Back on the run return to routes By Isaiah Chappelle
Guyana Chronicle
February 3, 2002

WITH their unique tooting horns and peculiar passenger hustle shouts, the mini-bus posse was yesterday back out in full in Georgetown parks and on routes around the country after a five-day strike that threw the public road transportation system into chaos.

It was, however, not clear if the return to the routes marked the end of the mini-bus protests against the police `boom boom' (big music) boxes campaign or whether the operators were cashing in on the usual Saturday crush of passengers.

At the parks there were more buses than passengers - a stark contrast to the situation between Monday and Friday when crowds of commuters, including schoolchildren, were left stranded for hours or had to fork out steep fares to get home by taxi, or walk.

The protest which started Monday by operators on the Georgetown-Rosignol route who parked their buses at points along the East Coast highway to force non-striking buses to join them, spread to other parts of the country, except the Essequibo Coast.

They claimed they were against the police campaign to rid the buses of the `boom boom' boxes which have been linked with speeding as among the main causes of fatal and serious road accidents.

Police said the law permits music in vehicles but the `boom boom' stuff was out and the protesters listed objections to the proposed seat belt law and alleged police harassment among their reasons for going on strike.

Some of those who did not join the strike and continued to work regular routes were attacked and the tyres of their vehicles slashed/punctured. Some operators were also assaulted and there were reports that passengers in some buses were robbed by elements among the `protesters'.

While there were demonstrations in East Berbice and on the West Demerara, the centre of the controversy was with the Georgetown-Rosignol operators who stayed off their route up to Friday.

Police kept watch on the situation, warning that those who broke the law would be dealt with.

The most serious standoff came Friday afternoon when controversial former TV `talk show host', Mark Benschop led a convoy of buses along the East Bank Demerara and was stopped by police at a roadblock outside the Providence Police Station.

He refused to leave his car, keeping his doors closed and windows wound up and police later allowed him to leave to the cheers of a large crowd of bus operators and others who were part of the protest demonstration.

There were no protests yesterday though as most mini-bus operators trekked back to work after days of on-and-off protests.

Mini-bus operators on routes such as the West Coast and West Bank Demerara, East Bank Demerara, Linden and Georgetown who were in the protest Friday against alleged police harassment, fines, the move for mandatory implementation of seat belts in minibuses and the banning of amplified music on their vehicles, were seen working yesterday.

Denis Mongol, driver of a Route 42 (Georgetown/Timehri) mini-bus (BGG 8580), said he has to appear in court tomorrow facing charges of having two 6" speakers in his mini-bus and two `tweeters'.

Mongol claimed that cops "dig out" the tape-deck which was installed in the front panel by the manufacturers of the vehicle.

Associations which have represented the interests of mini-bus owners and operators before, came out against the strike, and Benschop, TV station owner and leader of the small Justice For All Party, C.N. Sharma, emerged as main `organisers' for the bus protesters.

There was some amount of normalcy at the bus parks on Thursday but just when it seemed like the strike was beginning to lose steam, a confrontation with Police on the East Bank Demerara road on Friday sparked widespread chaos among commuters and other road users.

Traffic came to a standstill and confusion reigned on the East Bank road after Benschop was surrounded by armed policemen at the roadblock in front the Providence Police Station.

The standoff resulted in passengers, including school children and workers, being left stranded at various points along the East Bank road and at parks in Georgetown which had begun to return to normalcy in the morning.

The East Bank highway is the main artery in and out of the city and as the confrontation between Benschop developed, mini-bus operators from routes such as the West Coast and West Bank Demerara, East Bank, Linden and Georgetown found themselves in the procession and not working. Other vehicles were caught up in the traffic jam.

Some among the protesters stopped non-striking mini-buses ordering them to stop working and "join the struggle".

Several persons reportedly missed flights out of the country since they were unable to get to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Timehri, on time Friday as a result of the traffic jam and the protesting convoy of mini-buses and its operators.

During the strike, hire cars did brisk business at all the parks - Georgetown/Timehri; East and West Bank; West and East Coast Demerara, and Rosignol.

Watchdog commission to probe light bill increases
THE watchdog Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is to probe the proposed electricity rate increases the Guyana Power and Light Company (GPL) wants implemented from this month.

The Government, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the main Opposition People's National Congress Reform (PNC/R) have challenged the extent of the increases the company announced last week.

PUC Chairman Justice Prem Persaud told the Government Information Agency (GINA) the commission will tomorrow make a formal request to GPL to stall the announced hikes in electricity rates.

He told GINA that under the Public Utilities Commission Act 10 of 1999, the commission is authorised to "investigate the performance standard of the utility company, including its books, to detect whether its performance was safe and adequate."

He said this is in light of the absence of the PUC's direct jurisdiction over GPL rate fixing.

Persaud explained that GPL Chief Executive Officer, Mr. John Lynn had indicated that the increase was necessitated through the company's operational losses of 40 per cent last year which prompted the commission to request an examination of the company's operational procedures.

As part of the Utility Commission Act, an accountant could be appointed by the commission to oversee the financial operations of the company, but only at the consent of GPL, he noted.

The PUC Chairman told GINA the commission intends to examine the "Guyanisation" of the power company's management structure, which formed part of the contractual agreement between the Government of Guyana and the GPL when it came on stream on October 1, 1999.

He said he did not know if any steps are being taken towards training any Guyanese for the GPL management positions, but stressed the $55M incurred in monthly expenditure in salaries to the current managers will certainly come up for review by the commission.

Prime Minister Sam Hinds last week reportedly wrote Lynn expressing the Government's disappointment that the company wants to raise electricity rates by 15.8% from this month.

The Chronicle understands he told GPL that the Government is unhappy and disappointed by the hike which is far more than what it had expected.

A source said Mr. Hinds told Lynn that the Government expects a competent review of the calculations GPL submitted to the PUC to ensure that there have been no errors.

Lynn last week told reporters the proposed higher rates were for residential and commercial consumers and resulted from several factors, including an increase in GPL's assets of 4.75%, increases in salaries and other employment costs.

Persaud on Wednesday indicated that the commission "has absolutely no say" in regulating the rate increase by GPL.

"The PUC has nothing to do with GPL's rate increases, absolutely no say," he told the Chronicle when asked if the intended increase by the power company will automatically take effect from this month or whether the PUC will have to hold a hearing on the issue.

A GPL official Wednesday said that due to the contents of GPL's licence to operate, the PUC does not have the same powers for "hearings" to oversee rates and tariff increases when it comes to GPL, as it does with, for example, the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GT&T).

The TUC said it was alarmed over the recent announcement and gave notice that it will commence a campaign to oppose the unjustifiable increase in the electricity tariffs. It said it intends to continue the campaign until something is done about this "confounded nonsense".

The TUC argued that the increase was "totally unwarranted, unconscionable, unaffordable and unmatched by the quality of service provided." It has recommended that an independent Commission of Inquiry be established immediately with a mandate to conduct a comprehensive review of the entire operations of GPL.

The PNC/R in a statement said the announcement of the intended tariff hike calls into question the entire privatisation deal entered into between the Government and CDC/ESBI, the major owners of the company.

It said consumers will have to "consider taking matters into their own hands and resort to whatever means are needed to apply pressure to the company to encourage it to change its direction."

The PNC/R said it had warned Guyanese of the negative effects the deal would have on the consumers of electricity, and had questioned several aspects of the contract entered into between the parties, more particularly, the removal of the entity from the PUC in determining electricity rates.

"It makes no sense for the Government to be shedding crocodile tears now when even the authority of the Minister to suspend CDC/ESBI's licence to operate under the Electricity Sector Reform Act and the PUC Act has been compromised", it said.

It charged that the electricity consuming public is being held to ransom by GPL which continues to abrogate many terms of the agreement with impunity and without the possibility of any legal recourse to secure compliance.