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Raffique Shah


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Who needs politicians?

By Raffique Shah
October 6, 2013

The street I live on is about 200 metres long, with two side streets, each 50 metres, making it a grand total of 300 metres. There are 24 residential properties located here, with two empty plots. A small river is the main drain that collects water from a few box drains (ah, box drains, a defining feature of modern Trinidad and Tobago!) and takes it to the Gulf of Paria.

This tiny enclave I'm describing, a microcosm of the wider society, is a mainly working class community of maybe 120 residents. Each household takes care of its surroundings, keeping the grass under control by use of the ubiquitous "whacker", and drains in reasonable other words, the place is invariably clean.

In effect, no one here depends on "de govament" except a few persons who are employed in the make-work programmes, and for the collection of garbage and delivery of mail. Some years ago, when former local government minister Dhanraj Singh was acting as minister of works, a new bridge was constructed over the river, and a portion of the street, which at the time had an oil-sand surface, was paved with asphalt mix. Then weeks before the 2007 elections, a major paving exercise was conducted, with all 300 metres surfaced with a shiny black top that has since remained in good condition.

First-time visitors are usually impressed with how neat the community is, especially when they will have come off the main road, dusty from heavy-trucks' spillover, gaping manholes sticking out like sores, and slimy, litter-clogged drains that stink.

Yet, every two months or so, a CEPEP gang comprising about a dozen persons, creatively conjure two days' "work" on my street. Seriously. Residents wake up to the sound of a "whacker" noisily trimming pitch: well, there is little or no grass on the verges of the street.

One guy "whacks" away, two others hold a safety net of sorts (no vehicles passing, eh!), another two or three sweep up behind them, and the remainder stand, sit, slouch—killing time, waiting for 9 a.m. when they leave, having completed a hard day's work. Since the contractor or supervisor or whoever has worked out that my street requires two days' work, they repeat the process.

Cost to taxpayers? I imagine at least $3,000 in labour, and overall, with profit margin to the contractor, say $5,000. Now, we are talking here of "work" that in my young-and-strong days I would have single-handedly completed in two hours using a brushing cutlass and crook-stick. Lest you think this a petty sum I am fussing over, multiply that by, say, 2,000 similar URP and CEPEP projects across the country, you arrive at $10 million over two days, roughly $25 million a week, or $1.2 billion a year. I don't know if this estimate is near-accurate, but I do know that citizens do not get value for money from these make-work programmes.

Now, let me state that I am not against government providing social assistance to the neediest in society. But find meaningful work for them. In my district, for example, they can clean the stinking drains along the main roads (make sure the waste is promptly removed), replace manhole covers, maintain verges of roads where nobody lives, and so on.

I should add, too, that if we think CEPEP and URP workers are unproductive, those employed by the regional corporations and the Ministry of Works are worse. Smaller crews from one such body come to my street twice a year, spend an hour or two breaking wind and then disappear, drawing full days' wages plus benefits the CEPEP people do not enjoy.

Meanwhile, the river on the street is crying out for attention. It has never been cleaned—and I mean never. Pleas by residents to have some agency clear the rubble and trim the banks have been futile. This year we have been lucky that no heavy rains have caused flooding. But when the rains come, so will the floods.

Representation? Forget it. I don't know who the councillor for the district is, never saw him or her. Our current MP, Errol McLeod, walked through the district in the run-up to the 2010 elections: that was the last time I saw Mac or anyone representing him. Before him, there was Christine Kangaloo who made similar cameo appearances. Which is why I noted earlier that my community does not need politicians or government workers: we get along fine without them, thank you.

If only people realise that politicians need them, not the other way round, this nation would be far better off than we have ever been under any government. Once communities can live in harmony, shoulder their domestic and civic responsibilities, and watch out for each other, there will be no need for absentee overlords who, like mocking pretenders, talk the talk, but never walk the walk.

When they come to you tomorrow reciting lyrics and making promises, rumble loudly from your rear window and tell them goodbye in wind language. You will never see them again until the next elections anyway. Ah lie?

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