We owe it to our offspring to build a peaceful, prosperous, cohesive society
By Hydar Ally
June 1, 2004
GUYANA recently celebrated 38 years as an independent nation. As we all know, the country attained independence from Great Britain on May 26, 1966 after some 150 years of British colonial rule.
The majority of Guyanese would have been born at the time of independence or too young to remember what life was like during the pre-independence period.
For the overwhelming majority of Guyanese, life was far from good. Because of the transplanted nature of the colonial society and the fact that production was mainly for export to metropolitan markets, very little attempt was made to forge linkages with the rest of the nation's economy.
Little wonder the country was called “Bookers Guiana.” The powerful Booker Brothers accounted for almost three-quarters of sugar production and monopolized commerce and trade in addition to holding leading positions in the timber industry and in shipping. As Dr. Cheddi Jagan aptly described the situation in his political masterpiece, “The West On Trial”, the only thing Bookers did not own was a funeral parlour.
The above, while not to be taken literally, epitomized the enormous stranglehold the planter class had on the local economy and the political processes as they then existed.
Because the main objective was profit maximization, very little was spent on welfare services for the people as a whole. This was manifested in extremely low levels of literacy and poor examination results. Illiteracy in 1931, defined as the inability to read or write, was 74 percent among East Indians, many of whom were forced by circumstance to send their school age children in the cane field rather than to school. In the area of health, the situation was no less depressing. Sanitary conditions in and around the plantations were abominable, resulting in widespread diseases. According to a report published in 1946, roughly 60 percent of school children showed evidence of chronic malaria; for most of the years between 1938 - 1944, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births.
It was not until the formation of the Political Affairs Committee and a few years later, the People’s Progressive Party, that the struggle for independence and human dignity began in an organized and coherent manner. The PPP advanced the struggle for internal self-government and independence to new heights and in the process forced the colonial administration to grant constitutional changes, which eventually led to universal adult suffrage in 1953. As expected, the PPP under the leadership of Dr. Cheddi Jagan won a landslide victory, winning 18 of the 24 seats in the Legislature.
One of the first things the new PPP administration embarked upon was the introduction of reforms in the areas of education, health, labor conditions, local government, drainage and irrigation and so on. These were, however, aborted when the 1953 Constitution was suspended and the PPP removed from office after only 133 days in power.
The ensuing period from 1953 to 1957 was one of marking time. Very little was achieved by the interim administration appointed by the Governor. It was not until the re-election of the PPP in the 1957 and 1961 general elections that major strides were made in all facets of national life, in particular health and education. The University of Guyana was established to provide university education to a much larger number of Guyanese who hitherto were unable to access tertiary education. Scores of primary and secondary schools and teacher training colleges were established throughout the country. Health centers and clinics were set up throughout the length and breadth of Guyana. The productive capacity of the economy increased substantially especially with respect to rice and sugar production. Water, housing, drainage and irrigation schemes were established in areas where the need existed. For the first time, prosperity was in evidence in the colony.
All of these were again aborted when the PPP was removed from office in 1964 by way of a change in the electoral system from First-Pass-The-Post to Proportional Representation. This model was virtually imposed by the British Government to deny independence to the country under a PPP government and to install a puppet administration in the form of the PNC/UF coalition government.
Time does not permit detained exposition of the atrocities committed by the PNC during its period of rule, which spawned the greater part of our post-independence history -- 1964 to 1992. Suffice it to say that the country was reduced from one of the most prosperous countries in the region to the poorest in the western hemisphere by the time the PNC elected out of office in October of 1992. The dreams and aspirations of the Guyanese people were virtually crushed by a ruthless and uncaring regime.
The return of the PPP/Civic administration to office has once again given new meaning and significance to our concept of freedom and independence. Let us all resolve to protect our freedom and continue to strive to build a peaceful, prosperous and cohesive society. We owe our children and those who come after them no less.