April 17, 2014

NGSA 2014

Yesterday, 15,000 plus 11- and 12-year-old children began that Guyanese rite of passage called the National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA), which will end today. It used to be called the “Common Entrance” – originating, like most of our educational precepts, from England – in 1903 as a mechanism to filter some from the lower classes into the elite “Public” School system. In typical British inverse snobbism, these were actually private schools: represented in Guyana by Queen’s College and Bishops’ High School.

The exam was actually introduced into then British Guiana in the 1950s: before that students such as Cheddi Jagan (1935-1938) had to pay for their tuition at Queen’s. The curriculum and teaching methodology were openly elitist and the rest of the secondary schools were in a decidedly inferior position as far as the allocation of resources was concerned.

Not surprisingly practically all “Guyana Scholars” originated from Queen’s College and later Bishops’. The other high schools were considered suitable for producing haulers of water and the hewers of wood.

The English abandoned the Common Entrance in 2003 and we, in full independent, post-colonial mode, followed suit. Thirty-seven years after independence, we were informed by our Ministry of Education that we were going to level out the disparities between the “elite schools”, all in Georgetown, and the others, primarily rural secondary schools.

We did not need an “examination” or “test” to separate the chaff from the wheat, so to speak, to ensure that the wheat ended up only in the Georgetown schools.

In fact, in a revolutionary statement, it was contended that the unnecessary “test” was too traumatic an imposition placed on the students and might have been part of the old British elitist strategy. The “test” would have rewarded those who were more attuned to the mores and manners of the middle class.

Henceforth, we would now have an “assessment” and, in point of fact, three “assessments”. In addition to the one that would replace the “Common Entrance”, there were now going to be one at the end of Grade Two and another at the end of Grade Four.

But today, a full decade later, there has obviously been a slip between the cup (of education delivery) and the lip of the eager, budding high school aspirants. There is probably not a single member of the 15,000 plus cohort writing the NGSA today, who doesn’t believe he or she is vying for spots at the “premier schools” in Georgetown.

The Ministry of Education, in the person of the Chief Education Officer with a letter to the press, would persuade us that the recent topping at the CSEC exams two years in a row by two Essequibo schools means that we have now reached parity in the delivery of the curriculum across all the secondary schools in the country. But as the old colonial adage reminds us: “one swallow does not make a summer”.

What the Essequibo experience does teach is that parity is possible, but the Ministry must have a programme in place and, more importantly, must ensure that the programme is executed so that the goal of parity becomes a reality. The experience of the parallel-tracked “assessment” innovation is instructive.

It was stated that the “pressure” would be off the young charges in the Ministry’s care. But the pressure has only tripled, since the final score achieved from the summation of the individual scores still determine entry to the “premier” schools.

The “assessments” were also supposed to guide teachers in the classes or schools into which the students would have graduated, as to their strengths and weaknesses, that would then be considered in the pedagogical regime. As we have pointed out repeatedly, this has never occurred.

But we wish the NGSA students well in their endeavours, even as we know that the “bottom” 95 per cent will have to, by and large, fend for themselves.

Sexual offences

Four years ago, when a young, fresh Human Services Minister, Priya Manickchand declared war on sexual violence here, with accompanying legislative measures and a campaign dubbed, “Stamp it Out”, many breathed a collective sigh of relief that at last something was being done to arrest this scourge.

Many years hence, not much has been heard of “Stamp it Out” and the much-touted legislation, to which then President Bharrat Jagdeo assented to drive home his administration’s tough stance against sexual violence.

However, what we often have now is a situation where the victims of sexual violence do not feel anyway better off than they were prior to 2010. To compound the problem, last week the Attorney General Anil Nandlall disclosed that not a single person was convicted since 2011 of a sexual offence although, that during that period there were 22 cases that were prosecuted.

Giving the statistics as he addressed the National Assembly during the budget debate, Nandlall said in 2011, 16 sexual offence cases were completed. There were three guilty pleas, three cases were nolle prosequi because the Virtual Complainant (VC) decided to abandon the prosecution, and there were seven not guilty verdicts by the jury among that number.

However, in 2012, 10 sexual offences cases were completed. In two cases, there was a formal verdict of not guilty because the VC did not attend court to testify; eight cases went to trial, and in all eight cases, the jury returned a not guilty verdict.

For 2013, 12 sexual offence cases were completed, for eight of which the VCs went to court and indicated that they were not willing to proceed with the trials. In one case, the VC could not be located, while three cases went to trial. In one of the three cases, there was a unanimous not guilty verdict and in the remaining two cases, there were hung juries.

This shambolic performance from both the police and judiciary is indeed a case for lamentation, but it is not going to be fixed by just overhauling the jury system as suggested. What is required is more robust and effective enforcement of the sexual offences legislation, proper training of police officers to understand how to investigate these crimes and the full operationalisation of the National Action Task Force responsible for the Sexual Offences Act.

Since the passage of the sexual offences legislation in 2010, the task force was established to ensure that the requisite facilities and standards are in place at support organisations, but the body has never met and members of the public continue to complain about the lack of proper care, treatment and handling of their case by police, social workers, and even the judiciary.

There are specific requirements about what is supposed to be happening. Some of these stipulations include that the police must not hold confrontations between victims and perpetrators under any circumstances as was previously practised as a means of verification of the victim’s claims.

There was also expected to be continuous training for members of the justice system, including the prosecutors, health workers, magistracy and administrative staff. While there have been a few training courses here and there, we are yet to see any concerted effort to train our police officers in dealing with this type of crime.

Besides, given the increased scrutiny being placed on the police in their investigation of sexual offences, there might be a level of timidity in their approach to this crime which has undoubtedly resulted in the type of weak cases that cannot stand up to strong examination. The police continue to treat sexual offences as some kind of ‘hidden’ crime hence there is no periodic update on the number of rapes appearing on its regular crime statistics bulletin.

We suggest that a better approach would be to publish these statistics and arouse the collective outrage of the citizenry against this scourge. Perhaps this might be what is required to stop the rape.

Global value chains and the Caribbean

One of the buzz-words thrown up by the new levels of “globalisation” achieved over the last four decades has been the notion of “Global Value Chains” (GVCs).

From the beginning of trade between countries, value would have been added to goods at various points on the trade route and wealth generated distributed between the source and the consumer. But just as certain was the impetus to ensure that this “intermediate” wealth spun off was kept at a minimum.

But in the present dispensation, it is proposed that with rational allocation of the steps necessary to produce a particular good, it might be of benefit for even the source and ultimate vendor to utilise intermediate points to add value to the product. The argument is usually stated thusly:

“There would be an increase in productivity due to efficiency improvement as a result of international competition, better access to technology and new knowledge, and greater room for specialisation and economies of scale. Participation in value chains could further increase productivity since it would facilitate access to cheaper or higher quality intermediate inputs. GVCs would also work as a path for developing countries to access international markets of goods and services by focusing on certain activities and processes rather than by establishing a complete value chain.”

This process, it is argued, is already well underway as pointed out by the former head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Pascal Lamy:

“Almost 60 per cent of trade in goods is now in intermediates, that is, goods used as inputs in the production process. An important consequence of the integration of production networks is that imports matter as much as exports when it comes to contributing to job creation and to economic growth. In 1990, the import content of exports was 20 per cent; in 2010, it was 40 per cent, and it is expected to be around 60 per cent in 2030.”

With those premises, the pitch for free trade becomes inevitable:

“This is why enacting ‘protectionist’ measures in the modern world to protect jobs – such as raising import barriers – can have an inverse reaction in economies that are increasingly reliant on imports to complete their exports.”

As just as inevitably, there have been several high-level conferences and summits to persuade governments in Latin America and the Caribbean that it is their interest to get into GVCs. In fact, some initiatives have proceeded beyond the talking stage and, for example, the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) signed between the European Union and the Caribbean can be seen as a mechanism to facilitate a GVC nexus between the two signatories.

But it was pointed out in a recent paper, “Global Value Chains and Development Policies: Setting the Limits of Liberal Views on Integration into the Global Economy”, that the GVC argument is based on some possibly flawed premises.

First off, there is the assumption that if the tariffs are reduced on imported inputs, there will be a reduction of exports – and as such, domestic incomes. This is not necessarily so, since the productive structures in developing areas like the Caribbean are not on par with those of the developed countries that are also in the GVCs.

There is also the assumption that there is a high elasticity of exports that will respond to price changes. But this is not necessarily so especially when one is dealing with primary products, such as rice and forestry products.

More to the point, as President Jagdeo pointed out after Carl Greenidge and his team on the Regional Negotiating Machinery signed the EPA with Europe, the substitution of local suppliers with foreign providers from more developed countries almost always leads to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employment contraction.

Finally, the authors suggest, even if a country wants to exploit GVCs, and must import intermediate inputs, ultimately it must seek to manufacture those goods. And this implies Government intervention through an industrial policy and even protectionism, as per the infant industry argument.

Rwanda: 20 years on

Last week marked 20 years since the genocide took place in Rwanda, still considered one of the most horrifying and defining moments in post-Cold War history. On April 6, 1994, Hutus began slaughtering Tutsis, resulting in over 800,000 persons, mostly Tutsis and Hutu sympathisers, being killed over a period of 100 days.

The Rwandan violence was not just wartime violence; it was a directed, premeditated attempt to eliminate an entire people, and from all indications, there was evidence of this months before which the international community could have acted upon.

The story behind the Rwandan genocide has its genesis since colonialism. It is well-known that the split between the Hutus and Tutsis were not as a result of the religious or cultural differences; but economic ones.

Hutus, who happened to be the majority, were people who farmed crops, while Tutsis were involved in rearing cattle. Because cattle were more valuable than crops, the minority Tutsis became the elite. These class divisions were seen as ethnic designations.

Since the Hutus were the majority, they easily won the elections in 1961, and the regime that followed was staunchly Hutu nationalist. There was a great deal of fear and hatred long before the actual genocide took place. Intermittent violence between these two groups became a feature of post-independent Rwanda.

The day after the genocide began, the Tutsi rebel group Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by the current President Paul Kagame, launched an offensive aimed at toppling the Hutu-led Government. In about 100 days, the RPF defeated the Government forces and took control of the country.

The massacres in Rwanda constituted genocide, and the world should have acted accordingly to end the killings and restore order in that country. The international community stood idly by and just watched as thousands of persons were being slaughtered.

Bill Clinton, U.S. President at the time, apologised years later for American inaction. In a speech recently, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reiterated the United Nations’ remorse that its peacekeepers had failed to stop the genocide.

Where is the country today in economic performance and how far has it has come in healing and forgiveness. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Rwanda is now a thriving nation. In 2000, the Government introduced its Vision 2020, which seeks to transform the country from a low-income agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based, service economy by 2020.

Between 2001 and 2012, the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by an average of eight per cent per year. Rwanda has made impressive progress in the area of human development. Poverty rates have plummeted by nearly 12 per cent, as a million children, men, and women were raised out of poverty since 2008.

There are several efforts being made to bring about healing and reconciliation among citizens. The Rwandan Government, in particular, had set about changing the narrative of Hutu and Tutsi enmity and they used a variety of means to do so.

Village-level meetings were promoted to discuss what had happened – how things were before they were incited to hatred, school clubs were formed to carry out massive public education work aimed at unification, and traditional village courts were reinstituted, oriented toward deep community engagement in restorative justice approaches rather than seeking more punitive and vengeful approaches.

A National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, which stimulated a broad range of activities to support a new narrative of unity for the country, was established. Today, a majority of the population identify first as Rwandans before they even consider whether they have another identity such as Hutu or Tutsi.

In spite of those positive developments, it is hard to imagine that the society in Rwanda is not a deeply damaged one. Even though it is more than two decades since that horrific tragedy took place, the scars are still fresh and the fear as to whether an event as tragic as this one could occur again still lingers.

The Constitution and the Budget

The acceptance in modern jurisprudence of the doctrine of “Judicial Review” –  that it is the bailiwick of the Judicial branch to determine whether the Executive or Legislative Branches are acting outside the ambit of the Constitution, the “supreme law of the land” – goes back to an interesting case of the U.S. Supreme Court, early in that nation’s history. It is interesting in view of what transpired in our Parliament during the budget debate.

Without going into a catalogue of the convoluted series of incidents in the 1803 case (Marbury vs Madison), the bottom line is that in ruling that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction in the original matter, and ruling for the Executive (which was manoeuvred into accepting the decision),  Chief Justice John Marshall won out on the larger issue that courts were the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution.

In allowing the Executive to win a battle, Marshall won the war for the Judiciary. The case has rightly been called the most important one in the history of the American Republic.

In our country, unlike in England where the Legislature (Parliament) is supreme, our state followed the American pattern of Constitutional Supremacy and Judicial Review. We have our own precedence for this state of affairs. The Burnham Government in the late 1970s decided that they would unilaterally rescind a pay raise to clerical workers of GuySuCo. The Government was taken to court by a time-keeper Teemal, but lost the case (GuySuCo vs Teemal) and appealed.

Before the Appeal Court, counsel for the Executive argued that “Cabinet’s decision was paramount”. The court, in the person of Justice Luckhoo, ruled that he “was unaware of any such proposition as a matter of law, as no authority had been cited to support such a novel proposition”.

And in language that should be harkened to by all Guyanese today, he noted: “Lest we lose sight of our country’s jurisprudence…let me state once more that it is the Constitution that is paramount and which is the supreme law of the land.”

Even Burnham did not dispute that ruling. But of course, being Burnham, he resorted to his illegally rigged two-thirds controlled Parliament to alter the Constitution to have his way to squeeze sugar workers. Burnham did always maintain that there were many ways to kill a cat. And we arrive at the farce that is playing out in Parliament in this latest of three budget debates where the Opposition controls the Parliament though a one-seat majority and insists that it can act outside of the Constitution as interpreted by the Judiciary.

The acting Chief Justice has ruled that according to the Constitution, which delineates the distribution of state power between the arms of Government, the Legislature cannot cut the budget of the Executive. Implicitly accepting the jurisdiction of the court to make this decision, because it has appealed the decision, the Opposition yet again chose to cut the budget.

In committing this illegality, the courts in the normal order of things should now impose sanctions on the Opposition, if the matter is raised before it. We shall see if the Government will take the matter to the courts.

But in the meantime there was the interesting sideshow of the Speaker, nominated by the Opposition, and a party to the acting Chief Justice’s original ruling and the Opposition’s subsequent appeal. Speaker Raphael Trotman proposed that a “tri-partisan” sub-committee be formed to negotiate budget estimates opposed by the Opposition. This would have undermined the rule of law that rests on the supremacy of the Constitution and its interpretation by the courts.

If the Executive had gone along to have its budget passed, like Marshall, Trotman would have allowed them to win that battle, but won the war for the Opposition that Parliament was above the Constitution. Guyana can breathe that the Government drew back.

Stemming the ‘rum culture’

During the 2014 budget debates, a Member of Parliament representing the A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) made a strong call for the authorities to take tougher action to stem the out-of-control ‘rum culture’ in Guyana.

We support this call considering the many social and other damaging effects excessive alcohol consumption has on both the individual and society at large. These negative effects – suicide, domestic violence, road accidents, serious health implications, broken homes and the list goes on – are well known to many. Hence, there is hardly any need to rehash them, except for the sake of emphasis.

According to The Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health which analyses available evidence on alcohol consumption, consequences and policy interventions at global, regional and national levels, nearly four per cent of all deaths are related to alcohol. Globally, 6.2 per cent of all male deaths are related to alcohol, compared to 1.1 per cent of female deaths. Also, globally 320,000 young people aged 15-29 years die annually from alcohol-related causes, resulting in nine per cent of all deaths in that age group.

In 2009, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) identified alcohol as Guyana’s number one drug problem and pointed to the fact that consumption rates by teenagers are rising and are contributing to a number of social problems we are currently facing.

Despite all its negative impacts on individuals and society, persons still engage in excessive alcohol consumption. Almost at every social event, persons are seen consuming alcohol, in some cases as if there is no tomorrow. If one were to take a walk around some of the villages in the evenings and on weekends especially, persons could be seen imbibing, some in rum shops or beer gardens or others openly at street corners.

Alcohol remains easily accessible in this country and even persons who are under the required age are allowed to purchase it. The uncaring rum shop owner in the interest of making a profit, would take the chance and sell alcohol to juveniles. This happens because the feeling is that very little or no action will be taken against the seller.

What is even more worrying is that in most cases, it is the parents or guardians themselves who send their children to purchase alcohol. Unfortunately, they are allowed to get away with this behaviour due to weak levels of enforcement of the law prohibiting such actions.

If the legislation which holds parents and guardians accountable for their children’s actions in relation to purchasing alcohol are adequately enforced, it will not only prevent parents from sending their children to purchase alcohol, but will also serve to protect the juveniles themselves.

Of note too is that there are countless numbers of rum shops in the country, many of them operating illegally. The authorities need to clamp down on those that are operating without licences, and if possible, the entire process as it relates to issuing these permits should be reviewed.

Guyana is assailed by reckless music that glorifies and trivialises rum drinking and its debilitating effects on the community. This, in our view, contributes in some way to the prevalence of the ‘rum culture’ referred to earlier. When one listens to the kind of music that is being played in the minibuses, at weddings, and even on the public airwaves, it is left to wonder what has our society become, and why are the authorities allowing standards to fall at such a rapid rate.

The issue of the stemming the ‘rum culture’ needs to be tackled from all fronts. Stakeholders, including the religious community, Government, political parties, NGO’s, community leaders and law enforcement need to work collaboratively to address the issue.

Putting legislation in place alone, even though very important, will not solve the problem. There is certainly need for a more holistic approach to the issue, especially as it relates to effective monitoring and stronger enforcement of the law.

Rule of Law and Parliament

There have been voices raised at the level of discord exhibited by our politicians in almost every sitting in Parliament – not least being during the present budget debate.

One would have thought that with all the rules crafted and traditions evolved during the centuries since 1236 to ensure the “parler” (event to have a discussion) was successful, it is obvious that we still have not acquired the knack to “parley”. Why is this so?

At the root is the refusal of the members of the Opposition to concede that Parliament worked in England and other areas because of the insistence that the rule of law and of the traditions that grew up around the operations of those rules must be upheld.

The rule of law insists that once the law is passed, it must apply to everyone, without fear or favour. But the Opposition insists that because they have a majority in the Assembly, they can run roughshod over the law. It is not surprising this has raised the hackles of the Executive.

Take for instance, the events following the last elections. According to the Constitution, which definitively established the rules for securing the Executive, the People’s Progressive Party/C (PPP/C) won decisively. They needed a plurality of seats – that is, the largest bloc of seats among the parties contesting the elections – and this they secured.

The rule of law declared that they were the legitimate and authoritative entity controlling the Executive Branch of Government.

But how did the Opposition react? They introduced a new term into the Guyanese lexicon: “minority government”. This was specifically intended to suggest that the Government was somehow illegitimate.

What was the point of contrasting the Government with their combined majority of seats in Parliament? By the rules and operation of the highest law of the land, encapsulated in the Constitution, that majority made them control the legislative process – not the Executive functions of the Government.

The traditions of Parliament demanded that if a government is re-elected, which the PPP/C was, the previous Speaker would be invited to return to his chair. This tradition was not only abrogated but the Opposition demanded – and secured through their one-seat majority –  the Speaker’s Chair and the Deputy’s. This arrangement of locking out a government from the running of Parliament is unprecedented in the annals of Parliament.

          In contrast to the Executive President creating a mechanism through the “Tripartite Talks Initiative” (TTI) for the parliamentary parties to amicably address their differences outside of the bully-pulpit of the Parliamentary floor, the Opposition abandoned any “parley” inside or outside of Parliament to take to the streets in violent protests against an initiative of the Government to have a more egalitarian policy controlling the electricity tariffs of the country.

Even the Commission of Inquiry to investigate the deaths caused by those protests castigated Opposition members of Parliament for callously breaking the laws of the country and encouraging ordinary citizens to do the same. Such behaviour has an inevitable cascading effect when it comes to the polarisation of the society and its decent into rancour and bitterness.

But the most damaging blow to any hope that the rule of law and tradition would rise to the fore was given right in Parliament. During the first two budget presentations, the Opposition had firstly insisted they must have a role in crafting the budget that is presented by the Executive and secondly, that they should be able to cut that budget as they see fit.

And in each instance, the courts, the arbiter of the Constitution, has ruled that this action was violative of the Constitution. But today, as “the cock crows for the third time”, the Speaker of the Assembly, an “interested” party in the courts’ ruling, is now declaring that he will disregard the courts.

Is this the end of the rule of law in Guyana? The Government must draw a line.

Death of reading II

We all know the gloomy statistics about our children’s language skills. Or lack thereof. The CSEC English A test scores over the past few years told us maybe even more than we wanted to know. And then came the Education Minister’s candid admission, during the ongoing budget debate, that even the tots in Nursery School were not picking up on their “ABCs”.

Much of the blame for the abysmal state of our language usage has been attributed to the gradual degradation of our literacy skills, to a point where the “death of reading” was widely heralded.

There have been frenzied attempts to reverse the trend, under the evident premise that either the news of “the death of reading” had been highly exaggerated or that reading might very well not be connected in a causal way to utility of language.

In our own education system there was an emergency measure to collect past CSEC English A papers and have teachers put in extra hours with the lagging language students. At the subsequent examination, the score improved marginally and there were hosannas sung for the “solution” of the problem.

That this was the ultimate demonstration of the much reviled “teaching to the test” technique, was elided. Desperate times probably called for desperate measures. It was noted, however, that the decline, terminal or otherwise, of reading was not only confined to Guyana, and as such that the causes might transcend our local particulars. Television was hauled out as the culprit.

Children were gazing at the “boob tube” for hours on end, when they could be curled up on a sofa with a good book. While the latter condition was a very idealised scenario, there was no question that the TV screen was proving to be more attractive than the pages of books.

The question as to whether the language skills could also be imparted via the television medium was raised on the theory that if “you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.”

Educational TV was introduced to many countries, including Guyana, but has not stemmed the tide of rising disdain for books or even literacy. It was observed that the television was creating a qualitative change in the disposition of individuals with regards to reading in addition to the loss of appetite for the medium of information transmission.

Individuals were becoming much more attuned to receiving their information in a visual form – and one that emphasised the early name for the medium – “moving pictures”.

But if the birth and spread of TV precipitated the “death of reading”; with the explosion of information and communication technology (ICT), we are witnessing a second passing of the avocation: Death of Reading II”, so to speak.

Studies demonstrate that individuals who have been heavily exposed to seeking information on the Internet, inevitably develop a proclivity for “skimming” texts; actively looking for preconceived information.

They do not delve into even the shortened information packages that are now dominating the genre: PDF files. When these individuals attempt to read traditional books, such as novels, even inveterate readers find it difficult, if not impossible to keep focused for long periods.

Skimming books have always been a feature of reading, but in the past it was a conscious choice to find specific information. Now even the anaemic world of “readers” is becoming dominated by skimmers who do not even know what they are skimming to find.

We must accept that books were just one method of transmitting information. Its dominance spread over centuries because it matched the pace of life.

In today’s frenetic world, there are new media for transmitting information and educators in Guyana will have to accept that “reading”, in its traditional sense of a serial importation of information, might just have died a natural death.

We might mourn its passing but we will have to get on with life and find substitutes.

Transportation problems

Very soon there could be a re-introduction of big buses to ease the transportation woes of the travelling public. Government has already begun having serious discussions with the relevant stakeholders and some action will be taken soon that would hopefully see the public transport sector moving from one that is unreliable, exploitative, and of very low standard to one that is efficient, professional and affordable.

Almost all of the Caricom countries have efficient, reliable and affordable public transport systems and it is time that the authorities here put systems in place where citizens would enjoy similar benefits.

Users of the privately-owned minibuses have been complaining bitterly of being exploited, especially during rush hours and late at nights. On an average day, hundreds of schoolchildren and workers are left stranded on the roads waiting for public transport to get to their various destinations. Their return journey is the same.

At the bus parks, hundreds of schoolchildren and workers wait for long hours on transportation to get home. Some of them are only allowed on the busses if they agree to pay the fare the conductor demands. And those who cannot afford to pay the exorbitant fares demanded by operators are often left on the bus parks until late hours.

Despite the fact that these passengers are already required to pay double and even triple the fare to get home, the buses are still packed with sometimes four and five persons in a three-person seat. And if that is not enough, no one dares object to this high level of lawlessness or else they face the risk of getting a tongue lashing or even being physically assaulted from the conductor.

What is even more unfortunate is that the disabled and the elderly are mostly the ones to feel the brunt of it as there is currently no special facility in place to cater for these persons. Senior citizens and persons who are considered differently able cannot and should not be allowed to endure this level of discomfort.

While the minibus operators are providing a much needed service to the travelling public in the absence of any well organised and properly-run public transport system, they enjoy a monopoly and are doing everything they can to get maximum profits from their operations. Added to this, operators invest very little in return to ensure that they provide a service that is above par.

Public Works Minister Robeson Benn had some time ago announced Government’s intention to reintroduce the big buses to ease the transportation woes of persons. Government had initiated a pilot project where several of the large buses were placed on the roads. During this exercise, commuters were required to pay the standard fare they would usually pay the privately-owned operators, regardless of the hour of the day or the night.

This arrangement had worked well throughout the pilot with public transportation users calling for the complete reintroduction of the system. Not only were commuters required to pay a fair price, but they were able to travel in peace and comfort without the level of harassment one would experience when using the privately-owned minibuses.

A possible option could be to introduce the medium size busses which can accommodate between 20 and 25 persons and put them to operate in a more structured and organised manner. The reasons for the medium size buses include parking, turning and stopping would not pose a problem, roads in their present form would be able to accommodate them easily, and they would not be expensive to run even when they do not get the full complement of passengers. This is still a valid suggestion which the authorities may want to give some serious consideration to.

It is hoped that the travelling public will not be made to endure the poor and highly unacceptable standards of public transportation for much longer. Guyanese should be given more choices.

Undermining Parliament

Parliament is one of the key institutions of our system of governance. Nowadays, people seem to have forgotten the distinction and difference between an “institution” and an “organisation” and maybe because of that lapse of collective memory, there is not a greater public outcry in the steady undermining of the institution of Parliament by the Opposition.

Even an elementary definition of “institution” such as provided by Wikipedia advises:

“An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community… Institutions are identified with a social purpose, transcending individuals and intentions by mediating the rules that govern living behaviour.” Institutions, then are characterised by the rules or regime that govern the behaviour of the organisation (people) or the larger collective, as the case may be, towards fulfilling a “social purpose”.

The rules, then, are larger than the individuals that occupy the institution for the moment and if those individuals desecrate those rules, they are destroying the institution’s capacity to achieve its social purpose. The “social purpose” of Parliament was to create an effective forum for the representatives of the country to deliberate on the affairs of the country to as to further the collective “good”.

The rules of Parliament were designed so as to facilitate that deliberation. For instance, Members of Parliament (MP’s) cannot be sued for slander for words uttered during debates. This rule obviously allows the MP’s to “speak their minds” without fear or favour.

On the other hand, there are also rules to ensure that the remarks by speakers do not get too “personal”, since this would lead to loss of objectivity as recipients of barbs seek to defend their “honour”.

But what we are witnessing unfolding in Parliament traduces the rules of Parliament and insidiously undermines them. What are the undisputed facts? Minister Manickchand spontaneously made a retort alluding to a point made by an Opposition speaker.

This falls under the rubric of “heckling”, which covered a wide list of insults, some of which were covered by the authoritative Erskine May: “pharisee, swine, jackass, hooligan, blackguard, cad, ruffian and insulting dog”.

Since the Opposition member was speaking of “rapists”, Minister Manickchand’s repartee, which in the judgment of the Speaker unacceptably maligned a sitting member, was ruled out of order and an apology was demanded by him.

However, the following day, when it was clarified that in point of fact the Minister was referring to the aggrieved Opposition member’s father, who was before the courts charged with statutory rape, the Speaker withdrew his gag order. And this is where we arrive at the Opposition stepping over the boundaries of civilised parliamentary behaviour and threatening our descent into anarchy.

After the ruling by the Speaker, the Minister attempted to deliver her comments on the budget but was prevented from doing so by the Opposition which precipitated a cacophony of noise by banging their desks. Rather than sanctioning the Opposition en bloc for denying the Minister her fundamental guaranteed right to speech in Parliament, the Speaker adjourned the body for the weekend.

We believe this was an error on the Speaker’s part, because just as he imposed a sanction when he thought the Minister had violated a convention, he should have done the same when the Opposition broke an even graver rule on Parliament’s “social purpose”.

Yesterday, the Opposition walked out of Parliament when the Minister made her speech. This is their right but we wish to inform the Speaker that he is on the edge of a slippery slope. Soon he will have to decide whether he will allow the Opposition to go against the ruling of the courts, which forbade them from imposing cuts on the budget.

This will not just undermine the institution of Parliament but the entire edifice of Government that has been empowered by the Constitution to steer our ship of state. He should thread carefully.