In spite of the coalition leaders’ promise to keep the sugar industry alive, adopting the “sugar is too big to fail” mantra, the steps they have taken so far seem intended to dismantle this vital industry, which is the mainstay of entire communities.
Today, along with entire estates, the livelihood of sugar workers and the survival of thousands of families are on the chopping block.
During the tenure of the previous Government, despite the challenges facing the survival of the industry, sugar workers’ pay packets were assured, as were their incentive bonuses, no matter how small. Also, their retirement benefits were cast in stone.
The People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Administration was determined to sustain the industry, and it strove with a multiplicity of interventions to make sugar production viable again.
At the commissioning of the packaging facility at Enmore in May of 2011, then President BharratJagdeo, addressing Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) management and staff, and workers in the industry’s ancillary services, reiterated his pledge that the PPP/C government would always provide sustained support to “…an industry in which you work, an industry that provides a living for thousands of people, an industry that contributes to our national economy in innumerable ways; in fact, 16 per cent of our [Gross Domestic Product] GDP comes directly from this industry”.
One can draw parallels to indicate the quantum of this amount and its importance to the national economy. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the financial sector contributes just five per cent to that country’s GDP, yet, when there is turmoil in that industry, it threatens to create decades of stagnation in that economy and economies related to it.
“So the sugar industry is vital for Guyana, not just for sugar workers, but there are some realities to this industry, and the path to success will not be easy…but we have to succeed…there is no other choice,” Jagdeo warned.
As he reminded his audience, “We have kept the sugar industry alive in Guyana when sugar industries right across the world – including in the Caribbean – are failing.”
In the waning years of the millennium, several Caribbean islands scrapped their sugar industries in the wake of difficulties faced as a consequence of the European Union (EU) price cuts several years prior. As a result of these unilateral price cuts, Guyana’s sugar prices were 36 per cent less than they were five years prior, which resulted in approximately G$9 billion (US$45 million) in lost or reduced revenue every year. Detractors had a field day, increasingly, pessimistically prognosticating doom-and-gloom scenarios and advocating relinquishing the sector because they envisaged the problems and challenges in the sugar industry as being insurmountable.
However, the then President adamantly assured the stakeholders of the industry that working together Government, workers, and management could make the industry once again successful, despite the very difficult environment – apart from the price cuts. He cited as one of the major challenges facing the industry, the high level of volatility and erratic weather patterns due to global warming. Since then, turnaround plan after turnaround plan has been tried with limited success and billions in subsidies. Some argue that the industry is a drain on the economy and should be rationalised.
Others believe that the naysayers and doom-and-gloom prophets are fulfilling their own prognostications of the imminent closure of the sugar sector, and are relishing sounding the death knell of the survival systems of entire communities, because their perception is that sugar is a PPP/C enclave and destroying the sector would be dismantling the support base of the PPP/C, disregarding the fact that their own supporters are also being affected.
With a national discourse hopefully opening up on constitutional reform in Guyana, against a background of accusations of subversion of our Judiciary for political ends by the Executive, the mechanism of “separation of powers” needs to be relooked at in general, and in reference to the Judiciary, in particular.
While the doctrine was first enunciated in the middle of the 18th Century by the Frenchman Montesquieu, it was given life in the first written Constitution of a nation – that of the 13 colonies that rebelled against the tyranny of British rule and established the United States of America. The gist of the concept is simple but profound in its implications. Since the powers of the Leviathan state can be abused when it is controlled by one person or a group, Montesquieu proposed that power could be functionally divided among Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of the government. This allocation of powers would be described in the Constitution – the supreme law of the land.
The Executive would be responsible for running the government, the Legislature to enact laws and the Judiciary to ensure those laws are not transgressed by the citizenry and the Constitution not violated by the other two co-equal branches. Because “men are not angels”, in the words of one of the framers of the American Constitution, incumbents always try to increase their powers especially where the lines between the branches of government are not watertight.
For instance, since the Judiciary is the arbiter of the Constitution and, therefore, the guardians of the boundaries of power in the other two branches, citizens have to be very vigilant to ensure that neither of those branches hobble or control the Judiciary when they exercise their power of judicial review. It is for this purpose that, for instance, the salaries of the Judiciary must be independent of Executive control: even judicial mouths may be muzzled by the hands that feed them.
Another way in which the Executive may try to influence judicial decisions is by ensuring the Bench is packed with individuals who they are comfortable with. To lessen this eventuality, in Guyana, Judges are supposed to be nominated by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and then appointed by the President. If, however, the President has some concerns about the nominees, he can return the list to the JSC for reconsideration, but if it returns the list, the President has to either approve the nominees or sit on the list. In the latter case, as is presently the case in Guyana, a crisis can develop in the Judiciary since their ranks can become decimated to such an extent that justice cannot be served in the courts.
In the case of the top two judicial officers – the Chancellor and the Chief Justice, there has to be agreement between the President and the Opposition Leader. If, however, there is no such agreement – as has been the case in Guyana for more than a decade – the President can make “acting appointments” of persons who satisfy his inclinations or criteria. This situation is not very healthy for the Judiciary since citizens may see the incumbents as being compromised because their position is totally dependent on the President.
Another tack has been a growing tendency for the Executive to create administrative tribunals that are courts in all but name – but do not answer to judicial authority excepting in some instances where judicial review may be available. Even though there are several devices to strengthen independence of tribunals, in reality, the latter is rarely achieved.
Another challenge is raised when a legislature, as in Guyana, is a creature of the Executive since the party controlling the two branches are the same. A strong and independent Judiciary is even more vital here. Such legislatures may also violate the separation of powers doctrine when they enact very narrowly crafted legislation that seeks to penalise specific groups of persons. It is with good reason these are dubbed “ad hominum” laws. SARU?
The most recent report released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after a visit here by a high-level team from that institution has once again vindicated the position of various stakeholders that the economy is in tatters and the coalition Government must act with haste if it were to lessen the impact its policy decisions, taken over the past months, would have on the masses.
The IMF, in its 2017 Concluding Statement detailing its findings on Guyana’s economic outlook, as part of its annual consultations under Article IV of the Articles of Agreement governing borrowing, noted that Guyana’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth was uneven, buoyed by the new gold mines, while the non-mining sector saw a contraction.
The economic indicators are not very promising, and experts are predicting that the situation will even get worse if the necessary corrective actions are not taken immediately. So far, we have seen very little effort by the Government to stimulate growth in the economy. Instead, it has chosen to increase the burden on major sectors with a slew of tax measures and other policies that constrict their potential for growth.
The IMF statement referred to above has confirmed that the Government slavishly followed the recommendations of the Caribbean Regional Technical Assistance Centre (CARTAC) on extending the Value Added Tax (VAT) regime to crucial sectors, without regard to the social impact on citizens. In fact, we are witnessing almost daily the implementation of certain policies that hurt businesses and increase hardship on the average citizen.
Additionally, in the last year, there have been no major announcements regarding Foreign Direct Investments in Guyana, or any major job creation initiatives. The IMF has projected real economic growth of 3.5 per cent driven by an increase in public investment and a recovery in rice production. However, as stated before, most of the major sectors are declining, including rice, which recently saw one of the major players closing its doors after being in operation for 25 years.
Additionally, the increased borrowing by the Government has been a major point of concern, particularly over the last few months. The IMF has said that the debt-to-GDP ratio is projected to reach 61 per cent of GDP by 2019 and has recommended fiscal adjustments. However, Government continues to “bank on oil money”, as local authorities have informed the IMF that once oil production starts, the debt-to-GDP ratio will decrease.
The IMF has also noted the recent “increase in exchange rate flexibility”; however, Government has failed to acknowledge that there is a problem and advance measures to address the issue.
Most importantly, on the issue of the impending closure of more sugar estates, the IMF has reiterated previous calls from various stakeholders for careful decisions to be made about the future of the industry. Considering the fact that no economic and social impact assessments were carried out, the Government is being accused of basing its decisions regarding the future of the industry purely on politics. In this regard, the IMF has warned the Government to be “mindful of the large social impact” and the need “to protect those affected” by the process of change in the industry. Everyone knows that no matter how the authorities try to spin the issue, the resulting impact on individuals and communities would be quite significant and, perhaps, it would take decades before they fully recover.
We had said before that the Government and GuySuCo’s management should have engaged in serious consultations with all stakeholders and do the necessary impact assessments before making such decisions. After all, this is people’s livelihoods that will be affected and they deserve to be fully engaged on what matters to them.
It could be recalled that in 2016, the IMF staff had urged the authorities to adopt a restructuring plan for the sector that will improve cost efficiency, productivity, and alternative revenue streams, drawing upon the reforms proposed by the Commission of Inquiry. At the time, the delegation had said that the scope and pace of reform should take into account social implications. This aspect was certainly ignored by the powers that be. We urge the Government to stop being in denial regarding the current crisis facing the country and rethink its policies in the interest of everyone.
In January of this year, the British Government claimed to have financed the return services of Dr Sam Sittlington to advise the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) in a five-week stint. The Unit had already been enmeshed in a swirling controversy brought about when an operative, engaged in a cloak and dagger surveillance operation, segued into a hot pursuit that ended tragically when the operative and his wife – who was not supposed to be there – perished.
More generally, a raft of organisations and individuals expressed grave concerns about “mission creep” of the organisation that had been established in 2014 on the recommendation of the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF). It was specifically designated as a Police unit operating under the authority of the Police Commissioner but with a close relationship with the Financial Intelligence Unity (FIU), established under the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) Act. In the surveillance and chase operation, the subjects were not even later accused of violating those laws.
More recently, SOCU was involved in a very highly publicised operation in which former President BharratJagdeo, six of his former Ministers and several other individuals who had purchased house lots at a new development at Sparendaam – dubbed “Pradoville 2” – were brought in to SOCU’s headquarters and arrested. The State-owned Chronicle blared in banner headlines, “Jagdeo hauled in” and several commentators saw the action as being politically motivated to embarrass and humiliate the Opposition Leader. Even President Granger was forced to concede the matter could have been handled more appropriately.
But his comment precipitated concerns as to who exactly was behind the political move. When questioned, the two Police top-brass admitted they had no prior knowledge of the operation. However, the week before, Public Security Minister KhemrajRamjattan had boasted that arrests of People’s Progressive Party (PPP) officials in the “Pradoville” matter were imminent. Concerns were raised then about the Minister becoming involved in operational matters of the Police Force, something he is statutorily forbidden to do.
But Sittlington, putatively an “advisor” to SOCU, was also getting involved in operational matters. After his five-week stint was completed, on February 22, at a press conference at the British High Commission he commented about the domestic reaction to SOCU’s operational role: “Recently in the press we have all seen SOCU being kicked about like a political football.”
However, and possibly because no one objected to his intervention into local politics, during the last SOCU operation of interrogating and arresting Jagdeo and other Pradoville house lots purchasers two weeks later on March 7, Sillington was still very visible with the SOCU team. No one up to today has explained whether his contract was extended and who was paying for his very high priced charges.
In fact, Sittlington was more than just “visible”; he now took an overtly operational role to “explain” to reporters the reason for the Police specific action that Granger later decried: “This is a Police investigation, this is not a PPP investigation. The Police dictate where they interview the suspects, not the individuals.” He also gave numbers of who were arrested and assured reporters there were more arrests pending. The British High Commissioner later denied Sillington was exceeding his remit but later was caught in an unsavoury exchange when he also claimed Sittlington had not been “celebrating” with Ramjattan on the night of the publicised arrests that Ramjattan had predicted. But Ramjattan has now confessed that indeed he was and contradicted the British High Commissioner.
This newspaper believes Sam Sittlington and his British paymaster’s role in the operations of the already controversial SOCU is unacceptable; especially in light of our troubled history with external interferences into our domestic affairs, we call upon the Government to investigate this role and its cover-up. We also call upon the entire international community – the UN, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Caribbean Community, the diplomatic community to condemn this interference in our national sovereignty.
The recent announcement by Government that more sugar estates will be closed has been described as a move which lacks transparency by economist Sasenarine Singh, who believes that the downfall of the sugar industry is as a result of the incompetence of decision-makers.
Last week, Minister of State, Joseph Harmon admitted that more estates would be shut down as Government moved to finalise its options with regard to the future of the sugar industry. “Well, there are proposals with respect to diversification; and in the diversification plan, there is a proposal to that effect,” the State Minister told reporters at the post-Cabinet press briefing.
However, Singh pointed out that the premise upon which such a decision was taken was “totally non-transparent” and lacked “a comprehensive understanding of the social impact on rural Guyana”.
The economist explained that if the intention was to reduce the drag on the fiscal performance of the economy, then the first thing any skilful policymaker would have done was conduct a full-blown Socioeconomic Impact Assessment (SIA) on different options available to Government.
“No one has priced in the loss of the sugar earnings on the national reserves. No one has priced in the social cost and drain on the social security system because of a trimmed [Guyana Sugar Corporation] GuySuCo operations. The focus all along should have been on cutting out the fat from the industry – the non-value added cost, not kill the goose all together to get rid of the fat,” he stated.
Singh added that if this move reflected the reality in the minds of the decision-makers in the Cabinet of Guyana, then Tuesday ,February 28, 2017, would be “a date which will live in infamy” in the Cooperative Republic, he said, paraphrasing Roosevelt.
Moreover, the economist believes that the treatment of the Skeldon Estate reveals the deficiency of proper management capabilities at the helm of GuySuCo.
He noted that the reason given for the recent abandonment of the first crop at Skeldon – that the co-generation plant was unsafe to operate was nothing but a lame excuse. He pointed out that the situation exposed a deep deficiency in the project planning and engineering skills in GuySuCo, laying the blame at the feet of co-Chief Executive Officer Errol Hanoman, whom Singh said should be fired forthwith for “gross negligence and incompetence”.
“Did the senior team at GuySuCo in 2016 not developed a project plan for Skeldon for the first crop? Did they not identify and inspect their assets at Skeldon (their pool of available technicians, their equipment, the field are scheduled for reaping during the first crop of 2017 and most importantly the factory)? From that assessment, any skilled executive will then clearly know what they can do and what they cannot do,” the economist posited.
He went on to question who would take responsibility for the losses in the field since some 4000 acres of mature cane was now left to dry in the field. This, he noted, is a permanent loss of some G$2 billion.
“So, you see these decisions cannot be made lightly, because they result in billions of dollars in opportunity losses, which then translate into socio-economic deprivation in the local area – the Upper Corentyne. So when the local businesses would have expected a bump in their financial transaction in the first half of the year, they must settle for a season of “beri-beri”. Who is going to feed, clothe and pay the mortgage for the sugar families of the upper Corentyne now?” he argued.
Nevertheless, when it comes to saving the Skeldon Estate, Singh is of the opinion that “boat done gone a falls”. He explained that back in May 2015, he was convinced without a shadow of doubt that the situation was recoverable, but this was not so anymore because of the high level of executive incompetence and bungled decision-making at the highest levels within GuySuCo for years now – not only under Hanoman but Raj Singh as well, who was ‘doubly worst’.
Moreover, the economist outlined that he was advised that the decision was made to sell the entire operations at Skeldon and that the son-in-law of a senior Government official was eligible for a finder’s fee of US$1 million if he could structure a deal for the Skeldon Estate with the co-generation plant.
“I was also reliably advised that as a precondition, investors want the balance sheet assigned to the Skeldon Estate to be stripped of the US$200 million debt that funded the factory. But anyone involved in any business acquisition will know that the valuation of a business is three-fold – the future cash flows, the expected rate of returns and the net asset value of the balance sheet. Everyone is focused on the fact that the factory is a mess, but no one is focusing on the intangible losses,” he posited.
According to Singh, if the debt for the factory is extricated from the deal, then the people of Guyana will get pennies on the dollar when this deal is done, with limited access to the future cash flows, most of which will be shipped out of the country for the investor, and the equity built up will all be owned by the investor.
To this end, the economist noted that it was imperative that deal or no deal, Skeldon should be formed into its own joint stock company and listed on the Guyana stock exchange. This way, he added, Government would be able to sell 75 per cent of the shares to private shareholders, not just the international investors, but to local companies such as Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL) or anyone else who can afford to buy the shares.
The Government has spent almost the entire first two years of its term to bring charges of one sort or another against the members of past PPP administrations and their associates. Towards this end they ordered a score of “forensic audits” into the operations of several agencies so as to identify specific transgressions for the said charges to be filed. They even assigned a Minister to coordinate this task. However, in several instances where there were even more pronounced calls for such audits – such as at City Hall or GECOM in the wake of well publicised revelations of financial improprieties, there were no audits ordered. And of course, no prosecutions.
But as the audits were completed and six handed over to the police for further investigations and possible criminal prosecutions, it became clear the government was honing in on transactions in what has been dubbed the “Pradoville II” housing development. The investigation into this project, which was conducted by the accounting firm of Ram & McRae, was purportedly part of a larger probe of the financial operations of the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CHPA).
And it also became clear that even though lots were allocated to former president Bharat Jagdeo, six Cabinet members and others such as Compton Bourne, former Head of the Caribbean Development Bank and UG Chancellor, the inquiry was honing in on Jagdeo, even though he is constitutionally immune from prosecutions for actions taken while he filled the office of the President of Guyana.
The gist of the allegations by the audit was that the allocation of the lots was not done in a transparent manner, the values of the lots were “grossly: undervalued, and that the procedures followed by the Housing Minister in making the allocations varied from the norm. But what made the inquiry into the Pradoville II scheme suspicious was its handing over to the Police “Special Organised Crime Unit” (SOCU). It would appear the police was assuming that the Pradoville II scheme was an undertaking of organised crime.
Over a year ago, there were widespread concerns about SOCU exceeding its mandate which was to investigate crimes emanating from the AML/CFT legislation, when it was involved in a high speed chase in which two persons perished. Reacting to these concerns, the Minister of Public Security introduced an amendment to the GPF’s Standing Order No. 62, which concretised the expansion of SOCU’s mandate.
The criminal activities outside of terrorism and money laundering which were outlined in the amendment were: participation in an organised criminal group and racketeering; trafficking in human beings and migrant smuggling; sexual exploitation, including the sexual exploitation of children; illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances; illicit arms and ammunition trafficking; corruption and bribery; fraud; counterfeiting and piracy of products; environmental crimes; murder; grievous bodily harm; kidnapping, illegal restraint and hostage taking; robbery or theft; smuggling; extortion; forgery; piracy; insider trading and market manipulation; tax evasion; and gold smuggling.
But there was no indication that it was authorised to investigate the “misfeasance” which the forensic audit claimed had been committed by the allotees of Pradoville II. And yet SOCU was given the job even though it was aided by a supposed British “expert” who was brought in. The suspicion that SOCU was a special unit to intimidate the PPP in general and Jagdeo in particular was brought out when SOCU claimed it was gathering evidence to lay charges. Experts asked at that point why were the Cabinet members and other individuals not being questioned. Today we have the answer: in very dramatic fashion they were arrested in a manner designed to make it a public spectacle and to humiliate them.
Another significant revelation was made when Asst Commissioner David Ramnarine, who is supposed to be overseeing SOCU, admitted he did not know the arrests were being made, even though last week Minister of Public Security revealed that arrests were imminent.
Why is SOCU still exceeding its mandate under political direction?
As the dispute continues as to whether or not there is actually a shortage of US currency available In Guyana, the Economist ran a very interesting article one week ago that reminds us of the critical role the American currency plays in anchoring the economy of the world, including ours. As the title, “Donald Trump and the dollar standard” suggests, the volatile United States (US) President may also affect the volatility of that standard and consequently the world’s economy.
Directly after World War II, when the World Bank and IMF were founded to coordinate the world economy, the US dollar, which was pegged to the price of gold, became the reserve currency, even as the US had to keep the requisite quantity of gold to “back” its currency. But in 1970, when the US, under pressure, unhitched the dollar from gold, countries increasingly began to keep their reserves in dollars – which are never kept in the banks of the individual countries, but in the US Federal and “correspondent” US banks. This is done as a hedge against volatility swings on the premise that with the US being the dominant economy in the world, it would be least affected by uncertainties.
Presently, almost US$10 trillion of debt is also denominated in dollars – rising exponentially from the US$1 trillion in 1980. The use of the dollar as a reserve currency and to denominate debt gives the US not only great power over the world’s economy, in that its fiscal and monetary policies ripple through almost every other economy, but also it can finance almost any amount of fiscal deficits since the paper it prints and calls “dollars” are automatically accepted for goods and services by the rest of the world. The latter, from this perspective, is financing America’s debts.
The Economist’s article offers a perspective on another topic that has surfaced recently in the ‘foreign currency shortage row’: exchange rate controls. At the time of the establishment of the Breton Woods financial institutions, about 40 per cent of countries had capital controls, but this grew to over 50 per cent by the 1980’s, which is remarkable when one considers that the number of countries had doubled through decolonisation in the same period. But from the 1980’s when the Washington Consensus insisted on liberalisation of financial markets, countries with capital controls plummeted down to about 12 per cent. This was accompanied by the comparable exponential increase of foreign reserves – especially denominated in United States Dollars – held by the “liberalised” economies. But in the last two years, there has been a mirror image increase in countries with exchange controls and decrease in the volume of foreign reserves. Guyana should take notice of this move to stabilise exchange rates via controls, rather than reserves.
The Economist highlighted that in light of Donald Trump’s declaration, his administration intends to “put America first”, especially in returning “production” to US shores. While on one hand some may feel that the US is getting a free ride to import foreign goods with the pieces of paper it prints, this – as we have seen – is not viewed kindly by domestic manufacturers and their work force. They point out that it is not “the US” that is gaining, but the one per cent.
It is feared that if Trump goes ahead with his promise to cut taxes and increase domestic spending massively, this may lead to inflation that would make the US reserves and dollar-denominated foreign debt less attractive and lead to an exodus that can threaten the entire global economy. Alternately, or in tandem, countries may decide to abandon the dollar as their hedge against volatility and impose tariffs and capital controls to perform that function as in the past. In either scenario, small countries like Guyana, which depend of global free trade, could be crushed.
Another more benign scenario could be the role of a reserve currency becoming shared by other currencies such as the Chinese Yuan. China had already declared it is willing to step in.
The University of Guyana (UG) announced that it will host its inaugural “Diaspora Engagement Conference” from July 23-28, 2017, under the theme ‘Dreaming Diaspora Engagement, Doing Diaspora Engagement’.
More specifically, it claims the Conference would provide the platform to develop a diaspora engagement strategy that would inform the work of the first “Caribbean Diaspora Engagement Centre” which will be launched during the conference.
But in that statement, there are several ambiguities that need to be clarified. While the conference claims to be an “inaugural” one, it followed several engagements initiated by the new Vice Chancellor (VC) Ivelaw Griffith that also invoked the ‘diaspora’ theme. One of these was a “Renaissance Weekend” last September in New York City, to which the VC flew up with a large delegation of 13 from UG to represent the “UG Renaissance” in order to “friend and fund raise”.
It would appear the idea of a “diaspora engagement” was already in the air since in the UG Magazine “Renaissance”, following the inaugural one, it was reported: “One of the bold objectives of this Renaissance project was to facilitate tangible Diaspora Support Engagement in four critical academic areas: Technology (Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering), Health Sciences (Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Dentistry, Optometry, Medical Technology), Natural Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics, Statistics), and Law.”
On the team’s return, the VC dubbed the trip to the diaspora a “success”, especially as it related to the above mentioned assistance and what it foreshadowed: “The Renaissance weekend in New York has set the stage for considerable financial, human capital and technical assistance to our university by providing structure to Guyanese and other nationals in the diaspora to support critical areas of need.” However, when the financial details were revealed, it turned out that while G$2,019,950 was secured through contributions from the diaspora, G$4,366,024 was spent on the expenses of the team. There were cries of protests from some staff, especially against the background of an increase in student fees and the presentation of UG’s largest budget ever – G$5.2 billion for financial year 2017, of which G$3.0 billion was earmarked for recurrent expenditure, versus G$2.2 billion for capital works.
The main reason for mentioning the previous expensive engagement to stimulate engagement with the diaspora is that the present “inaugural” Conference seems to have completely ignored the achievements mentioned above from the September 2016 engagement, since they relate to the core raison d’etre of UG. The attention of the VC appears to have expanded without consolidating the initial claimed gains: “the Conference will contribute to the development of diaspora policy and a framework to effectively attract direct diaspora investment and engage the diaspora in nation building.”
If the “success” of the first foray into “diaspora engagement” is anything to go by, one must be concerned about this expanded initiative with three components – an academic symposium, a business forum and community engagement.
This concern is heightened by the further ambiguity about exactly which “diaspora” the organisers have in mind, since the announcement speaks of establishing a “Caribbean Diaspora Engagement Centre”. The word “diaspora” means “to scatter about” and refers to people who leave their homeland and maintain some sort of identification with that homeland when they migrate, voluntarily or as in the paradigmatic Jewish instance, involuntarily to other lands.
The question that arises is whether UG and its VC are targeting the “Caribbean diaspora” or the “Guyanese diaspora”. If it is the former, is it the entire Caribbean diaspora as represented, say, by the nations of Caricom, or only the Anglophone Caribbean. And even if it is the latter, is it realistic to expect Jamaicans or Bajans to become part of a group intended to spur “engagement” in, for instance, the “community engagement” component of the Conference. This, the release claimed will, “focus on building relationships with key stakeholders, such as diaspora community leaders, governments and hometown associations.”
If we are not clear about our destination how will we ever get there?
As we wrote last year, March 10th will mark 100 years since Governor-General Hardinge of the Government of India issued an order ordering the cessation of shipments of Indentured Indians to Guyana, the West Indies and Fiji. And to mark this seminal event, commemorative events are being organised in each of these locales to allow the descendants of those immigrants to reflect upon their past from the perspective of their present, with an eye towards charting a course to their future.
In Guyana, most of the groups that work in the Indian-Guyanese community, culturally, socially, religiously, etc, have made a laudatory and successful attempt to coordinate the timings and locales of their events so that clashes are minimised. This will ensure that as many Guyanese as possible have the opportunity to participate by their presence. I do not want to pre-empt the official calendar of events that will be released soon save to say that March is practically booked for the entire month.
I can speak about one event I am involved with the youths of the Hindus for Selfless Service (HSS) who have chosen to host a mass event on the West Coast of Demerara on “INDIAN ABOLITION DAY 100: End of Indian Indentureship”. They are collaborating with the umbrella group, “Guyana Indian Immigration Abolition Association”, that is also sponsoring an Arts Exhibition and a Symposium. Rhyaan Shah is involved with this initiative.
The HSS/GIIAA group plan to utilise the “Mela” form of collective activity – “Mela” means “gathering” in Sanskrit – to bring together Guyanese on this special day. They will adapt their Mela, however, to their theme of “Examining the history of Indian Indentureship; confronting the challenges of the present to create a bright future”. The “Mela” or fair was a feature of 19th Century village India and was the site from where a large number of individuals were enticed by the “Arkatiyas” (“Recruiters”) to emigrate to become plantation labourers in so many countries. The group will be recreating the phenomenon by deploying actors as modern-day arkatiyas.
One of the survival mechanisms of the Indian immigrants was to exchange their right of a return passage to India for small plots of lands on which they planted rice. The land was invariably worth less than the return passage, but they accepted the exchange since they would have by then made the decision to remain in Guyana. This crop was first cultivated commercially at Plantation Edinburg on the West Coast of Demerara. The group plans to demonstrate the early method of rice cultivation where stalks of paddy were first cultivated in a small “biyari” and then transplanted laboriously by hand to the “rice beds”. Today, the rice industry – which includes the milling, packaging and shipping of rice – is the largest employer in Guyana and brings in huge amounts of foreign currency.
The Mela will also illustrate the harsh times into which the industry that brought the Indians to Guyana, sugar, has fallen. The closure of the factory at Leonora and Versailles was quite traumatic during the 1970s. But the sudden closure of Wales appears to be replicating the harsh conditions of life during indentureship and they hope to bring some youths from that Plantation to illustrate their plight in skits, song and dance. Special songs have been composed for the occasion.
They also intend to illustrate the other Indian contributions to Guyana, which in addition to saving the sugar industry and creating the rice industry can be seen in jewellery, foods, clothing, religion (Hinduism and Islam), sports, arts and crafts, music, business, entrepreneurship in forestry products, multi-culturalism, movies, etc. As far as possible, booths will be dedicated to these activities. It is interesting that CheddiJagan, who played a critical role in bringing Indians into modern politics, was born and died in March. He, along with other Indian leaders such as Jang Bahadur Sings, will be commemorated in one booth.
But the dark underside of Indian life in Guyana will also be illustrated: booths dealing with the social problems of Indian Guyanese – suicide and alcoholism – will distribute pamphlets and offer suggestions for institutionalised approaches. As they say, come one, come all on March 5th. Venue to be announced.
By Ravi Dev