I have always maintained the view that race relations in Guyana are generally good. The different ethnic groups interact and intermingle with a fair degree of cordiality and respect. Whatever differences exist are mainly economic and vocational which had its genesis in the early period of British colonial rule. During the course of our history, there occurred an almost racial division of labour.
After the abolition of slavery, the majority of the freed Africans over time gravitated away from the plantation and took up positions in the lower echelons of government services such as transport, postal, medical, security and teaching. Those who could not find employment in the city sought employment elsewhere such as in mining and quarrying and on timber grants. Indians for the most part remained and continued to work as agricultural labourers on the sugar estates and in rice cultivation. Some went into commerce along with the Portuguese and the Chinese.
To a large extent, this racial division of labour still remains, despite the passage of time. The civil service, including the military, is predominantly manned by Afro-Guyanese whereas the agricultural and commercial sectors remain largely in the hands of Indo-Guyanese.
Attempts to suggest a deliberate attempt to marginalize Africans by the previous PPP administration is misleading and fails to take into account the historical antecedents which resulted in a differentiated economic and social structure. The vast majority of Indo-Guyanese are rural wage labourers working in the agricultural sector in contrast to urban-based Afro-Guyanese who work in the service sector and in the military. A study done some years ago found that poverty levels were much more pronounced in hinterland and rural areas as compared to urban areas.
The point I am seeking to make is that except for a handful of Indians who own businesses and who managed to be successful professionals, the majority of Indians, like their African counterparts belong to the labouring class, and there is little variation in income levels. Pitting one ethnic group against the other is unhelpful and counterproductive and should not be encouraged or advocated.
This is not to suggest that the society as a whole is insensitive or unmindful of policy prescriptions which are perceived to be politically or ethnically biased. The closure of sugar estates by the current APNU+AFC regime is seen as a direct threat to the well-being and economic security of Indo-Guyanese. The same can be said of the failure to secure lucrative markets for rice following the loss of the Venezuelan market. And the slew of new taxation measures will impact more on the business community which in turn could lead to a downturn in business and consequently, employment opportunities.
Already, appointments in key positions both at the administrative and political levels are indicative of an ethnic bias on a scale that is more pronounced than under the previous PPP/C administration.
The current administration has an obligation to govern in a manner that is even handed, where merit and not political or ethnic considerations are paramount. Any departure from this fundamental principle of governance will only serve to strengthen and reinforce perceptions of bias and marginalization.