By Jomo Sanga Thomas*
(“Plain Talk”, Nov. 15, 2019)
St. Vincent is a poor, resource starved country, but our country’s natural beauty is universally acclaimed. Our people are abundantly rich in spirit and enterprise. Most of us will do almost anything to take care of our families. Because of our small economy and the way it is ordered, most of our people experience enormous difficulties to make ends meet. And this is not for a lack of trying.
As we attempted to show last week, the unemployment rate in SVG is at least 40%. The salaries and income of workers are some of the lowest in the Caribbean. The average monthly salary is about EC$1,300.
Consequently, employed persons, including civil servants, ply a side trade to make ends meet.
The pressures to survive are great and growing. Because of the commercialised, materialistic way our society is organised, even more economic pressures are placed on the population. The burden on the poor demands extraordinary creativity, if not ingenuity to ensure survival.
This brings me to the vexed question of vending in Kingstown and the proper use of the Kingstown Vegetable Market. A few decades ago, vending in Kingstown was almost non-existent. It was frowned on by most citizens.
Today, we have hundreds of vendors, and they are all over Kingstown. Most vendors ply their wares in peace and quiet, patiently waiting for a sale. But in the best-fertilised fields, you will always find some weed. Occasionally, things come to a head, and the strong arm of the state is used to destroy people’s sheds and tables and worse, confiscate their hard-earned produce.
This is what happened last week outside Ace Hardware store. Police, allegedly responding to illegal activity, responded by using roughhouse tactics. They cleared the entire gallery, manhandling some of those gathered there in the process. Interestingly, they did not make a single arrest. The rationale for vamping on the vendors was that they were responding to alleged illegal activity. In fairness to the authorities, it must be said that at least one person was shot and killed in that area. But that incident does not warrant a Peter-pays-for-Paul-and-Paul-pays-for all response. It does not take a genius to know that such heavy-handed response will prove to be counterproductive.
Amazingly, since the police action, a minimum of four armed police officers have been stationed at the spot where the “bad eggs” regularly congregate. Now, if this ain’t stupidness, tell me what is?
Most people may not respect police, but police are feared. They know that the police can be rather brutal. They know most of the officers are armed. Therefore, wherever there is a police presence, bet your life you are just a little safer. Why then were the police given licence to goon the honest vendors out of a livelihood because of suspicious activities of a few? An active police patrol in the area could have accomplished much more with little or no harm to police/civilian relations.
This episode compels one to wonder whether the police force has an undercover unit that investigates, infiltrates, and gains actionable intelligence which will allow the state to arrest and try those suspected of criminal activities.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with vending in Kingstown. From time beyond mind, people try their very best to survive. It is the state’s responsibility to order society in such a manner to take care of the needs of all its citizens. When the state proves itself unable and unwilling to so order society, the people will act. And the people have been acting. They put a little something together and try to sell it. By plying their trade on the streets, many gain enough to take care of basic needs and send their children to school.
The state must do better with organising Kingstown. It can close off Middle Street from the police headquarters to Heritage Square to vehicular traffic from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to allow for vending. It can do a similar thing at Heritage Square. It can declare that there will be no more than five vendors on each block, and they must be a certain distance from each other.
There are two additional things we can do. To get more vendors in the market, we must place “magnet”, institutions such as Family Services, Licensing and Tax offices into the top level to bring people into the structure. Alternatively, the government can close down the Solidarity Car Park and turn it over to the vendors.
In time, we can get the World Bank or some friendly country to build a high ceiling simple market in that area.
To prevent everyone driving into Kingstown whenever, we can place a $10 tax on all vehicles that enter Kingstown Mondays to Saturdays between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. They have such a tax in London and other major cities across the world. Or we can develop a parking meter system to deal with vehicular congestion in Kingstown. All we need is a little thinking and some serious planning.
Most likely, these suggestions will be scoffed at because they demand sacrifice from the more privileged among us. It is far easier to dump on the poor and less unfortunate. If we continue to tell the poor and less fortunate that they alone must make sacrifices, they will refuse; they will rebel and SVG will become totally and completely ungovernable. We disregard our history and underestimate the rebellious and fighting spirit of our people, to our own misfortune.
Finally, under no condition should we order our society to take care of foreign taste. We should strive for a cleaner, and much more ordered society, Kingstown included, but we should never sacrifice the less fortunate among us in a mad rush to please the taste of tourists and the more comfortable among us.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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