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Raffique Shah


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We must do, or die like stray dogs

By Raffique Shah
January 11, 2017

If fantasy could be magically transformed into reality, as Dictator-General of Trinidad and Tobago, I would harness the approximately $10 billion per year that is wasted on cigarettes, alcohol and gambling and put that money to productive use.

But then I'd be a dead dictator before I could even proclaim the prohibitions, since I verily believe that 90-plus per cent of my countrymen smoke, drink alcohol or gamble, and many of them engage in all three vices.

Looking at the economy in crisis and ways to save a few billion dollars here and earn some more there, it struck me that the sole cigarette manufacturer, WITCO, reports revenues of approximately $1 billion per year. This indicates that smokers spend at least that much (maybe more, through imported brands), and I have not added the cost to taxpayers of extending healthcare to victims of tobacco-related diseases.

Ditto for alcohol. Angostura, the leading manufacturer of rums, notched up sales of close to $700 million in 2014. Add to that spending on beer (I don't have Carib/Stag numbers) and other imported alcoholic beverages (FAO data for 2011 puts the cost at close to TT$500 million), and we can conclude that our drinkers imbibe at least $2 billion a year. Again, the cost of caring for those who destroy their livers, lives and families through alcohol abuse is not added.

With respect to gambling, the cost to the economy must be in the region of $7 billion per year. State-owned NLCB grosses around $2 billion (it claims to pay out 70 per cent in prizes), but with Santana telling compulsive gamblers they can win “30 to one every three minutes” in some new game being widely promoted in the media, those earnings will likely increase.

It never occurred to the Government, or the directors and managers at the NLCB, to ask, when people are encouraged to “win big every three minutes”, where and when do they work? The Government, which owns the NLCB, is guilty of promoting all-day gambling for lower-income persons, hence further damaging the national work ethic and productivity, and wrecking family lives.

The billion-plus dollars they relieve the gullible of pales in comparison with the billions more that illegal casinos take from the middle-to-upper-class fools who gamble all day, all night, the people who incur dangerous debts to feed their gambling addiction, and end up at the mercy of those who own these houses of ill-repute.

So $10 billion or more jumping up in Jouvert-like bands that fizz out with the rising sun, with only their debilitating after-effects haunting the sober and sane citizens decades later. But crucify Dictator Shah when he raises his Duterte-like rod of correction.

I rant about it because that $10 billion or so, and similar sums spirited out of the public purse through corruption by white collar criminals, as well as wasteful expenditure by governments and their agents, could, if put to proper use, extricate us from the fiscal mess we flounder in partly because we have proclaimed financial debauchery as a cornerstone of our culture.

Twenty billion dollars out of a total budgetary expenditure that should never have exceeded $50 billion (except for capital works) is a lot of money that could be applied to enhancing nutrition, alleviating poverty, improving infrastructure, housing, health care and so on.

All that I have written thus far amounts to dreaming the impossible. Let me return to harsh realities. In 2017, the Government can garner greater revenues only if oil and gas production and prices improve significantly—it's that simple or complex, depending on one's perspective.

Why oil production has plummeted from 150,000 barrels per day in 2006 to 70,000 today, only the politicians and industry bosses can say. The same can be said of gas production, which has fallen by 15 per cent. If there is recovery to optimum levels in the latter (4.2 bcf/d) and, say, 80,000 bpd in oil, then the Government could earn another US$2 billion, which would boost the country's foreign exchange.

Outside of that, what else? Our manufacturers are aggressively exploring new markets and are likely to add a few hundred million more US dollars to the coffers. Niche markets for a few agri-exports can earn some foreign dollars. A vibrant cocoa industry, meaning beans-to-bars and beverages, has a US$200 million a year potential, but the stakeholders must exploit the full value-chain.

In 2017, the Government must mount an aggressive one-local-meal-a-day programme, which, if successful, could save us at least US$500 million in foreign exchange, as well as yield nutrition and health benefits of untold value, and boost domestic agriculture.

I haven't touched the creative industries—entertainment, fashion, arts, film, etc—that hold immense potential. Let us start with the biggest pan manufacturing facility in the world.

We have talked “tatah” for far too long. In 2017, we must do, or die like stray dogs on the busy global highway of achievers.

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