Rise of the rubble rousers

The touching tableau of six slender bronze statues with their simple ship bundles, envisioned by two of Guyana’s leading artists should have been standing in all of its shining glory a week ago to commemorate the historic May 5 1838 arrival of the first East Indian indentured immigrants. Instead, in a clear case of “Touch and then GO!” the compromised circular concrete pedestal that was to have borne the massive masterpiece has crumbled while “85 per cent complete” into a towering pile of rumbling rubble, leaving behind clouds of coughing grey dust and yet another ignominious search through the heap of dirt for awkward answers casually blowing in the winds that crisscross the cane of the Ancient County from Plantation Highbury to Palmyra.

It took terrorists’ much modern explosives and heavy artillery to level the magnificent temples and tombs of the famed 4 000 year-old Syrian settlement of the same name that is a World Heritage Site probably christened after its “palma” trees. Hardly Fort Nassau, ours was an ugly wall of cinder blocks merely stacked on one another with some steel rods casually thrown in for good measure resembling a precariously perched well rather than a powerful plinth for a heavy metal monument, that suddenly caved in with a crash following the mere whisper of a breeze late April. Colosseum no, “Collapseum” yes, proving the ancient adage it is easier to tear down than build up.

The collapsed base

But we might as well have been dreaming of an elaborate Italian or Spanish stone castle in the sky, for the latest public building debacle, if one can dare dignify it with even such a decent turn of phrase, was more debased destruction than complex construction, and definite déjà vu than careful consideration. Given the high levels of expensive investment infrastructure projects in the public sector and the ongoing, unresolved problem of low standards and mismanagement, there are the inevitable cost overruns and missed deadlines. These have become a chronic symptom of failed undertakings representative of a floundering people who have lost their proud reputation as honest hewers and skilled craftsmen, becoming the ludicrous laughing stock for “things falling apart.”

It proves yet again that in any Government project, started on shifting sand and soil, lacking a properly engineered foundation and the barest supervision, rubble rouser contractors can be paid everything to take forever to build something that eventually turns to nothing, making envious, countless companies catering for rapid or careless execution without the slightest fear of proper punishment, moral sanction, court accounting or industry blacklisting. Mercenary magicians with the machinations and mechanics but not the means nor the minds, were all last seen hurriedly heading en masse to GT.

Adding to a long list of shoddy structures in a cursed compendium, ranging from the tax-payers’ billowing billions sunk into the D’Urban Park Project, the  Marriott Hotel, the Kato Secondary School, the Hope Canal bridge, the Guyana Marketing Corporation headquarters, to iffy roads, hamstrung highways and strange stellings, the Palmyra failure represents another disappointment for those who have built their hopes in the coalition regime making a fresh start and finally ensuring due diligence with full value for the people’s money in the capable execution of national projects, great and small. Obviously promises, like parties and foundations, are not all they are cracked up to be either in the political or construction front, and building materials like trustworthy tenders and vexed voters cannot ever be taken for granite.

The embarrassing episode could only have been made worse had the collapse happened with the six-foot tall figures already in place, tumbling down with over three tonnes of deadly force. While we can be thankful to be spared that scenario of horror, the questions are certainly flowing about whether this is really a ploy by the panjandrums in cunning preparation to build us up for more of the same poor standards perfected under their predecessor.

While the news hit most like a ton of bricks, Stabroek News (SN) has been knocking its head against countless unassailable walls and climbing others trying to get any response and acknowledgement of responsibility, with the deafening silence being rivalled by the risible rush of those involved to hurriedly pass the buck while heading for the exits, which are presumably not in Regions 11, 12 and 13 where the cadre of our best engineers have apparently fled. Stonewalling has instead shifted to the corridors of power with even the learned Minister of Education, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, the veteran co-leader of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) joining the mute battalion having promised a media update that is still to materialise – and now consultations on an investigation of the technical aspects with the Ministry of Public Infrastructure that should have been rightfully involved from the start.

Triggering uncomfortable scrutiny for the executing agency and the ruling directorate which frequently criticised poor contracting work while it was in opposition, SN said: “The collapse would call into question how the contract selection was made, the abilities of the contractor, the type of material used, whether an adequate design had been drawn up and if the construction was being monitored.”

The newspaper has long hammered the “decades of shambling work and botched contracts” which “have also eroded public faith in our infrastructure and institutions to the point at which efficiency, integrity and transparency are almost redundant. Corruption and cronyism are symptoms of the same malaise as the violent crime that stalks our communities: they represent a collective retreat from the rulebook.”

Dr Roopnaraine’s Ministry is the procuring entity for the $42.2M pact handed to the ironically-titled Alternative Contracting Enterprise (ACE) covering the second key phase of the three-part project, the contracts for which were awarded by the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board (NPTAB) between September and November last year. Registered as a business since 2008, the unknown ACE names Derek Wilson, of Greenheart Street, Mackenzie, Linden, as its owner, SN reported. The firm may have aced into the big-time industry but their performance is anything but an ace, except perhaps of spades.

Chairman of Region Six, East Berbice/Corentyne, David Armogan quickly distanced himself from it all saying, “The region has nothing to do with this project, only the site is in our region, it is completely funded, completely supervised, all the tenders were done in Georgetown…” Armogan claimed that the region on numerous occasions attempted to engage the contractor’s attention while complaining that Ministers never contact, inform or even seek advice from the regional officials even as similar reports surfaced of the lack of proper consultations with the designing artists and crucial deviations from the original design.

In March, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo and the Indian High Commissioner to Guyana, Venkatachalam Mahalingam, unveiled a signboard depicting the monument at the site, with the PM disclosing that $97 million had been allocated for the venture. Proposed by the former People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Government, the undertaking was launched in 2013 with a national competition in which five entries were submitted and the outstanding duo of artist Philbert Gajadhar and sculptor Winslow Craig won for their collaborative maquette, judged by a panel including the esteemed carver Ivor Thom and historian Tota Mangar. The Indian Government committed to having the model cast as life-size statues in a US$150 000 donation, with the pieces of the 12-foot long portrayal shipped to Guyana, delivered last year, and temporarily stored in crates at the National Stadium.

Obviously, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) did not wish to scrap a politically sensitive proposal that sought to create an important memorial in an Opposition stronghold no less, given the ugly record of racial tension and internecine division, yet the latest imbroglio has launched another round of controversy that we could well do without coming at a time several sugar estates are being dismantled.

Originally planned for the Highbury Plantation, East Berbice the famous first landing point for East Indian immigrants in the colony, the monument was instead shifted by the previous rulers to a “more visible” and “travelled location” at the head of the junction, east of the Berbice River Bridge.

Depicting six elegant, elongated bare-feet individuals disembarking from the British ship, the “Whitby,” the scaled model captures the group of three ordinary men, two women and a child clad in traditional dress and carrying a symbolic “jahaji bhandal” or ship bundle crammed with the essentials of a new life be it food/spices, herbs, religious texts and figurines, a drum representing music, a “karahi” – a deep cooking pot, a “tawa” or roti griddle, grass knives, a cutlass and rice plants.

Led by the first two Indians to set foot in Guiana, the first, Ram gestures “Behold!” even as the second, Khan with his hand resting on his friend’s shoulder looks back urging the others on. Gajadhar had explained that “The relationship of the figures becomes increasingly complex as the viewer’s eyes move from the base to the heads. The rhythms of the figures are parallel and give a sense of quickening motion which conveys strong emotion.”

Hopefully, with this ace opportunity to review the project and make it right, Guyanese will ultimately get to see the real diorama on a fitting foundation even if it means waiting another year for the 180th arrival anniversary.

The authorities then face having to hire security to guard the valuable bronzes that could incongruously end up hawked as scrap metal, as happened to vandalised icons and religious property, at least one founding head of the Non-Aligned Movement monument, and the historic Smith Memorial Congregational Church which lost the bronze bust of the abolitionist Reverend John Smith to unscrupulous dealers. In history, there are sadly few sacred places and no aces left.

ID recalls the classic construction joke “they are still working on it,” and the apt admission “I know we are months behind schedule but it’s the darndest thing, every time we complete a section it disappears!”

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