Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves on Monday appealed to the religious beliefs of Anthony “Code Red” Bacchus, head of the National Omnibus Association (NOBA), as minibus operators threaten to withdraw their service over the poor conditions of the nation’s roads.
NOBA has said that its members will withdraw their service next Monday, Oct. 12, if the government does not meet its demands, which also include an expressway out of Kingstown to the Windward side of St. Vincent at rush hour.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Transport and Works, told a press conference that one of the problems is to get the hot mix and material needed for the hot mix, including stone of a particular type.
He said his government is working on an alternative route into and out of Kingstown, but added that this is not “an overnight matter”.
Bacchus has also noted that the government is spending EC$4.5 million to purchase building material to give away to citizens, but says it is not in a position to repair all of the nation’s roads.
Gonsalves told a press conference on Monday that the government cannot pass a law forcing all minibus owners to join NOBA as doing so would be unconstitutional.
He said that since coming to office in March 2001, his Unity Labour Party government has repaired more miles of roads per year than any past government.
The ULP administration spent almost EC$140 million on the road from Sion Hill to Fancy, including building the bridge at Rabacca, and has also done tremendous work on the Vigie Highway, and work is still on-going there, Gonsalves said.
He said work was also done on the Leeward Highway, including the EC$26 million upgrade of the South leeward Highway, which is underway.
Gonsalves, however, said that many of the nation’s roads were badly built and have been affected by bad weather over recent years.
He further said that his government has had to divert resources from other places to cope with damage resulting from natural disasters.
Gonsalves said he wants to ask those who are critical if monies being spent on building materials for the poor is a crime.
Some political observers have said that the materials will be used to “bribe” voters ahead of general elections, expected by year-end.
Gonsalves, however, said his government has been distributing material since 2002.
“And I want to say this to my brothers and sisters in the minibus association. The four and half million dollars for these materials, I haven’t spent the money. I got credit, one-year credit. It’s from next year I’m paying the money,” said Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance.
He said there are people suffering with poor housing conditions, problems arising from the storm, adding that while his government has repaired a lot of these houses, there is still a lot to be done.
Gonsalves further noted that some of the material will be used in the Lives to Live programme, under which the government builds homes and, in some cases, bathrooms for disabled, elderly or indigent Vincentians.
Some of the owners and drivers of minibuses have relatives coming to look for building materials and or baths and toilet to be built on their house under this programme, Gonsalves said.
“I know that Code Red is a good Muslim. He is a believer in the Islam. And I appeal to him that in the Koran, in the old Testament and the New Testament, there is no group of people more elevated in the eyes of the Supreme Being than the poor. They have a special place — in Islam and in the Hebrew bible, in the Old Testament and the New Testament,” Gonsalves said, adding that some people know whatever is being done is for the poor.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Transport and Works, said that he was not ignoring the condition of some of the nation’s roads
“But you can’t tell me to fix all the roads at the same time, because I have over 80 miles of highways — Windward, Leeward and Vigie. I have about 200, 250 miles of village roads, secondary roads, and about 400 miles of feeder roads,” he said.
Gonsalves appealed to NOBA to listen to him, saying that he had to convince Bacchus to meet with Minister of State in the Ministry of Works, Sen. Julian Francis, and identify the roads that people complain the most about.
Gonsalves said that putting the issue down to self-interest, he needs the minibuses to transport persons to political rallies.
“The long and short of this, I am saying to minibus men: we appreciate your work, I respect what you are doing. You are doing fantastic work, improvements can be made but let us work with one another,” he said