Mixed messages from both sides of political divide will not help sugar industry

Dear Editor,

Last week at the observation of India’s republic anniversary President David Granger, in his address at the function, appeared to confirm earlier statements made by former president Donald Ramotar that the Government of Guyana was indeed engaged in some bilateral talks with India on rehabilitating the sugar industry.

By now it may be considered beside the point that the nation was initially confused, based on government’s responses, that such an engagement ever existed. A delegation led by Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Greenidge is in India to follow up on the issue. According to Ramotar, this rehabilitative programme would have included loans, technical assistance and possible investment by major sugar players, which this Government ignored.

Governance and government’s business are continuous processes and while political heads may change the institutions and records remain. Thus it was reasonable to expect that during transition from one administration to another a handing over process would have included such things as inventory, not only for vehicles but also loans and programmes, including those in the pipeline. Whether this was done or not may be debated but is necessary to ensure the continuity in the system of governance and managing the people’s affairs.

It is also instructive that knowledge of this engagement came after thousands of workers are already on the breadline, the future uncertain for others, and Wales’ redundant workers still catching hell. The concern here is the importance of respecting the inclusionary processes on decision making and management as required by us consistent with Article 13 of the Guyana Constitution.

Where the 2015 Commission of Inquiry and Special Committee addressing sugar did not see any meaningful involvement from the PPP/C, severance payment has been deferred/denied, and on the other hand initiated input by other stakeholders has been ignored by Government, all make a tenuous situation untenable. Whereas recent engagement between the sugar unions and the government marks a positive development in realising inclusionary approaches, such must mark a natural occurrence, initiated from the inception not at the last moment when situations become untenable.

What the nation is learning daily is that from the inception all the cards were not being placed on the table, reinforcing concern about a partisan approach and the absence of a commitment to deal honestly with the industry. The politicians’ salaries, pensions and other benefits are guaranteed whether GuySuCo sinks or not, sugar workers have a bright or dim future. Workers/citizens continue to be victim of the penchant to withhold and exclude, waiting for one’s rival to fail, or harbouring the false premise of knowing it all.

There remain the lessons of history to be learnt in the treatment of issues, particularly that of the productive sector (sugar and bauxite) that has within unique race and political dynamics. The process of nationalisation as conducted in the 1970s saw the reliance on inclusionary approaches between stakeholders, and notably the Government and Opposition. This saw a cohesive and peaceful transition by the society even as the political forces were able to rally their constituents.

The desire to seek opportunities for political one-upmanship and reign supreme at the expense of the livelihood and workers’ welfare much be eschewed. Let me make it very clear: it is not lost on me that a cash-strapped industry taking loans will not necessarily guarantee turnaround, but factors such as technical support and buy-in could be examined in the context of production, sustaining employment and other economic opportunities.

Ramotar’s accusation that the Government is pursuing a “discriminatory policy in regard to sugar” and that this has to do with race cannot be ignored. Such perception, real or conceived, can have dire implications for achieving social cohesion. At the same time if the PPP/C felt so the party should have laid its cards out from jump street and stop this drip, drip of information and playing on the fears of Indians. Considered their elected representatives it must conduct itself in a more serious manner, initiate and meaningfully participate on issues that affect this constituency’s welfare.

Mixed messages, from both sides of the political divide, will not help. Varied stories from privatising, to closure, to right-sizing, to saving the industry only add to the confusion, creating uncertainty and opportunities of division to thrive. Programmes to ameliorate the socioeconomic impact on affected workers are noted but could have been developed and packaged better, even before the redundancy exercise commenced.

Another lesson from history that can be learnt is that of the transition of the economy from state-controlled during the late 1980s. Via the Structural Adjustment Programme (ERP/SAP) institutions such as SIMAP and Basic Needs Trust Fund were first put in place to aid the retooling of our human resource capacity.  Though initially there was some measure of socioeconomic dislocation the society was not as fractious and contentious as it is today.

The point I am trying to get over is the importance of stakeholders’ involvement and buy-in to these issues of national import. The infrastructure that was put in place by the Desmond Hoyte administration to deal with sugar and bauxite were identical. This was torpedoed by the PPP/C government that refused to continue the treatment of equanimity. Since then the society has become more polarised. Averting this destructive path requires shrewd and deliberative judgement by the collective.

For whatever is done today will have corresponding impact, good or bad, in the future and it makes sense to always strive to leave a legacy of integrity rather than dishonesty, of tolerance rather than intolerance, of unity rather than division. The Government (Opposition and Executive) has a moral responsibility to lead in the interest of the society and what is certain the workers/citizens want stability and progress in their lives.

Yours faithfully,

 Lincoln Lewis

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