Column: Poverty breeds passport mayhem
Last week, the anger of scores of Jamaicans spilled into the compound of the passport office and into the adjoining streets.
A $2,000 increase in the cost of a regular passport precipitated an angry stirring of a people who have been quiet and quiescent for a long time. Jamaicans found the 44 per cent increase in the basic passport fee to be disingenuous and unaffordable
At a time when many have lost the simple jobs they had and countless numbers have had no job to lose for years, the 44 per cent increase appeared as uncaring to many Jamaicans who are facing another year of no increase in their salaries.
The way the announcement was made, the short and arbitrary manner in which the deadline was imposed and extended, smacks of mismanagement and a short-sighted strategy - apparently based only on finding another easy way to tax overburdened and poor Jamaicans.
And if you think ordinary Jamaicans don't know about the mismanagement, just look at their quite virulent reaction in the middle of this week to the Nicodemus-by-night increase in cost, and the arbitrary and ill-thought, overnight-imposed, 1,000-a-day quota system dished out on poor Jamaicans who want new passports.
Why do we treat our own Jamaican people like that? Some of the scenes on television angered me and cloaked me with great sadness for our people and country. Clearly, those in authority are seriously out of touch with the reality of poverty that stalks the lives of so many Jamaicans.
The relentless drive to get more taxes from every conceivable and some unconscionable places to pay down the country's unmanageable debt that politicians borrowed, and for which we as taxpayers carry the burden and are obliged to pay, is pushing many ordinary, ethical and enterprising Jamaicans into poverty - and worse!
When people line up from 3 a.m. to be first in line at 6 a.m. to avoid spending an additional $2,000, there needs to be no further discussion that economic and financial hardships are biting deep into the hearts, souls and psyches of the majority of Jamaicans.
discomfort among the needy
When I viewed the scenes of so many of my fellow Jamaicans trying so hard to avoid an additional $2,000 charge - an amount many would have to borrow, it became even clearer that we need to grow the economy fast enough, with breadth and depth enough to provide good jobs for Jamaicans. The relentless growth of poverty must be turned back with sensible jobs so that persons can afford a reasonable fee increase to secure a passport.
While the mismanagement of the passport fee hike was palpable, uncaring and avoidable, the mismanagement at the Riverton City dump, the board management 'cass cass' that ensued, the Outameni fiasco at the NHT, the calamitous handling of the chik-V outbreak and denials, plus the lack of preparation and equipment to fight the recent raging and destructive fires, all point to a measure of national mismanagement that is sobering and dangerous.
Those governing politicians and government officials who get secured and substantial salaries and benefits are learning that $2,000 is a big deal. While the per cent figure is very large in the scheme of no-wage increases in Jamaica, the absolute figure of $2,000 is so hard to find that many Jamaicans are willing to get up at 3 a.m. to be first in a line that they will be begging to move three hours later.
The amount is important and clearly significant, to the point where hundreds of my fellow citizens are willing to riot when they were treated with unthinking callousness in the form of an untimely deadline that would force them away from paying the current fee of $4,500 to paying the much higher $6,500.
If there was any doubt that in spite of the unending stream of upbeat announcements and pronouncements by the Government, a large swathe of ordinary Jamaicans are in financial pain and poverty, let them rerun the television footage from the passport office last week to see how important $2,000 is to suffering Jamaicans.
We all know the passport office needs money to deliver the services Jamaicans need from the government agency. But do we have to treat our people in this high-handed and even disrespectful manner? Why couldn't more time be given before the new rules take effect? Why couldn't we hire a few more qualified but unemployed Jamaicans to process more than the 1,000 applicants a day that became the offensive quota? Management in the passport office got it very wrong last week.
While the world around Jamaica is moving away from machine-readable passports to e-passports, we have stuck steadfastly to the apparently fast-becoming-outdated machine-readable document.
One understands that the current contract with a North American company to produce the passports runs until 2017.
Incredibly, we do not put the production of passports out to bid. Bidding is the normal form followed by most every country that does not produce, or have the capability to produce, their own passports. Why has officials at the passport office avoided the bidding route that would produce the welcomed and likely effect of reducing prices?
The passport officials also need to tell us why we have not moved to biometric e-passports and away from what is becoming an archaic machine-readable passport. Some knowledgeable persons are of the view that those very same persons who are about to pay the higher fees may have to pay again if many more countries were to complete the process to accept only e-passports.
Mismanagement and maybe poor decision-making, or worse, is pushing up the cost of passports to Jamaicans and in the process pushing us deeper into anger and poverty.
Aubyn Hill is CEO of Corporate Strategies Ltd and chairman of the Economic Advisory Council of the opposition leader.