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Saturday 17 March 2018

Stealing land and water

Peter O'Connor writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

Because of criminal negligence in several areas of governance, citizens, including the corporate sector, have been robbing the nation of its due and its patrimony for years now.

But of course, it is not really “criminal” in our way of life; it is just the standard, day-to-day slackness which permits people and corporations to steal our earth and our water by simply ignoring the stated requirements that these products must be paid for. And strangely (or maybe not so?) it is the owner, the supplier of the commodities, the State, who has encouraged this situation, rather than the people who are taking without paying.

I am discussing the state of the quarrying industry and the Water and Sewerage Authority in our country.

The quarrying industry is a wild, free-for-all national rip-off which is meant to be controlled by the Ministry of Energy and Extractive Industries (MEEI), but the industry operates in bandit style: invading lands, stealing rock, gravel and sand and selling these products to Government and the construction sector. And I am just talking about the “formal,” registered, quarries across our land. Competing with the formal registered quarrying industry are dozens of “pirate” operators, who just destroy the land and sell the products without even the pretence of meeting any legal, safety or environmental requirements.

Last Tuesday Newsday published excerpts from a public accounts committee report stating that, as of March 2016, the “formal” quarrying operators owed Government over $196,000,000 in unpaid royalties! The MEEI was “asking” quarry operators to submit outstanding data, so that the industry could be brought under control. Here we have a whole industry, required by law to be licensed, and in possession of certificates of environmental compliance, operating without license, without regulation, without paying their royalties to the state, and without any regard to environmental concerns or the inconveniences they impose upon the public.

These breaches of the law have been going on for years now, and the theft of millions of tons of products, most “sold back” to the Government, continues daily, and will continue. Committees of Parliament may do their periodic reviews of the industry, and we will comment, but no action will be taken, and the issue will conveniently disappear.

The Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) supplies water to the nation. Ignoring their problems and failures with delivering a steady supply to the population, we need to ask how come WASA is now seeking to collect more than $200,000,000 they claim is owed to them. How and why is such a sum allowed to accumulate while successive chairmen, CEOs and board members enjoy their perks of high office? Can we line up the people responsible for this dereliction of collection over the years, and ask them to explain their gross failures?

Do we blame the delinquents, or do we blame WASA? I have always paid my WASA bill upon receipt of a quarterly invoice received in the mail, for the forty six years I have lived in my home. But, writing this, it occurred to me that I had not seen a WASA bill for some time now. On checking, I discovered that the last billing I received from WASA was for March 31, last year. For June, September and December, no invoice has arrived.

So I wonder: how much of WASA’s uncollected receivables might be unbilled? Given the appalling administrative incompetence of every enterprise is tainted by the sticky hands of our governance, anything but competence is likely. By the time you read this, I would have gone to WASA and settled my arrears. But what can be done about these thefts of land (as quarried material) and water, although most users of water are probably not aware that they are actually “stealing” it.

The Public Accounts Committee has not, as far as I am aware, presented a strategy to collect all the outstanding mining royalties, put systems in place to assure future and accurate collections, and make the quarries adhere to all environmental rehabilitation requirements. For delinquent water rates, the collection protocols must be enforced. And surely this can be done without the archaic system of trying to sell the properties of the delinquent owners?

But cutting water supplies is a double-edged sword, because many customers are charged “water rates” but they do not get water!

Also, all consumers need to be metered, so that they will be charged for what they use, and this will reduce wastage as well. Of course, the main problem with metering is who will get the contract to supply the meters! We have only looked at two areas of enterprise and Government’s refusal to collect the taxes due on these. The sums owing total about half a billion dollars!

We have not looked at petroleum or construction as yet. Will we?


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