities should immediately seek access to financing to begin training those who are interested in participating in the polls on what their likely tasks will be as ordinary councillor or chair and certainly after the polls there should be intense schooling for all on what standards of governance are expected and to help them navigate in the unfamiliar milieu that is local government.
Ms Deokarran’s complaints and the points raised by Mr Lowe share a common thread which will pose a severe challenge on the road to the rejuvenation of local government.