March 27, 2005
By Raffique Shah
SOMETIME last year Works Minister Franklin Khan announced that his ministry had served notices on persons who illegally encroached on the nation's highways. In fact, he asked a very pertinent question: do we in fact have highways? Because we upgrade our main arteries from two lanes to six lanes, but no one seems to care about the rules that govern such highways.
Businessmen and others, having travelled to North America or Europe, sing praises to how clean those countries are, how laws on traffic offences and minor infractions like littering are enforced, think nothing of breaking the very laws in their homeland. So Khan seemed to have made a joke except for collaring a handful of hapless highway vendors. His ministry has failed miserably to stem the tide of illegal entrances and other activities on the nation's highways.
I cite this as yet another example of why we may never reach developed country status. People open full-fledged variety stores on the verge of roads where vehicles fly past at over 120kph. Everyone who builds a house or goes into business, once it borders whatever highway, thinks he or she has the right to an entrance -and exit-for himself or his patrons' vehicles. Why has the ministry not acted to halt these illegal and dangerous practices? Is it that the laws are deficient or the government and its agencies are delinquent? How can we ever hope to become a Canada or a France if simple problems like these are never dealt with?
Lest Minister Khan believes that I am "on his case", he can take heart. His is not the only ministry that comes across as not fulfilling its obligations to the citizenry. The horror stories coming out of the Ministry of Health and its many institutions are legion. Besides patients in pain having to wait for hours before being attended to, others with chronic ailments are given appointments a year or more down the road to have surgery or some vital procedure done. What madness is this? How can anyone with a heart tell a patient with, say, glaucoma, that he or she has to wait for more than a year for surgery? Could it be that the doctors and their aides are playing the proverbial ass? Or that the ministry is failing to deliver the equipment, space and other things necessary to put the health sector back on track? Do we see signs, or even signposts, of "developed country" in this critical sector?
While roads and water and other amenities are important in assessing a country's development, it's how it cares for its infirm, its aged and its poor that count most.
Another "monkey" that reeks of underdevelopment is our inability to perform simple maintenance of public buildings. Have you looked closely at the Hall of Justice recently? Or many of the other prestige public buildings that are meant to reflect our development? There's grime aplenty, and that's only on the outside. Inside, air conditioning systems chug along until they are clogged with grime, ceilings fall apart, paint flakes, furniture looks like they come from some junk shop, and worse. We have never developed a culture of maintenance. We like to build massive and impressive structures, open them with great fanfare then promptly forget them.
From police stations to schools to ministries and other government agencies, the story is the same. I wonder if it's coincidental that government is now talking about shutting down MTS, which was formed for that purpose. One needs to ask if MTS was ever given a fair chance to perform its functions. Or why was MTS taken beyond its boundary when, like TIDCO, it was asked by government to manage major construction projects?
Recently, some US agency (was it the State Department?) reported that prison conditions in this country are primitive. They were wrong, of course (just as they were about WMDs in Iraq). Our prisons are in fact relics of the medieval era. The conditions are so poor that one feels sorry for prisoners, which is a contradiction. After all, prisoners, especially today's mindless criminals, deserve nothing but the worst. Still, among the thousands held there are many innocent persons awaiting trial (and even some convicted ones) who spend years waiting for justice if ever it comes their way. I have repeatedly called for a separation of the "sheep from the goats" in that system, because I've seen what it does to the petty criminal. It can be likened to a university of crime: young men enter as ganja smokers and graduate as robbers, kidnappers, even murderers.
Government after government has failed to address this monstrosity, with deadly results. I don't think it's accidental that crime is rampant in the country. The "university" has performed creditably, better than UWI. I take offence at the US pointing fingers in our direction. But unless we start attacking over-population, decriminalising minor offences, and using alternative methods to deal with petty crimes, we shall remain saddled with both high crime and primitive prisons. We can ignore it, be harsh to anyone we deem a criminal. But we do that at our future peril.