May 24, 2004
In January of this year and several months prior, minibus operators up and down the coast went on strike over the enforcement of a 40-year-old law which defined the number of seats in a bus. The problem is that the law was constructed for motorbuses that existed at the time and not the latter-day minibuses that serve as the backbone for the transportation sector.
Following the strike in January that severely inconvenienced the travelling public, President Jagdeo intervened and instructed that enforcement of the law be placed in abeyance for three months during which time a review would be done of it by the Ministry of Home Affairs which had been the progenitor of the decision to enforce the law.
With the three-month period over, Stabroek News checked to see what progress had been made. Nothing has happened. When checks were made with the Ministry of Home Affairs, Stabroek News was surprisingly referred to the Traffic Chief. When he was contacted he made it known that nothing had occurred during the three-month period set aside for the review.
Undoubtedly, since the appearance of the report in the Sunday Stabroek of May 9 on the lack of progress, a frenetic scramble will get underway to cobble together some type of deeper insight on the dilemma and to make recommendations.
The manner in which the strike developed and its subsequent treatment showed how wrong-footed the government was on this issue.
In the first place, no ministry attuned to the changes in public transportation over the life of the statute would even consider enforcing the law after it had not been utilised for such a long time without detailed and reasonable dialogue with the minibus operators. Clearly given the transformation of the transportation sector, with the large mostly state-owned buses virtually now extinct, new laws defining requirements for the various types of minibuses needed to be devised. This was not done and so on the face of it the determined enforcement of this 40-year-old law without allowance for the changes was insupportable. Moreover, minibus operators had signalled flexibility. Minibuses which were technically designed to safely hold 12 passengers had been converted by crafty operators to carry three additional passengers. Safety concerns arose about this practice and they were willing to restore these minibuses to 12 seats. They were not however in a mood to compromise on long wheelbase buses which were constructed with a maximum carrying capacity of 15 passengers. The operators correctly reasoned that if they were allowed to legally bring these buses into the country with a specific carrying capacity they should be allowed to adhere to this.
Why there could be no reasonable dialogue on this is mysterious but the ministry and the police traffic department clung steadfastly to the puzzling decision to begin strictly enforcing this law. And then the President intervened. He summoned the striking bus operators and gave the assurances mentioned above. It appeared that even this issue was not immune from the caprice of politics. The cause of the minibus operators had been taken up by the ROAR leader Ravi Dev and innovatively, the issue had been referred to the parliamentary Economic Services Committee chaired by the PNCR's James McAllister. The President's intervention would therefore be viewed as an attempt to undercut the opposition from pursuing to finality what was an issue of vital importance.
Surely, the decision to suspend the imposition of ancient law which was out of sync with the modern reality fell well within the ambit of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Traffic Department. The fact that the President felt it necessary to intervene doesn't speak well of the ability of the Ministry of Home Affairs to clear the easiest of paths through a relatively simple issue before it escalated. The President's intervention should certainly be reserved for problems of much greater complexity as we have pointed out in previous editorials.
And now that he intervened, the end result seems to be a reversion to the status quo. Perhaps several years will elapse before a decision is taken to either begin enforcing the law again or having the legal draughtsmen come up with something more suitable for the circumstances.
Either way, it is disappointing that following his intervention nothing was done for three months. Those who were entrusted with pursuing this matter have failed miserably and the President should have a word with them about this. It should also be instructive. With a small divided populace we continue to establish myriad committees, commissions, reviews, enquiries and other such mechanisms without having the critical mass to people them.
Had the ministry - at several levels - properly handled this matter there would have been no need for the President's intervention and his assurances would not have come to naught. The ministry should definitely get in touch with the Attorney-General's Chambers to begin working on an amended law.