Appointment Of A Commission Of Inquiry To Investigate The Incidence Of Maritime And Riverine Incidents, Injuries And Deaths2310 25 Jul, 2013
APPOINTMENT OF A COMMISSION OF INQUIRY TO INVESTIGATE THE INCIDENCE OF MARITIME AND RIVERINE INCIDENTS, INJURIES AND DEATHS
Brigadier (Ret’d) Granger: I call on this honourable House to support the motion in my name, which calls for the “Appointment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the incidences of maritime and riverine incidents, injuries and deaths between 1999 and the present time. It is understandable that some Members of the Government have no interest in this matter, but we are interested in the preservation of the lives of our citizens. Many of the motions and questions that we ask concerned the human conditions. The falls are important; the airports are important, but most important are the lives of our citizens.
To paraphrase a famous book, Guyana’s Rivers are our Liquid History” - the liquid history of this nation - our three colonies, Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice, which were established by the Dutch over two centuries ago, were named after our rivers and after the year 1831 when the colonies were united and they became counties they preserved the names of the three rivers. Our rivers have been embedded in song and folklore and in legend. Those rivers mostly run from south to north emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Access to the hinterland, going in to the south of the country and in to the west of the country, is largely by those rivers. Access to the mineral wealth, the timber, the tourism of our hinterland, has largely been through those rivers. The rivers are the arteries of our nation, but things have changed. In composition, the rivers take more complex traffic. These days bauxite barges, pontoons carrying stones, sand and timber, fuel boats – some of them smuggling fuel – all jostle for space on our rivers, some legal and some illegal.
There has been a culture clash because our rivers are used mainly by our indigenous people, particularly in the hinterland, to go to school, to go the farms. In some places, such as the Pomeroon, there are no highways and there are no roads, hence the river is the highway, so there has been a clash of cultures as we are in the transition from the corial economy to a more commercial economy. This complexity requires regulation. Without regulations, there will be accidents and with accidents there will be deaths.
Our existing laws, as my colleagues the Hon. Joseph Harmon and Winston Felix will explain in greater detail when they rise, may be adequate if they are well enforced. The River Navigation Act Chapter 50:01, for example, had its origin over 100 years ago. It had its origin in the desire to protect human life; it had its origin in the desire to preserve the traditional indigenous rights to use those rivers and it had its origin in the need to promote the safe use of our rivers.
If we look at the colonial handbooks of 1922 we will see that emphasis was placed on an annual inspection of every single river boat. In other words, every boat had to have certificate of fitness. The dimensions of all of the craft were prescribed. In fact, five square feet were allocated for each passenger, and that was prescribed in law. The waterline had to be marked, the length, the circumference of the ropes had to be prescribed under the law. In fact, a hundred year ago our colonial reports were able to boast that of 955 boats leaving Bartica carrying a total of 38,200 passengers, only 16 persons perished.
We, in A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), feel that a Commission of Inquiry is necessary to determine precisely how many deaths have occurred in order to make recommendation to prevent further deaths from occurring. We have learnt from information provided by the Hon. Minister of Public Works that more than nine people die on average every year on our rivers. Some years, of course, the numbers are higher and some years they are lower, but we cannot afford to lose even one life because of lack of enforcement.
This Assembly is not satisfied that the Ministry of Public Works has the capability to prevent further unnecessary loss of innocent lives. This House is not satisfied with the certification and education and the regulation of some boat operators. My information is that some of the operators cannot even spell the word “boat” much less be qualified to be certified to operate those boats. This House is not satisfied that there is sufficient infrastructure to save lives and to prevent accidents. Further, this House is not satisfied that the Ministry of Public Works, as presently constituted, is capable of investigating accidents, of bringing offenders to the court and of providing adequate representation for the victims of those accidents. This is why this motion has been brought before the House.
We feel that a Commission of Inquiry is necessary because of the repetitive nature of fatal accidents on the rivers, because of the prevalence of lawlessness on our rivers and our coastal waters and because of the vulnerability of innocent commuters to those accidents. Therefore we call on this House to express concern over the continuing maritime and riverine accidents which have plagued our rivers, not only this year, but for more than one decade, and even beyond. We call on this House to express sympathy to the surviving victims, persons who have suffered injury, because of these accidents, and certainly to the families of those who have died. We call on this House to assert the responsibility of the State, in particular the Ministry of Public Works reassert the responsibility to protect our citizens.
We call on the President of our Republic to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to investigate maritime and riverine accidents over the last 13 years, a Commission of Inquiry to make recommendations for safe travel on this country’s historic waters, the waterways on which our indigenous people and so many people in our hinterland depend. We call on the President to establish a Commission of Inquiry so that the lives of our people could be protected from this lawlessness, from unnecessary injury, from discomfort and death. We call on the President to set up a Commission of Inquiry to help to protect our population.
I thank you. [Applause]
Brigadier (Ret’d) Granger (replying): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I would like to start by thanking my Colleagues for their insights and for their contribution: Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan, who, of the speakers here, probably has the longest experience in the National Assembly, brought some deep insights into this problem; My Colleagues, the Hon. Joseph Harmon and the Winston Felix, who have experience in other areas of public security and public safety. I also thank the Minister of Public Works himself, who, I think, accepts that the area of maritime security is a very engaging area. He accepts that we are in a period of transition from what he calls and what I call and what we all know to be the koreal economy to a more commercial, a more competitive, industrialised economy. The question is and the point of difference is the capability. I think my Colleagues, Mr. Joseph Harmon, Mr. Winston Felix and Mr. Ramjattan, pointed out that it is a question of the capability.
The purpose of this debate is not to attack the Ministry of Public Works; it is diagnostic. It is not to condemn; it is not to criticise; it is not to castigate. We would like to use our voting strength, on this side of the House, to make Guyana safer for all citizens. So you can depend on our sympathy; you can depend on our support when you come before us if we understand the reason for the non-fulfilment of some of the obligations of this Ministry, particularly in MARAD.
The fact is that, as you pointed out, the number of water taxis has increased, doubled as you say. The gold rush has attracted more people in the riverine areas, particularly in the Hinterland. People move about and many of these people are in collision with the Indigenous economy. People are still going to school with koreals. There have been changes and we accept that there have been changes in MARAD. We know that the Minister spends a lot of time in the Hinterland and on the waterways. But the changes, though necessary, are not sufficient and this is the point that all the speakers on this side of the House are making. The changes, though necessary, are not sufficient and we want to conduct further diagnostic measures so that we can find out how MARAD could be empowered to save lives and to make our waterways safer. I do not want to make a comparison with road deaths. That will come later when we have a higher degree of confidence in the field of public security. But right now our aim is to improve riverine safety; our aim is to cure ills; our aim is to discover the weaknesses in maritime and riverine security; our aim is to remedy the faults. And we would like to work together, through the shadow and through the substance, to ensure that we have a death free river network because people have to use the rivers.
When we spoke about the boat operators who are illiterate, we were not insulting. If you look back at the speeches of the deceased Dr. Dale Bisnauth, if you look back at the speeches of Dr. Henry Jeffery, we know there is a serious illiteracy problem in this country. What is the point of putting up signs if people cannot read the signs? I would ask the Minister, seriously, to conduct literacy tests among the boat operators. Can they read? Can they read instructions on the engines or on the safety equipment? If he is satisfied, well let us proceed from there. But I am not satisfied. There is an illiteracy problem in this country and I am sure he must be aware of it. It is not an insult; it is something we must remedy. We cannot have an administration which treats every recommendation for improvement as an insult or as an attack because we will never progress. So the point is, let us conduct our tests. If people cannot read instructions, they may need remedial education so that we know that if people can read the safety instructions, they can implement those instructions.
The people of this country want to be able to use the rivers in safety. They want to know that the boats in which they are travelling are insured so that in the event of injury or death, they can claim insurance for the injury or for the death of their loved ones. They want to know that if a boat is hit and they are left adrift that there is some search and rescue mechanism continuously, not episodically, that can go out and find them very quickly and can bring them into safety. They want to know that there are some riverine ambulances so that casualties can be evacuated and brought to a hospital as we have seen happened quite recently in the area of aviation, which we will come to at a subsequent sitting. They want to know that the operators of the boats are not drunk and are not reckless. They want to know that they do not have to carry their children or their loved ones bracing up against some parrot cage or some suitcase, that there is adequate space and no overcrowding. They want to know that there are river police patrolling the rivers, protecting them from predatory operators.
We have become too immune, too accustomed, to deaths in this country - deaths on the roads, deaths in the rivers, deaths from armed robberies. It is time for us, this Tenth Parliament, to tell the people of this country that we are concerned about their lives and about their livelihoods. That is why we have brought this motion. I call on this House to support this motion to call on the President to conduct a commission of inquiry into the incidence of riverine deaths in this country and to bring them to an end.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
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