The Region Six council is calling on government to reverse a decision to have the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA) take responsibility for drainage and irrigation in the region.
“They said through a Cabinet decision but we have not seen so far any Cabinet memorandum to say that that is Cabinet decision. So we don’t know whether it is Cabinet decision or a NDIA decision but this is a letter that we received recently from NDIA to indicate that Cabinet has green-lighted for all the drainage and irrigation work to be undertaken by NDIA,” Chairman of the Regional Democratic Council (RDC), David Armogan, said at a specially convened meeting to discuss the issue yesterday.
When contacted by Stabroek News, Chief Executive Officer of the NDIA, Frederick Flatts said after consultation, Cabinet decided that the NDIA will take over drainage and irrigation duties in the coastal regions. “The RDC and NDC (Neighbourhood Democratic Council) will do the residential areas. Where you have main drains passing through the residential areas, those will be under the control of NDIA,” he said.
Armogan told the council that the NDIA had sent a letter informing that based on a Cabinet decision, the Authority will be taking over drainage and irrigation matters within the region and as such, they would need a certain amount of money to be released to them.
Stabroek News was told that the regional administration handles drainage and irrigation for the primary system within Region Six, while the NDIA dealt with the “main drainage structures to making sure that the systems are clear and running the pumps and so.”
According to Armogan, the region’s budget for drainage and irrigation for both farmlands and residential areas is $370 million. He said this covered works such as maintenance and clearing of the primary system, as well as the sluices and other structures within the region. It also covers drainage and irrigation works in other farming areas that fall outside of NDIA-declared cultivation areas.
“They (NDIA) have now written to us that we must give them $108, 272, 200, but this is only a preliminary amount that they have demanded. Maybe, at some point during the year, they might demand the rest of the money,” Armogan said.
It was also relayed that $114 million of the $370 million represents the capital budget and, as such, Armogan said, the NDIA is requesting the entire capital budget at this time. He pointed out that the 2019 budget was created based on the idea that the region “would continue to operate on the same way in which the region would be responsible for certain aspects of drainage and irrigation and NDIA would be responsible for (the) other.”
“NDIA, within their budget, would have had to put in money that they would have disbursed to the water users on a yearly basis so that they can take care of the secondary drainage system which is in the cultivation area,” the Regional Chairman said while emphasising that this has always been the system.
“That’s why this meeting is called, to express our disagreement, our frustration and to express our feelings in regard to this new dispensation that is taking place within the regional setting,” he added.
Additionally, the chairman said, if the NDIA is to take over drainage and irrigation within the region, it means that the RDC would not be able to address emergency issues, which they have been doing for decades now. “It means, therefore, that we may not be able to address small issues that are related to the farming community. In other words, we will be sitting there doing nothing for a region that is agriculture,” he declared.
Armogan further stressed that the region has a responsibility to the residents. “This is what we do, our region is a strictly agriculture region, this is a big problem for us,” he said.
The chairman contended that he did not understand the rationale behind such a decision, since the regional administration did not fail to deliver on drainage and irrigation within the region. “When things are changing, there must a reason, you don’t change things that are working, the system has been working for all the years, why all of a sudden you are changing it without giving us a reason…,” he questioned.
Armogan further told the council that the NDIA plans to take over the staff attached to the drainage and irrigation division within the region.
He called on Cabinet to reverse the decision immediately and said a letter will be sent in this regard.
Meanwhile, Flatts told Stabroek News that discussions were held in all the regions except Region Five. “We had discussions with all of them, I’m surprised that this is coming up at this time but this happens,” he said. “It’s a Cabinet decision and we are seeking to cooperate with the Cabinet decision,” he stressed. He noted that the decision was implemented from January 1. “All of that was discussed with the region since in October or November,” the CEO said.
According to Flatts, the Regional Executive Officer, Kim Stephens, along with the regional engineer and other personnel officers were present for the consultation. “We didn’t decide who should be there for the region. That was up to the REO to decide whoever she thought was necessary,” he said.
Additionally, he noted, that no one made any major objection to such a decision. He added that “when Cabinet makes a decision, even if you have your own opinion, that’s a Cabinet decision, you just carry out Cabinet decision, at least that’s how I see it.”
Flatts was also questioned on whether the NDIA had started to tender for projects. “Well, we are held up because if they are resisting it, it’s not a case where NDIA is looking for work because they have the money to do the work. We have written and asked for money and (they) haven’t released the money as yet. I am not going to go out for tender and they have the money. If people tender, how are they going to get pay? The region has the money. As soon as they release the money in accordance with the request that I made, then I will be able to do what we have to do,” he said.
Flatts further explained that if the region does not release the money, then Cabinet will have to decide the next move.
He also confirmed that the NDIA is expected to take over the region’s drainage and irrigation staff in about a year’s time. “All of that was discussed in the meeting. It will take another year before we take over staff because these people have union and so all of that could not be discussed in one meeting,” he said.
Meanwhile, an upset Regional Vice Chairman, Denis Deroop, pointed out there had been no change in the national budget with regards to the issue. “If this was a decision taken last year, why did they not make it adjustable that the money would be budgeted under Ministry of Agriculture and reduce the appropriation under the regional budget, so there is a lot of unanswered questions here,” he said.
Deroop, who is the chairman of the region’s works committee said that the projects under the region’s drainage and irrigation budget were not selected by the Ministry of Agriculture but rather by the RDC after consultations with the residents of Region Six.
As such, he said, to hand over the projects to the NDIA would be an injustice to the council as well as the residents, since, according to him, the NDIA is known to be lackadaisical when executing projects. “Let us talk about the project NDIA is executing in the region and then we could judge by the regional projects and the NDIA projects,” he said. “These funds will not be expended in a proper way,” he claimed.
According to Deroop, the current budget covers not only the maintenance of canals but includes many other project. “If they take the money with the intention of maintaining canals, what will happen to the numerous other drainage and irrigation structure in the region,” he questioned. He added that the budget also caters for unforeseen drainage and irrigation issues. “So if we don’t have any funds, we will have to run around with a begging basket when these things come up,” he said.
Additionally, Deroop pointed out, staff falling under the Public Service Ministry cannot just be moved over to the NDIA.
Deroop further opined that the NDIA is the most “incompetent agency in this country.” He highlighted that three outfalls under the NDIA within Region Six are contracted to be excavated three times a year. However, he alleged, the Number 43 – Joppa Outfall was not cleared even once last year and the region had to fuel and run the drainage pump at that location for three months every day for 24 hours to solve the drainage problem in the Black Bush Polder area. He said that to date, the outfall cannot be excavated but “I’m sure if you check the finance, the money is probably paid in full to the contractor.”
Stabroek News was reliably informed that the NDIA presently has one engineer stationed in Region Six.
Deroop further touched on transparency and accountability, which he said the NDIA lacked. “All the projects they executed in this region, we never see a copy of the contract, we don’t know how the money is being spent,” he said. The vice-chairman argued that based on history, the region “cannot and should not” transfer the drainage and irrigation budget to NDIA. He stressed that when the NDIA fails to carry out projects, the residents will then fault the region.
“We will not be bullied in this region. As vice-chairman of this region, I will not be bullied and I’m sure my colleagues will not be bullied and if we have to go down the road to move to the court to block the entire budget, we will block it to six months,” he said.
AFC regional councillor, Gobin Harbhajan, who also spoke on the issue at the meeting, pointed out that the decision had been in the making and noted that he contacted Flatts who told him that a consultation was held with REO Stephens.
According to Harbhajan, he also spoke with Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder who told him that a committee comprised of himself (Holder), the Minister of Public Infrastructure and the Minister of Communities, “… and two proposals come up from that committee; one, give the NDIA system entire to the region or to put it at central government to NDIA. With that two proposal, Cabinet take the one to give drainage and irrigation system to NDIA.”
Harbhajan argued that the council should have been informed that consultations were being done with the region.
APNU regional councillor Samuel Fraser stated that before the council decides on the next move, they should seek some clarification as to why such a decision was taken.
PPP/C councillor, Zamal Hussain, yesterday said that he believes such a decision is a hijacking of the drainage budget and there should be respect for an elected council.