Mon | Apr 24, 2017

Books, bottles and buses

Published:Sunday | August 31, 2014 | 8:00 AM
Education Minister Ronald Thwaites.
Henry
Passengers line up to board a JUTC bus at the North Parade terminus in downtown Kingston. Rural commuters don't benefit from bus subsidies and, therefore, pay higher public-transportation fares.-Gladstone Taylor/Photographer
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School's in tomorrow morning. And, thank God, with the return of the rains, students may temporarily be spared the hassle of having to lug gallons of water with them to flush the toilets! The few remaining schools with pit latrines may be the lucky ones. Although the same minister of education who proposed the water-carrying says the pit latrines will be a thing of the past by 2016. It is hard not to recall that famous declaration by another minister that Jamaica would be pothole free by 2003! There are fewer pit latrines left than potholes multiplying, so it might just happen.

And students in the Kingston Metropolitan Transport Region (KMTR) will be paying an increased fare of $30, up by 50 per cent from $20, for riding on the JUTC buses. Their rural counterparts, whose parents pay taxes, too, will continue to pay many times more on a variety of public transport to get to and from school, often commuting past much nearer schools.

Neither the state-owned JUTC providing the cheap rides nor the NWC providing the toilet flushes is viable as is. Nor are the schools.

So it's time to write again about our samfie Government giving people and institutions baskets to carry water and fooling citizens with offers which can never be fulfilled.

Let's begin with the schools. If the old practice continues, students will be busy writing tomorrow morning English essays on 'How I spent my summer holidays'. The Ministry of Education's own essay on the topic would naturally include spending lots of quality time celebrating better examination performances, and getting tablets and books out into the schools. But an honest essay would also have to mention spending chunks of money to pay back-bills for electricity and water for several schools. Seaforth High, $3.8 million, after the JPS ran out of patience and disconnected.

It is not that the schools are just slack and poorly managed. They haven't got the money. The government subvention doesn't stretch sufficiently to cover adequately utilities, or even teaching and learning materials. Furthermore, the Government holds down auxiliary fees, which supplement the state income of schools, to be affordable to the multitude of poor who have been created and are maintained by poor governance. Half the school population is on PATH welfare support.

And the two-horse directive to schools is that students must pay the ancillary fees as a cost-sharing arrangement for their education and a source of badly needed income to the schools; but no child who is unable to pay should be turned away. But then the Government doesn't pay when the student can't pay, leaving the poor institutions holding the basket, and the JTA and associations of principals inexplicably holding their tongues.

A similar three-card trick is being foisted upon the tertiary level, many of whose students began classes last week. There is a calculable commercial cost to providing educational services. The Government of Jamaica, by public policy, says students should pay 20 per cent of this. But then doesn't bother to pay over the full 80 per cent balance to institutions, which must carry on nonetheless.

A painful fact which nobody wants to confront is that there is more student demand and public expectation for higher education than money to pay for it. Everybody wants to see growth in the sector. Good politics. Good bragging rights for the institutions. Good self-development for the students. But the general economy, weak as it is, is unable to absorb the costs, or the graduates. Government, already spending 14 per cent of the total Budget on education (25 per cent after debt payments), can spend no more. And the students, preponderantly the successful children of the poor, can't afford it, and even with loan support have serious challenges paying back because of high unemployment.

Come hell or high water, students will have to lug those gallon bottles of water to flush the school toilets at some time in the future. Where they are going to get the bottles filled is another matter. Their parents should build tanks now. Between the schools being unable to afford it and the National Water Commission (NWC) being unable to supply it, a water crisis is looming. There was the president of the NWC Kingsley Thomas griping to the Observer's Press Club a couple Thursdays ago that "68 per cent of the water we produce, we don't collect anything for." Between thieves, lingering supplies of 'social water', and leaking, old pipes with no resources to replace them, the NWC is quite literally flushing two-thirds of the water it collects, stores, purifies, and distributes.

And for what it does collect, its owner, the Government, as a gift to the grateful people, particularly the poor, holds down the rate to sub-commercial levels. All NWC water is social water.

While Opposition Leader Andrew Holness was motoring on with protests against "wicked" JUTC fare increases by a "wicked" Government, his short-lived Minister of Transport in his short-lived Government, Old Mike from Central Clarendon, was telling media that the new fares are less than those proposed by the OUR five years ago in 2009!

jaded Mike's view

The jaded Mike was of the view that the plan now being pushed by the JUTC to reduce losses, including fare increases, I presume, will more likely lead to another $1.3 billion deficit this year.

In his youthful exuberance, Andrew Holness forgot that the KMTR is not Jamaica. Rural Jamaicans are paying multiple times more for public transportation than the subsidised fares on the JUTC in the Kingston Metropolitan Area.

Even the J$120 current new fare is not an economic fare without subsidy. This is US$1.07. Chairman Roper of the JUTC was almost gloating that the concession ratio had improved from 55:45 to 50:50. That is 55 per cent of all fares being concessionary moving very steeply down to a low, low 50 per cent! But the Government never pays over the subsidy in full. Meanwhile, just to take one item of cost reported, fuel cost has moved by 37 per cent between July 2013 and July 2014. In 2009, the OUR had estimated that the economic fare was J$131.

The JUTC, as is, is not viable, even with the new politically determined new fares. Mike Henry's prophecy is another no-brainer that even I could muster. Never mind Rev Roper's capacity for prayer and clever rebuttals: "They can't maintain the service. The buses are going to deteriorate. Fewer people are going to use them and more robots are going to enter the system."

The Government has piled on all kinds of burdens on non-JUTC operators in the public transport sector to advantage the non-viable JUTC. These burdens include setting artificially low sub-commercial fares without the benefit of subsidy and, in fact, forcing operators to subsidise users on behalf of a samfie Government.

Those burdens also include allowing the JUTC its own exclusive bus lane on the lucrative Mandela Highway and forcing operators off other lucrative routes through the non-renewal of licences.

At some point, if students want to get to school in a timely fashion and work towards GSAT and CSEC passes, they will have to fork out the 'robot' fares for adults. It will be quite a challenge to get those gallon bottles of flush water, along with those knapsacks packed with state-provided books and tablets, into the confined space of the robot taxis.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.