Some of the many things that immediately come to mind about this government are the combination of its ignoring or ignorance of basic laws, its neutralising or neutering of the opposition and its tendency to pass the buck at every opportunity. Mr. Kellawan Lall, Minister of Local Government who stands out as a ministerial recipient of police tolerance – or their hesitation to prosecute crimes involving special persons – single-handedly demonstrated these failings in his statement in the National Assembly in relation to the Le Repentir garbage disposal site “I want to debunk the idea that this [site] has to do with the central government.” (S/N Friday December 31, 2010).
The minister’s expertise in dump site management was not known until that moment when he informed the National Assembly that “over the years, he had advised the Solid Waste Department of the M&CC how to manage the site but it failed to heed advice.” Here is a man who has acted autocratically on less important issues when the M&CC (sic) failed to take his “advice” but who, when the well-being of tens of thousands of the citizens of Georgetown is at stake, stands back for years, doing nothing and coming close to wishing a city-wide health pandemic to prove a political point.
Such a statement denying government responsibility and documented for posterity in the official parliamentary records should have been immediately challenged for its glaring and dangerous inaccuracy. Article 149 J (1) of the constitution sets out as a fundamental right of every citizen “the right to an environment that is not harmful to his or her health or well-being.” And Article 149 J (2) imposes on the State (emphasis mine) a duty “to protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations through reasonable legislative and other measures designed to – (a) prevent pollution and ecological degradation…… “.
Mr. Lall at the very least ought to know as well that the Guyana constitution gives to every citizen a right to life. Courts in more normal countries have interpreted this right liberally and widely to include in addition to physical existence, quality of life, access to roads, the means to support life and living with dignity. Unfortunately, with the threshold for ministerial appointment in Guyana being exceptionally low, one does not expect Mr. Lall to be informed about these or about South Africa’s and more recently Kenya’s admirable constitutional safeguards of economic, cultural and social rights. But one does expect that the government’s legal advisors would attempt to educate ministers on general and specific matters pertaining to their work. The evidence so far is that this is not being done or that any effort is not succeeding.
More direct to the environment, my recent readings about citizens’ action in countries in Africa and in India provide ideal examples and support for Guyanese to take action against the government, the Environmental Protection Agency and the City Council for damage to the environment and the endangering of lives.
One example will suffice. As far back as 1996 the Kenya court ordered the shutting down of a school’s toilets because their odiferous gases interfered with and diminished a single individual’s ordinary use and enjoyment of his home. Here in Georgetown we have tens of thousands who are affected by the dump site, some more directly than others, no longer able to enjoy fresh air, to take an afternoon stroll, or to send their children out to play. And to add a desecrating touch, even the dead are again buried, this time by stinking, rotting, toxic garbage. Yet it seems that not one of the living, not any of their political leaders, not a single presidential aspirant, is concerned enough to raise their voice in protest, aggrieved enough to take action in defiance or interested enough to approach the courts for relief.
No surprise then that we have such uninformed, bungling and callous persons as ministers. That Mr. Lall is by no means unique makes it all the more troubling.