Mr. Chand: Cde. Speaker and Members of the National Assembly, I take the opportunity to support the 2014 Budget presented to this National Assembly by the Hon. Minister of Finance, Dr Ashni Singh.
In this Budget 2014 presentation, the Minister has indeed covered a lot of ground regarding the country's economic state. The statistics provided, though they can be overwhelming, give us a better understanding and a clearer picture of where we are at this time. In several areas, we see real growth and I join in applauding such achievements.
Indeed, given the growth rate of last year, the size of the proposed Budget and its projections for the months ahead, the trend seems to be upbeat and positive. Budget 2014 indicates consistency. Given its thrust, focus and intention, in my general assessment, the Government is staying the course. The innovations it envisages fit into the course charted. With greater certainty, we can today say that we are more and more distancing ourselves from that time when our economic stagnation, hardship condition and a bleak future were aspects of life's realities. Hopefully, such experiences will remain in our past.
The Budget's theme –“A better Guyana for all Guyanese" grips interest. It implies for me, inclusivity. And, the words carefully chosen, I believe, should be emphasised and I urge, be our guide in our economic and other endeavours. When considered alongside last year's theme, we get a lofty political statement, one which is not only relevant, but also, which, in light of our current exceptional politics, deserve our adherence.
The Minister's speech informed us that the economic crisis that hit developed capitalist countries, since around 2008, may be receding. There are signs of an economic 'recovery'. While this should be taken as a positive development, given the global reach of that crisis and its attendant hardships, one cannot ignore the other manifestations of that crisis. We need to enquire for instances, whether the expected 'recovery' will restore homes to the millions of the homeless who are forced to live in night shelters, streets and tents. Or how soon will it provide employment with decent wages and give back dignity to the millions of jobless, the ranks of whom will increase this year, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Global Employment Trends 2014 Report. We should also be aware that the streets of many countries are still alive with mass demonstrations of working people and students who are struggling to shake off the austerity burdens placed on their backs by the ruling elites. A 'recovery' should no doubt impact such realities, but it seems that they will not soon or easily go way. Importantly, let us not fail to see the dangers and traps of countries that chose the path of neo-liberalism.
As we follow economic questions and how they are playing out on the international stage, we should be mindful of other issues that warrant our attention. Allow me, Cde. Speaker, to refer to one; this year marks 100 years since the First World War started. It was an imperialist war that brought in its wake, the slaughter of millions and untold destruction.
After this, there was the Second World War and now-a-days we see an aggravated world situation where a prolonged economic/financial crisis provides fodder for a pervasive war machine that is roaming and spreading conflicts in several regions of our planet. Will these military activities trigger off another world conflagration? The threat is there: we must work to avoid it. Otherwise, our dreams for "A better Guyana for all Guyanese" and a prosperous and productive future, can go up in flames.
The Budget, once again, puts much emphasis on the Social Sectors. We know that these sectors are linked to the quality of life we enjoy. Expenditure in these sectors is probably the clearest expression and our best indicator that the working people and poor have not been forgotten. The sum of $85.7 billion is allocated to these sectors. Given our development status, this is not a small amount. It demonstrates the Government's commitment to ease the hardships of our hard pressed people.
The housing sector continues to show progress. Thousands of Guyanese today have become home owners. It is an indicator of a rise in living standard and here the Guyana Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper: 2008-2012 states, when it is interestingly observed, that "more than three-quarters of the poor had their own dwellings in 2006 with adequate rooms for occupants and bathrooms.” The introduction of the Mortgage Interest Relief initiative last year, which supports the Commercial Banks and the New Building Society loan policies, makes home ownership no longer a luxury. It has been brought within the reach of the working man and woman. That worthy goal of the past, to house the nation, is today, increasingly being realised.
As with housing, similar strides have been made in the water sector. Over the year, much was accomplished in the installation, modernisation and rehabilitation of' this sector. In this respect, the Guyana Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper 2008-2012 states: “the significant progress made, especially in hinterland and rural coastal communities, has resulted in about 63% of the poor having access to potable water.” By 2006, some 91% of households in Guyana had access to safe drinking water, a significant increase, as against 50% in 1991, according to our Guyana Millennium Development Goals Report 2011.
The same positive trends can be seen in Education, Health and in regard to Pension. These are improvements and expansions that are on-going. Taken cumulatively, they have a major impact on poverty. Thus, in the 22 years of the PPP/Civic Administration, 39% of our population were taken out of poverty, according to the Guyana Millennium Development Goals’ Report 2011. With this Budget, I believe, there will be a further reduction in the level of poverty in our country.
With such noteworthy accomplishments, we cannot turn the Nelson's eye to the major role of the State, its institutions and the political leadership. In their hands are some of the biggest enterprises of the country and they managed them reasonably well and in the people's interest. Often, things are taken for granted and we fail to give the deserving recognition of the state, the importance and performance level of those who must ensure the various systems work. In this regard, we must be wary of those who would wish to make everything, including Health and Education, into commodities, whereby profit rather than people's welfare and well-being are being pursued.
Sugar - in the recent weeks and months, much attention has been paid to our nation's sugar industry. Such interest, I think, is not unexpected when the significance and enormity of the industry is taken into account. Certainly, the industry's performance in recent times has raised red flags and has caused many, especially the stakeholders, to become concerned. It has caused, at times, persons to call for the industry's closure and/or privatisation.
Lately, we have heard of suggestions that the industry should move away from sugar production and venture into other areas such as ethanol and aquaculture. I share the concerns, but do not agree with the solutions advanced. It is true that production has fallen and GuySuCo could not have met its 240,000 tonnes production target in 2013, especially when note is taken of its field and factories capacities and capabilities. But, I hold the view that the several factors responsible for this poor performance can be identified and ought to be addressed in a more purposeful way. The Budget Speech identified some of the steps to be taken at this time and I wish to emphasise the importance of appointing a new Board of Directors for GuySuCo in these challenging times.
I am optimistic that the industry's turnaround is within our possibilities. Such a feat has been done before. Recall that between the latter 80's and early 90's, average production dwindled to 154,740 tonnes between 1988 and 1991. However, between 2002 and 2004, sugar production average 320,000 tonnes of sugar, the gradual reversal beginning in 1992. This industry can do this again. I am certain.
At this time, we cannot fail to recall that the industry remains an important and intrinsic component of not just our economy, but of Guyana's social fabric. Its development and progress over the last three and a half centuries are largely responsible for thousands of slaves and indentured labourers being brought to our country. For their descendants, the industry has become their economic lifeline.
Today, we should not downplay the fact that even at this time the industry continues to serve our country in a multifaceted way, which the Minister reminds us of in his Budget Speech. In one way or another, tens of thousands of Guyanese depend on the industry's operations.
At this time and with so much at stake, it is incumbent upon us that we continue to actively support the industry. In passing let me recall the industry's direct support to our country through the extractive and onerous Sugar Levy, which saw millions of dollars being channelled to the Consolidated Fund. Its role in producing thousands of artisans from its Port Mourant Training Centre or the provision of land for housing, the Government has shown its supportive hand. I urge that we all do so too.
In so doing consideration should be given to the disbursements from the European Union (EU) Accompanying Measures Programme, which is intended essentially, to sustain and help the industry to become competitive and sustainable once again. For those who have a negative view of the industry's prospects, it is unfortunate. It is still a viable venture and good guidance and leadership can regain its rightful place in our nation's economy.
Region No. 3 –as a Member of Parliament representing Region No. 3, obviously, its many-sided activities are of special interest to me. Region No. 3, as we know, is rather extensive. It is the third most populated of our 10 regions. Two factors that are unhelpful for the administration and in carrying out our representational work, but it is a region where its citizens are enterprising. As a neighbour and with ease of access to our capital, the residents are a main contributor to Georgetown's many-sided activities.
The region, itself, is thriving. Workers, farmers, the self-employed and small family enterprises are the mainstay of its economic life, making their invaluable contribution to our overall growth and up keeping a vibrant economy.
Social and physical infrastructure works by the Government and the regional administration are, today, standard activities within the region. Over the years, such activities have served to change the environment and general looks of various villages, while, at the same time, enhancing our country’s well-being. The focus on infrastructure, in practical terms, means paved streets, excavation of canals, extension and equipping health outposts and hospitals to facilitate health services to reach more people, rehabilitation and construction of schools going side by side with expanding water services and distribution of house lots, more so, at La Parafaite Harmonie and Tuschen.
As with last year, this budget promised projects that will continue to see improvements in Region 3 and to usher in more changes. In the coming period, we look forward, eagerly, to the completion of the athletic track at Leonora, the construction of a new power plant at Vreed-en-Hoop and the beginning of works on the road from Vreed-en-Hoop to Parika. Hopefully, too, we may also see progress on the stated intention to build a new Demerara Harbour Bridge.
Looked at in totality, Region 3 is continuing to grow. Ups and downs, notwithstanding, in my region, progress is continuing.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member, you have five minutes within which to conclude.
Mr. Chand: Cde. Speaker, thank you.
You may recall in my last year's intervention on the budget that I raised the call for a national minimum wage to be implemented. Since this progressive measure was introduced in our country, I wish to express appreciation at the introduction of a national minimum wage. For those employers who may be reluctant to implement it, I now take the opportunity to urge the Minister of Labour that, with the set up mechanisms, systemic and legal, his Ministry must ensure full enforcement.
Tax reform, at this time, I feel, constrained to express disappointment that the income tax threshold has not been further adjusted. Moreover, I am also disappointed to learn that the tax reform, alluded to, two years ago, has not been realised. I urge the Minister to intervene here and by the time of the next budget the long awaited reform will see the light of day.
In conclusion, in his speech, the Minister of Finance called attention to a couple of historic accomplishments. Allow me to add another, Comrade Speaker. This is, I believe, the eighth budget presentation of the Minister. For the PPP/C’s administration, he is the longest serving Finance Minister, a signal accomplishment. It is notable also, for yet another reason, that he has held on to that post when it is generally believed that Ministers of Finance have a short life span in governments. I congratulate him.
Apart from the recognition of personal accomplishments, sparkling as those maybe, our history can also be enduringly served by heeding other calls - the calls for integrity, for national unity, for social progress, among other just causes. This I say, let us face the challenges ahead and thus cause a brighter future for all Guyanese.
Thank you. [Applause]