April 16, 2012
Mr. Harmon: Thank you very much Mr. Speaker. It is with a sense of a great responsibility to the people of Guyana and to this Hon. House that I rise to make my first intervention in this budget debate.
Coming after my friend, the Hon. Minister of Education, whom I have had the privilege of working together with at the Guyana Bar Association, I must say that these hallowed Chambers probably do make persons a little more feisty, because I do not recall my learned friend this feisty a few years ago, but it is a good thing I believe.
Before my time starts to run, permit me first of all please to correct a little bit of misrepresentation which was made to this Hon. House by the Hon. Mr. Robert Persaud, the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, when he spoke on Thursday. The Hon. Minister said that Government had engaged the Opposition in the filling of certain appointments in the public sector, appointments to boards and commissions and that the Opposition had not responded. I wish to state that after an invitation was given to the Opposition by the Office of the President, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Lance Carberry and myself attended a meeting at the Office of the President on the 29th February, 2012. That was a day when the entire Office of the President was flooded. My learned friend, the Attorney General was at that meeting and so was His Excellency the President. At that meeting some preliminary exchanges on the President’s preferences for appointments to these boards and commissions were made. The Leader of the Opposition at that stage indicated to His Excellency and at that meeting that he was of the view that we ought to have a code of practice for persons who were going to be appointed to these public offices and the said Leader of the Opposition produced this document here called, “A Code of Practice”. The Hon. Attorney General would have received a copy of this document.
The President indicated that he would wish to study this document as a prelude to concluding our consultations on the appointment to these offices and I must say that maybe it is that the President is a very busy person and therefore, until now, we have not had a response from him in that regard. So, for the Hon. Minister to say that it is the Opposition that is not reaching out and taking the hand that has been offered by the Government, is clearly a misrepresentation of the facts, it is not so, I want to clarify that.
Today, I will address issues as it relates to public infrastructure. My learned friend, the Hon. Minister Robeson Benn; Housing and Water, the learned Minister, I do not know why he is not here today I have some words for him. The Hon. Minister of Finance, Dr. Ashni Singh, I believe, is a very bright son of the soil and one who we all as Guyanese can be justly proud of; I do believe that. But in this 2012 Budget I see very little features which justified the several platitudes given to the Hon. Minister and his staff.
There is a remarkable absence in my view of originality in this budget. It appears to me that this budget was prepared long before the 28th of November, 2011, as I understand the budget process works. Therefore, it did not take into consideration the changes which took place after that date. The opportunity to consult with the Opposition on the final product, even after the 28th of November, I believe was spurned by the Government and this is what we get as a result of that.
The Hon. Minister, Mr. Clement Rohee, in his presentation in this budget promised us that we will see a PPP/C tsunami. It is a well know fact that a tsunami leaves within its wake a mass of destruction, loss of life, limb and property. We have to ask ourselves, is this the PPP/C is promising this nation? Is this what you are promising the nation? It is also a fact that animals have a sense of a pending tsunami and they migrate to higher grounds before the tsunami arrives. Lions, tigers, sheep and even goats have a sense of a coming tsunami.
The theme of this Budget is, “Remaining on Course, United in Purpose, Prosperity for all”. Now if we examine the budget themes from 1999, in fact, from1992 up to the present time, we see a curious mix of words from one year to the next. So what we have is just a little fixing of this word here and another word there and that is what you get for a theme. So no matter what the theme is, you are getting the same medicine every year; the same thing every year.
Since 1992 up to the end of the 9th Parliament, the PPP/C held majority seats in this National Assembly and so no matter how eloquent these speeches were, no matter how persuasive the arguments were from this side of the House, it did not impact in any significant way on the allocation for these sectors that I am responsible for. The PPP/C had the numbers and if they said it was so, it was so. “All in favour say aye” [Members of the Opposition: Say aye.]
On the 28th November, 2011, the majority of Guyanese voted to change this model of development which the PPP said they had been pursuing for the past 19 years and despite that rejection, to produce a budget which says, “Remaining on course...” is in my humble opinion contemptuous of the people of Guyana. The people said they wanted change, they got some change and we must give them that change in this House. So confident that they were on the right course that this is what the Hon. Irfaan Ali, not here today, said in his budget debate of 2009 and this is from the Hansard:
“In 2006, we spoke about our approach over the next five years and that approach was based on the concepts of pro poor growth. Let us not forget that our approach to development was not to achieve high growth and forget about that social benefit, forget about the development of the social services and forget about the development and delivery of education and health. No. it was ensuring those things remain priority, whilst at the same time, we strive for economic growth. These are the fundamentals...”
This is what he said:
“You talk about ideology. This is the fundamental basis on which our ideology is built over this period. And we are proud of that fundamental basis…”
He went on to say that:
“... the framework you will be proud of when we face the 2011 elections because we are going to walk away with a bigger majority, now that the people know what we have to offer”.
This is what he said. Well the Hon. Minister now knows what the people know. Therefore, you cannot give them the same framework. They said they do not want that and you cannot give it to them. You cannot force it down their throats like bad medicine.
In the budget speech at page 32, the Hon. Minister of Finance speaks to physical infrastructure for transformation and in his speech he said that more than $19.2 billion has been allocated for improvement of physical infrastructure that will encompass “water, roads, bridges, air and river transport as we move to modernise and transform our economy…”.
In the said budget, the Hon. Minister said that he will invest $11.8 billion to sustain and improve roads and bridges – the expenses of $10.9 billion which will be spent on roads and $964 million which will be spent on bridges.
Like the Hon. Minister, we on this side of the House also believe that physical infrastructure plays and extremely pivotal role in transforming a country. However, where we part company is in the Minister’s methodology in achieving that goal. We in the APNU believe that this pattern of development in which large sums of the people’s money are spent on projects which have the appearance of providing jobs for a selected group of persons connected to the PPP/C is wrong. We believe that this sector is critical enough to demand a national conversation – like my friend, the learned Minister of Education… to produce a plan on the network of roads and bridges necessary to link our hinterland with the coast and unleash the immense potential of our hinterland. We believe that a national conversation is necessary.
We believe that there is a vast amount of talent right here in Guyana in our engineering fraternity to develop such a plan that would give the Guyanese citizens the satisfaction that their monies are being well spent and that it is being spent in a proper way. The writings of accomplished engineers, such as Mr. Charles Ceres, Mr. Charles Sohan and others, have commented on the absence of a vision which defines our infrastructural projects and they have called for prefeasibility and feasibility studies, bill of quantities and project documents for major projects to be laid before this House. This is a call which we, on this side of the House, fully support.
In a letter appearing in the Stabroek Newspaper, dated 19th March, 2012, Mr. Ceres had this to say about engineers giving poor service to projects – I am not calling any names. This is a letter that has gone unchallenged since it was written. I will just extract some aspects of what Mr. Ceres said. He said “…there are several ongoing projects on which design flaws are readily obvious…” This is not something that one cannot see. He is saying that, as an engineer, they are readily obvious. He said “I will begin with identifying the corrective work on the roadway at Hope on the East Bank of Demerara. The design solution at that location is attempting to apply a geotechnical engineering solution to what is essentially a hydraulic problem.” Mr. Ceres goes on to say “While the solution itself may not be appropriate, its effectiveness is compromised by several design flaws. The most obvious design flaw is the location of the anchor piles within the active zone created by the sheet pile wall.” He goes on to say that the revetment itself will mobilise active forces. This is in the public domain.
Let me go to one that is right nearby, at the corner of Vlissingen Road and Homestretch Avenue. The writer says this: “The road was recently widened to enhance traffic flow at the intersection. I think the intent is commendable, however, the intersection was widened by driving piles and building revetments into the canal on the west side of that intersection. This effectively reduced the area of the canal for the available flow of water. Constriction of the canal at this point has resulted in the creation of a backwater effect upstream of the intersection. So at noon on the 1st March, 2012, there was a marked difference in the elevation of about one foot between the area east and the area west of the canal. Castellani compound and a portion of Homestretch Avenue are now flooded because of that backwater effect.” This is what Mr. Ceres said.
The question that these engineers ask, as do all other Guyanese citizens ask, are we getting value for our money. Will we get value for the $19.2 billion allocated for this sector? I respectfully suggest that the answer is, of course, a resounding “NO”.
For example, I believe that Guyanese ask the question “What is the point of building a four-lane highway on one portion of the East Coast of Demerara and, what happens to the other portions of this road?” Is this a national secret? On the East Bank they built a little piece, and then at the end of it, there is a two-lane road. Where is the national plan? There is not plan. Engineers with whom I have consulted on this matter informed me, and I do verily believe their advice, that this exercise is a colossal waste of money because what they are doing is to contract one engineer to dig earth from the sides of the road and take away the earth. They contract another engineer to bring sand from Timehri and fill that into the hole where the earth came out from. Mr. Ceres has written about that and the stability of having something like sand being put there when he feel that a better engineering solution would have been to utilise the same earth and use some kind of equipment to fix it. But this is all a job for “the boys”!
We have received invitations from my friends on the other side of the House to visit some of these projects. I have had reason to write the Hon. Minister, Mr. Robson Benn, and he has responded quite nicely. I have written the Hon. Minister, Mr. Irfaan Ali, and he has also responded saying “you can visit some of these projects”. Well we wish to make it clear, and we want to send notice to all and sundry, that the representative of the people in this House, together with the compliment technical advisers will be visiting all of these projects. We will have to ensure that the people get value for their money. The people have demanded no less of us and we will deliver. The slush funds to contractors who are sympathisers of a particular political party are going to be cut. We will get value for our money.
I will like to turn to the issue of air and river transport. At page 33, paragraph 4.48, the Hon. Minister of Finance noted that air and river transport infrastructure plays a crucial role in the economic progress of our country. He stated that the Government’s energies have been focused on improving international trade in goods and services. We believe that that is good, Hon. Minister. It is very good but, in this regard, what does the Hon. Minister do? He allocates $717 million for the docking of vessels and acquisition of spears under this sector; that is it. I am advised by reliable marine engineers – and I verily believe them to be accurate in their advice – that a major portion of that money, if not all of it, may be needed to dry dock the two ferries, the Sanbanto and the Kanawan, even before they are put into use for the purposes for which they came, but more on these Chinese vessels later. [Mr. Benn: “Chinese bad?”] I never said so. I was trained in China; let me let you know that.
There is an obvious failure in this budget to address, in significant ways, a strategy for port infrastructure development; although, according to the Minister, international trade is very important, the shipping must be considered as the gateway to economic development. The allocation in this budget seems biased in favour of internal maritime transport as against international shipping. There is an ongoing siltation of the Demerara ships channel which limits the vessels of a certain draft from calling at this port. This continues to affect the efficiency and competitiveness of the shipping industry. In this regard it is noted that the country’s main dredger, the MV Steve N, has been out of compliance for a very long time and there is obvious sloth regarding the repairs and maintenance of this dredge. There seems to be a lack of vision or forward planning since the effective operation of port Georgetown for several decades has been predicated on an effective maintenance dredging schedule.
For over a decade the shipping industry in Guyana has been issuing calls for the Transport and Harbours Department and the Maritime Administration Department to acquire a vessel with the capacity and the capability of carrying out hydrographic surveys with fire fighting capabilities and to do buoy tending; yet this budget, as presented, has nothing at all to do with the development or purchase of these assets. It is therefore logical to conclude that the safety and security of Guyana’s main port has been placed on the backburner by this Government.
It is no secret that the two pilot vessels which are operated by the Maritime Administration Department are old, slow and outdated. When these vessels were acquired, approximately three decades ago, they were more suitable… [Mrs. Backer: Before 1992?] …I do not want to say before or after anybody. However, with the advancement in ship technology, the ever increasing demand of international shipping and the security threat, there in an urgent need for more improved, faster and more efficient pilot vessels yet this budget makes no provision whatsoever for such vessels. It is clear to the APNU that special provisions will have to be made for harbour patrols because piracy and security in our harbours are very important issues.
The Government has acquired two new ferry vessels, the Sanbanto and the Kanawan, to operate between Parika and the now controversial stelling at Good Hope, Supenaam. There was clearly ineffective planning given that these vessels have arrived several months ago and are still moored in the harbour at Georgetown, while the stelling at Parika is yet to be modified to create a roll-on roll-off facility. What is worst, is that these vessels, as I said, will soon have to be docked because of marine growth and the absence of the requisite mechanical device which was not included in the original specifications. Consequently the people of Guyana will have to bear the additional burden of increased cost associated with those two vessels.
Some knowledgeable persons, including Mr. M. Ali, a retired Government of Guyana Chief Hydraulics Officer, in a letter to the Stabroek Newspaper on 21st March, 2012, expressed reservations about these two vessels relative to the draft and other specifications in light of the draft of the Essequibo River. He said that these things are going to get stuck in the river. Most likely what is going to happen is those vessels will not be able to be utilised in their full capacities, so instead of carrying 40 vehicles they may only be able to carry 20 and, worst still, at low tide it will be different.
I am further advised by knowledgeable engineers in this sector that the cost of maintaining and operating these vessels, because of the types of engines they use, on a monthly basis, will far exceed the income which they bring in.
We will look at search and rescue: There is absolutely no provision for these, so our search and rescue capabilities have not been addressed in this budget. Regularly we read about our fishing folk who are stranded out at sea, who are robbed, some of them get lost out there. Just last week, I understand, there was a boy who drowned beyond the Demerara River and his body was floating in the Atlantic and the coast guard went past him and the explanation that was given was that they were inexperienced and therefore did not do what they were supposed to do.
Search and rescue is an important feature of any country. We as a nation must show by the allocation we make in our budget that we are serious about our fishing folk and, therefore, visits by high officials to commiserate with the families of these people when they get lost or they die is not enough. We have to show tangibly that we are serious about this and allocate resources for that purpose.
In this regard A Partnership For National Unity in its manifesto, on page 9, stated this: “The APNU, in Government, will give serious attention to revitalising and restructuring the central planning unit in the Ministry of Public Works to give greater focus and direction to a well structured and integrated approach to transport infrastructure, development and management. We recommend the establishment of the Revitalisation Unit by the Government…” and we will support it.
At page 35, paragraph 4.54, the Hon. Minister allocates $2.9 billion for the continued protection of our sea and river defences. In 2011 the sum of $2.7 billion was spent on the protection of approximately 10 kilometres of sea defence in Regions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 for critical and emergency work. I agree with the Hon. Minister of Finance that our sea defence protects our homes, our social and productive infrastructure from the onslaught of the ever rising sea; I agree with him. The residents of Leguan, however, were only recently reminded of the perils of living there on an island. Let me read, a letter that was written to the editor of the Stabroek Newspaper on the 12th April, 2012, by Mr. Charles Sohan …
I do not want to read the whole letter but this is a letter which basically says that what had happened there at Leguan will happen there again because of bad engineering work and the wrong people are doing things that should not be done. Work for “the boys” again. He says, for example, “The Ministry of Agriculture, National Drainage and Irrigation Authority should not be doing that. That is a job for the Ministry of Public Works.” He says also, “An analogy worth noting that the Ministry of Local Government, with no experience in stelling construction, was the contracting agency for the failed Supenaam Stelling which eventually had to be taken over by the Ministry of Public Works for completion.” This is what he said.
Despite the massive expenditure in this area we continue to get shoddy work and our Ministry of Public Works seems incapable of supervising or demanding quality work for our money. I would wish to take one example to support my point and I refer to the Auditor General’s Report for the year which ended 31st December 2010. Page 73, under the heading “Accounting Area: Sea Defence”, this is what the Auditor General’s Report says: “At the time of inspection on the 20th September, 2011, the works on the $550 million rip rap sea defence, Abary-Profit, West Coast Berbice, Region 5, was still at mobilization stage and some temporary works were being completed. Based on the documents seen, the project had exceeded its completion date by over 2 months and would therefore attract liquidated damages if any approved extension is not granted.” This is the important part, in which he says: “Payments under the contract amounted to $156,561,000 but a valuation of the related works and material on sight amounted to $20,638,000…” $136 million disappeared.
Let me follow up, the recommendation by the Auditor General is this: “The Audit Office recommends that the Head of the Budget Agency carry out critical reviews of the Ministry’s work supervision process in order to determine why progress payment of such magnitude could have been made for such meagre work in progress.” What else do you want? What else?
I will now turn to housing and water, very quickly, but before I deal with the allocations at the Ministry of Housing I would wish to address certain statements that were made by the Hon. Minister of Housing and water on Sunday, 8th April, 2012, on page 16 of the Guyana Times Newspaper. Minister Ali being interviewed about the Budget Debate chose to hurl insults and generally impune the character – I will used the word “impune” now – and reputation of Members of the Opposition. This is what he said: He said that the Government was cognizant of the high level of irresponsibility displayed by individuals in the combined opposition, Opposition Member were irrational, that we were schemers and plotters, and that we were playing political games. This is what he said, the Hon. Member Irfaan Ali. I do not know if the Hon. Minister is aware that apart from being an officer of the Court, in good standing, I am a Member of this National Assembly and the holder of a Military Commission and a Member of the Order of Service of Guyana and I do not play games. My colleagues are not here to play games. Politics may be a game to the Hon. Minister but to us this is serious business. We are here, in the National Assembly, to take care of the people’s business and we take our oath seriously – to defend the Constitution of Guyana. So if the Hon. Minister and his colleague may be there to plot schemes and play games, we are not.
Over the years 2009, 2010 and 2011 this Ministry spent $27.6 billion. This year the budget allocates $3.6 billion in the housing sector to increase access to affordable housing, improve the quality of infrastructure of housing schemes and to regularise squatting settlements. [Mr. Nandlall: 6,500 house lots.] Yes, I like the figures.
The question we must ask is: “Have we gotten value for this huge sum of money that has been spent?” The vision, as stated by the Hon. Minister of Finance, in the budget, on page 44, is to ensure that all Guyanese have access to adequate and affordable housing within the context of sustainable and economically viable communities. We agree with that. That is very good.
However, this is what the Hon. Minister of Housing and Water, in his budget presentation in 2009, said:
“…part of the strategy to address low income families includes the development of 400 core homes, 400 core homes for low income families. This will be available, Mr. Speaker, through you, the Hon. Member Ms. Manickchand. This would benefit particularly those vulnerable persons within our society.”
What have we seen? In the Budget 2012 speech, the Hon. Minister of Finance reported, three years later, that there is the completion of twenty-five core homes and fifty-nine others have commenced. [Mr. Nandlall: That is over eighty families who will benefit.] That is out of four hundred, in 2009. Successive Members from the Opposition benches have been making the point about the need to properly plan these housing communities. Mr. Aubrey Norton in the budget debate of 2011, as reported in the Hansard, said this:
“…without fear of contraction…”
Those were his words.
“…proper planning is impossible under this Government since it has no land use plan. It is well nigh impossible to have a cohesive housing development plan if you do not have a proper land use policy. Rather than the Minister of Housing and water coming here to tell us how many house lots he distributed he must develop a policy which ensures that there is the development of infrastructure that is durable, relevant and modern, in which there is adequate potable water, electricity, drainage, recreational and cultural facilities…”
On 13th April, 2012, Ms. Roxanne Douglas, who resides at La Parfaite Harmonie on the West Bank of Demerara, lost her home and two children perished in the fire. While we commiserate with the family, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) is cognizant of the reality of living at La Parfaite Harmonie and, in particular, Westminster, Phase 3 of La Parfaite Harmonie. This is what those people are living under: No accessible fire service, and even when a fire tender is available there are no fire hydrants; there are no police stations; in many sections of this community, there is no electricity; roads are in a deplorable condition - people have to walk about half of a mile to actually get to a minibus because of the condition of the road; there are no schools and no health facilities; garbage disposal is non-existent; a multi-purpose centre which was built there, over two years ago, is still to be opened. It is locked up. This is happening in a housing community which was developed by the Government and so it is an excellent opportunity presented, to itself, for it to establish a proper place for people to live. Instead, it boasts in this National Assembly of how many house lots were distributed. The Hon. Minister must apply the $27.6 billion, which this House approved, over the last three years, to the people’s welfare. They need it now.
The new housing development at Eccles is another matter. I will go into that at another time. The quality of work on those houses which the Government sells to public servants and to persons at a certain level in society for $4 million is a scandal waiting to be exposed. I have been there. For now, I would suggest that the Hon. Minister pays a visit and examine closely the work being done there by the contractors. This is a project that we, in the Opposition, will pay careful attention to. We will go and visit.
I know that my time is running short, but I would like to touch on the issue of water. In Budget 2012, $2 billion has been allocated to improve the quality of water supply. Of that, $900 million is for the installation of distribution mains; $100 million is for the upgrade of water supply…
We believe that the right to potable water by all Guyanese is almost at the level of a human right and we support the expenditure in this sector with that purpose in mind. Our problem is the implementation of the plan and the accountability for the moneys spent on water. If we look at what the Ministry said about water for the Coastland and for the Hinterland, we will ask the Hon. Minister to explain to the residents of ‘C’ Field Sophia how far they have to go to fetch water; to the residents of Dazzell Housing Scheme on the East Coast Demerara why they have to pay $500 for a small drum and $2,000 for a four-hundred gallon tank of water. It is to ask residents of La Parfaite Harmonie about the roads, low water pressure and sometimes no water. It is to ask the residents at Blairmont Housing Scheme why they have to fetch water from a canal to use. Why? The Hon. Minister must be aware of those things and that access to water is very crucial, and, therefore, I would respectfully recommend to him that he pays careful attention to those things. Those are things that we have spoken about.
Let me submit that in this budget there is no unity of purpose and, at the end of the day, if we allow it to proceed without amendments there will be no prosperity in this country. In fact, there will be plenty of poverty. This budget shows how out of touch with the ordinary citizens the People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) has become. It shows clearly why it was rejected by the majority of the electorate at the last election. The Hon. Ministers would want to give us the impression that they have just come and they want to work together. Twenty years we have been on this bus - twenty years – and it has been running. It is time. I surely recommend that we seriously amend this budget and produce one that really provides the basis for a good life for all Guyanese – a people’s budget.
I thank you Mr. Speaker. [Applause]