Wed | Nov 21, 2018

Martin Henry | Extortionary Gov’t in the land of paradise and paradox

Published:Sunday | October 7, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Public transportation in Stony Hill, St Andrew.
Ganja farm
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I want to say something about several things this week rather than sticking to the one-issue routine.

First off is government robbery in the chaka-chaka public transport sector. On Monday last week, the Transport Authority started collecting increased fees for hackney carriage and route taxi licences. The renewal fee for hackney carriages has almost doubled from $13,500 to $25,000, while the cost of new applications jumps to $25,000, up from $15,000. New and renewed route taxi licence fees go up from $12,000 to $15,000.

The justification? The fee adjustment has become necessary to offset mounting administrative costs.

So what about fares? So what about the increased operational costs to the operators?

Fares were last increased in 2013, five years ago. Over these five years, every operational cost has gone up. Fuel cost has risen almost weekly. Vehicle replacement cost has risen. Prices are driven by the exchange rate. The Jamaican dollar has devalued against the benchmark US dollar from 102.02 at the time of the last fare increase in August 2013 to 137.90 at the equivalent date in 2018, a 35 per cent decline.

The powerful political sentiment to hold down fares below rational commercial value for the benefit of the travelling poor, working or otherwise, is understandable. What is completely unacceptable, as I have pointed out before, is the Government 'tiefingly' forcing operators to provide the fare subsidy rather than doing so itself. How different from criminal extortion is this?

What public transport needs is the equivalent of the OUR for utilities, an independent body insulated from politics that will annually review and determine fares objectively based on real-cost data. Government can then provide subsidies to whatever level to whomever it wishes.

A system of direct delivery to individual beneficiaries would be best but is hardest. Government subsidises all users of the JUTC in an across-the-board subsidy to the company that holds down all fares. A radical solution to the subsidy problem - and to the chaotic, 'chaka-chaka', inefficient, wasteful public transport system - is to create just a few companies that can articulate with each other across geographic boundaries for a smooth national system. The current army of private operators of public transport in myriad 'associations' would be required to place their vehicles as stock in these companies and become shareholders against the value of their stock.

 

Guaranteed profit

 

As is now the case for the OUR-regulated telecoms and electricity companies, the handful of public transport companies would be guaranteed a profit. This profit would be derived from a mix of fares and state subsidy, which cannot fall below real operational costs as determined by the regulator.

From robbing transport operators in the most barefaced manner while feathering its own nest at the Transport Authority, Government is moving on to repair 200 police stations. I had to do a double take when I read the newspaper headline. They must have inadvertently added an extra zero, I thought. But then the body of the story repeated 200. Does the country have 200 police stations? As our observations tell us as we move around, the vast majority of whatever number is in poor condition, led by Central Police Station in the heart of the city.

Perhaps Minister Chang could oblige and tell us which few stations are now in sufficiently good condition not to be on the repairs list. That would be much easier than giving the full list of stations to be repaired.

Our police officers are sharing the dismal and degrading squalor of the prisoners they have in their custody in police stations across the country. And we are asking them, already suffering from being understaffed, overworked and underpaid, to sally forth to fight crime with confidence and dignity and to treat the public graciously and courteously.

But minister and commissioner are promising a new day. The night has been long and dreary.

And they have found some money - $3 billion. I have been telling them where the money is. In the face of our public safety, law and order and justice issues, which have created a national public emergency, every ministry, department, and agency of Government should be taxed a small portion of their budget for national security and justice, which is the core business of Government, at which it is failing badly.

The weed and the grass held the news last week. A former Mexican president, Vicente Fox, was a star guest at CanEx, an international cannabis business conference hosted by Jamaica in Montego Bay, the week before. He came puffing cannabis as a business game-changer in which Jamaica should take the lead.

We made the first shipment of cannabis oil extract to Canada week before last. And last Monday, The Gleaner opened up its ganja education page, prominently Page A2, and appropriately named WeedEd.

 

Serious problem

 

The ganja business is, however, facing a serious banking problem. Banks, for fear of US sanctions, don't want to handle weed money. Bowing to the fact that the United States runs the world, Minister of Commerce Audley Shaw was at CanEx urging international delegates to join him in pleading with the American Government for an ease-up. According to the minister, all commercial banks in Jamaica are obliged to go through the New York system in terms of the movement of money internationally, based on the derisking of bank policy in the US. "We know that there are some barriers right now. There are difficulties. We all know the issue of derisking through the United States in terms of moving money," Shaw told CanEx.

Apart from our own slow moves leaving others with less potent ganja to take the lead, the banking problem is the biggest one that the ganja business in Jamaica faces.

The grass bamboo, fed by the recent rains, burst back into life again. The Observer could optimistically report on its front page last Monday that "Jamaica is soon to have a vibrant industry using its abundance of little-regarded bamboo plants as the principal raw material to produce a range of consumer items like kitchen and facial towels, bed sheets, and diapers". Bamboo bed sheets, we are advised, are twice as soft as cotton. Been there, heard that about the big bamboo potential. Heard about the potential of high-priced Sea Island cotton, too. But this time! This time!

While the weed and the grass were being puffed for economic salvation, the Big Four universities - UWI, UTech, NCU and CMU - led by their presidents, converged on NCU to talk innovations at a Social Good Summit hosted by the UNDP. I may have missed it, but I haven't seen or heard anything about what they actually placed on the table at the summit to help make the world a better place through the Sustainable Development Goals.

Just like how Government is shafting public transport operators, it is shafting its own university, UTech, which should be a hotbed of innovation linked to state development objectives. Former minister of education in the last PNP administration Ronald Thwaites raised the matter a couple of weeks ago, admitting his own culpability in the matter in his column 'UTech the poor cousins'.

Thwaites called for greater equity in salaries, and budgets, and shouted that "there is no justification for even one day's further delay in permitting the establishment of the equivalent of the Norman Manley Law School at UTech. Although it may be argued that there is an oversupply of lawyers, the fact is that there is a thriving law school at UTech, which is well subscribed and whose graduates ought not to have to scramble for the few spare spaces at Norman Manley not taken by UWI graduates."

And so, my ramblings of the day take me to the launch of UTech academic Paul Ivey's seventh book Jamaica: Paradise and Paradox at the university last Thursday. The book is a tour de force of the ups and downs, the beauty and ashes, the problems and possibilities, the failures and triumphs of independent Jamaica as seen through the eyes of an 'Independence Baby', an assessment of politics and prime ministers, economy and education, of crime, and family. He himself is a Common Entrance 'failure' who has risen to the top of academia in two higher-education institutions, CASE and UTech, in paradise and paradox.

- Martin Henry is an administrator at the University of Technology. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.