Who is to be blamed for the current mini-bus mess in St Lucia?

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Ciceron bus stand

By Robertson S. Henry

Another year is coming to an end without the materialization of a much-needed foundation which would have cushioned bus operators against the effects of the current coronavirus economic battering. The scatter-shot implementation of the recent protest action is proof of that.

Almost 17 years to the day after a proposal was presented at a meeting of the National Council on Public Transportation, on Sunday, December 19, 1993, at the Gros-Islet Community Centre, bus operators continue to feel the effects of the ever-increasing burden of increased operation costs, which continues to stifle development.

The proposal in question called for the establishment of a fund amounting to about EC$7.5 million, financed by the 824 registered bus operators of the 13 legally registered regional minibus associations, at the time. It called for each bus owner to purchase 750 shares at EC$10.00 per share; and would be managed by experienced and knowledgeable persons, appointed by the bus operators.

The fund also mandated compulsory savings of EC$10.00 daily for every bus operator, the establishment of a spare parts and maintenance facility, and the refinancing of bus loans and mortgages of bus drivers and/or owners, at a repayment plan of 2.5 percent interest, instead of the current 9 –13 percent currently being paid.

The proposal was prepared and presented by Robertson S. Henry. However, after presenting the proposal, instead of encouraging questions to be asked, the president of a minibus association, who was present, responded saying “bus drivers are not ready for this.”

Despite attempts by several bus operators present to have the proposal discussed, he and his friends insisted; and the then NCOPT president caved in and ruled, that “we will discuss this another time.”

Many attempts in the coming weeks and months were made to have this proposal tabled and discussed, but this never took place. As a result, today, the pressures of the COVID-19 enforced social and economic readjustments to take effect, the price of not having the financial cushion to lessen the impact has influenced bus operators to lay blame at the feet of the government.

Before anyone points to the establishment of a cooperative and petrol station a few years ago as the solutions, let it be known that many bus operators never supported such, it eliminated too many operators.

I must extend heartfelt thanks to Victor Jn Pierre, Sylvester Joseph, and Peter Damiana who invited me into their small three-man committee to begin the move for change in 1987.

While strides have been made to reform Saint Lucia’s public transport system, of which, I played a part from 1988 – 2002, there was, and still is, much to be done. But the absence of critical thinking at the executive level, especially the central executive of the National Council on Public Transportation is a huge obstacle.

As the island continues to be battered by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that the bus operators through the Regional Minibus Associations and the National Council on Public Transportation, think outside the box and put together a package of not just proposals, but achievable reforms of their organization.

A bus fare increase is not the answer. The ripple effect would be economically devastating, and many a family would be forced to take measures which would further increase the social repercussions.

Increasing the number of passengers per bus is risky, health-wise, but economically sound to the sustainability of the sector. The clear and present danger of increasing the number of passengers per bus is a dangerous bridge, too far to risk crossing.

What is most troubling is that there is no evidence of any proposals submitted to the general body by the NCOPT central executive.

  • Did they draft reforms as dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequently sent to the relevant government ministries?
  • Did the central executive of the National Council submit proposals to the government of Saint Lucia, outside of a mandate given by the general body?

If so, then it is a clear violation of the NCOPT’s constitution and the basic principles of governance.

  • Are representatives of the regional minibus associations at the general council level aware of this, and if yes, what have they attempted to do?

If this is the case, then the bus operators have been forced between a rock and a hard place.

There is an immediate need for the executive committee of each association to come clean with their members. The NOCPT central executive must convene an urgent general meeting to table the suite of proposals submitted to the government, and give a complete report on what transpired as per COVID-19 discussions with the government.

Through the various media outlets, there is talk of ongoing discussions, but to date, the NCOPT spokesperson is yet to indicate what issues are being discussed and what proposals were tabled. I fear the obvious that bus operators may very well be given a six for a nine. And if my fears, more often than not, are well-founded, then there should be a purging of the executives of the regional bus associations, and the NOCPT central executive.

Bus operators (earlier this week) return to work, but the problem of bad administration at various levels and the refusal of bus operators to be more involved in all aspects of the operations of the Regional Minibus Associations, instead of voicing opinions only when a crisis looms is another major cause for concern.

Bus operators provide an essential service, and if they are to survive this current test of unity, then they must have an urgent sit-down amongst themselves. They must put together a suite of proposals which are obtainable in the short, medium, and long term. This must be done with the utmost urgency for not only the coronavirus pandemic, but as entrepreneurs and a critical component of the developmental thrust of Saint Lucia.

Government, the private sector, and the bus operators must individually and collectively expedite the reform process, begin the implementation of short term objectives without fail, and establish a timeline for the implementation of the medium and long term objectives.

Bus operators must include in their proposal an adjustment to the current repayment plan on bus loans, a review of existing insurance premiums and what is obtainable, reduction in the cost of spare parts, high bus maintenance costs (physical infrastructure) the welfare of the travelling public and bus operators.

The above issues should form the backbone of a suite of the proposals formulated by the bus operators, and presented to the government and private sector by a team of representatives appointed by bus operators. The days of the representatives of bus operators going hat in hand, seeking a bailout are long gone. They need to think critically as community leaders, as nation builders, and as partners with the government in the holistic socio-economic development of Saint Lucia.

Today, the failure to implement the needed reforms have come home to haunt those who drive along the highways and byways of the public transport sector. The individual and collective failure by the members of the Regional Minibus Associations.

The absence of true leadership at the level of the Regional Minibus Associations and the NCOPT is an indictment. They owe Saint Lucia a collective apology and must take the blame for the current mini-bus mess.

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