Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Thursday, August 28, 2003  

Here we go again. Yet another mayor of Port of Spain has decided he's going to clean up the capital; and like his predecessors, he is going to fail.

Mayor Murchison Brown declared in an interview earlier this week that come Tuesday next, the day after the Independence holiday, all illegal vending will come to an end on Port of Spain's streets. He also said that newspaper vendors, the only street vendors who will be allowed to remain, must "make their stands more presentable.... [T]hey need to come up with something that is more pleasing to the eyes of the reading public".

Once again we see the shortsighted, inadequate thinking that so characterises us on full display. Such a wishy-washy directive, however well-intentioned and however much the vendors themselves agree with it, will achieve nothing. What exactly does mayor Brown mean by such vague terms as "presentable" and "more pleasing"? Who is to judge? And will a cosmetic lick of paint, or the draping of a tablecloth over the wooden bench that most vendors use--which is probably all that this beautification drive will boil down to--really solve the problem in the long run?

One simple, effective solution (in my opinion) would be to have whichever authority issues newspaper vending licenses provide vendors with official, regulation-built vending booths. It would be the vendors' duty to ensure their stands remained in proper condition, with government inspectors making periodic checks to see that this is done.

As for the other, illegal vendors, does anyone seriously believe that by simply ordering them off the streets that it will be done? How many times has that confrontational approach been tried and found wanting? One knows what will happen: in the first few days of the scheme the police force will be out en masse following the mayor's directive, with the vendors playing catch me if you can and moaning about brutality and the government's insensitivity towards poor people. Soon enough things will be back to how they were, and the root problem of illegal vending will remain unadressed.

(And the vendors aren't stupid. They know the issue is also a political one, that the political card will be played, the issue of patronage invoked. As one vendor noted, "This is not the first time...I go through this year after year. But I’m not scared of anything because I know they wouldn’t kick us off the streets so.".)

What we need of course is a considered government policy on the matter, not the mayor's sudden decision on a Sunday morning radio interview to become the Rudolph Giuliani of Port of Spain. But so many of the decisions made concerning our capital--as with the nation at large--are ad hoc. Once this remains the modus operandi, no truly effective change can take place.

posted by Jonathan | 11:33 AM 0 comments


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