Thursday, May 30, 2013

Commentary: Don't believe the lie that sugar was a drain on the treasury

A letter published in the Newsday newspaper on Wednesday (May 29, 2013) contains one sentence that is downright offensive and reeks of misinformation and propaganda. The letter writer suggested that Indians support Jack Warner because of the former cabinet minister’s "ever generous" representation. 

That may or may not be true but the offensive line has nothing to do with Warner. It has to do with a decision made by former Prime Minister Patrick Manning that he called "the best decision" he ever made. I am talking about the closure of the state sugar company, Caroni (1975) Limited. 
File: The sugar factory at Usine Ste Madeline
The offending line in the letter is this: "…people forget that Caroni Limited was a cancerous drain on the Treasury". Those who have been fed this kind of falsehood might sincerely believe that but don't fall for it.

Caroni was never a drain on the Treasury. That and other lies are part of the false propaganda that the PNM has circulated from the day the Eric Williams administration bought the sugar company in 1975. 

I can say so with conviction based on my own experience of working as a consultant for the company and was privy to all kinds of sensitive and confidential information, the contents of which I am still not at liberty to disclose. 

Caroni had always been a political football because the PNM knew that it was 
the constituency of the Indo-based opposition parties going back to the Bhadase Maraj and the PDP era of 1956 and continuing to the UNC and Basdeo Panday. The PNM policy was to keep the sugar workers in a perpetual state of dependency while refusing to breathe life into the company.

Here’s what the late PNM Cabinet Minister Ronald J. Williams told me in 1987 just months after the PNM’s fall from power in the 1986 general election: "We try to bribe dem by keeping Caroni open, but dey still aint vote for we." 

Williams called his boss, George Chambers, "a damn fool" for not shutting down the sugar company that sustained a community of nearly a quarter of a million people, most of whom were perceived to be pro-opposition.

Two decades later Manning did it, ostensibly to save the plundering of the treasury by a company taking a subsidy averaging one million dollars a day. 

But don't believe Manning's claim that it was because of sound economic thinking or concern for the people who worked in the industry. it was none of that. Manning shut it down out of political spite. It was always a part of the political thinking of the PNM. 

And in the 2007 general election campaign Manning dismissed suggestions of reviving the sugar industry saying it would happen only “over my dead body”. He said he could not go back to sugar because the industry would keep the children of sugar workers in servitude. His vision, he said, was to take them out of agriculture so they would improve their lives. 
Indians didn’t need Patrick Manning’s or the PNM’s help to free themselves and their children from “servitude”; they were doing it long before Manning and the PNM existed and they continue to do so today.

The Indians who slaved on the plantations worked hard to free their children from that scourge. Their children and children's children are judges, lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, civil servants, business leaders, farmers and fishermen; they are the leaders and role models in every facet of national life.

They achieved upward mobility while their parents lived off the land, working hard under the worst conditions and with no support from the state to feed the nation. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Basdeo Panday, the late Noor Hassanali and Satnarine Sharma - to name a few - were all products of sugar and agriculture.

So Manning's false notion that the plantations would condemn the children to "slavery" was bogus and dishonest. And let me ask this question: If Manning cared so much about the welfare of Indians why was he planning to import a new generation of Indians to work in agriculture?

Read the story: Why does T&T need a new form of indentureship?

In fact when he closed the sugar industry he was working hard at creating a community of dispossessed people. He tried to rob them of their self-respect, their independence and their pride. And that is why he refused to give them the land that was rightfully theirs under the terms of the separation agreement negotiated between the government and the sugar union.

Manning once told me that a state enterprise did not exist for profit. “It is there for social stability, social stability,” he insisted. If that is so, why close down a state industry like Caroni (1975) Limited? If any state enterprise qualified under Manning’s definition, it was Caroni.

However, Manning had another, more sinister motive. He saw it as an opportunity to crush the opposition base and destroy its leadership. It didn't work. The some people he put out of work demonstrated their resilience and rose from the ashes of sugar to put Manning out of business in 2010.

If you look back at the sugar industry in the context of a national agricultural strategy you would be amazed at some of the truth that got smothered in the spin about the company being a drain on taxpayers and the economy.

First, it employed nearly 10,000 people directly and a further 6,000 cane farmers produced cane for the factories. That’s 16,000 people and their dependents – a total of about 64,000, assuming each person had three dependents. These people supported the shops and other businesses that grew up in the agricultural communities. The essential trading created tens of thousands of small entrepreneurs who worked and lived in the sugar communities.

In other words, that state enterprise that Manning shut down provided the “social stability” that was so important to him.

The spin only portrayed Caroni workers as illiterate cane cutters and field workers. In reality, Caroni was much more than that. It was also a community of mechanics, drivers, heavy machine operators, clerical workers, computer technicians, managers, engineers, doctors and other health care workers.

Here are some other facts Manning didn’t tell anybody:

  • Caroni represented 44.7 per cent of the GDP in the agricultural sector
  • Caroni injected an average of TT$680 million into the national economy every year, including guaranteed foreign exchange from sugar and rum exports
  • Caroni workers earned approximately $447 million a year and paid about $32 in direct taxes to the government
  • Caroni subsidized the state medical services by providing FREE medical services to all its staff and its dependents – more than 60,000 people – and provided free prescription medicines to them
  • Caroni subsidized the local government authorities by providing land for cemeteries, parks and recreation grounds and assisted by maintaining these facilities
  • Caroni's lands were taken by the state for all manner of development without compensation. The Point Lisas estate stands on lands that once produced sugar cane
  • Caroni subsidized the state housing by providing land for housing
  • Caroni subsidized the business sector – particularly the soft drink industry – to the tune of about $60 million a year
  • Caroni operated profitable beef, rum and citrus subsidiaries
  • Caroni had a fully mechanized rice subsidiary capable of producing enough for domestic needs
  • Caroni owned assets valued at more than one billion dollars
  • Study after study showing ways to rationalise the industry were ignored
In short the company that was a drain on the economy and a burden on taxpayers was taking one million dollars a day and giving back nearly two. It was not an economic parasite. And more important, it provided social and economic stability to an entire community and the nation.

It was the golden goose of agriculture than Manning killed. And contrary to what Manning said in the 2007 general election, keeping Caroni open did not condemn the children of sugar workers to remain in "slavery."

Yes slaves and indentured labourers built the industry, but their children have moved on. Just look around and you'll see the evidence.

Sugar built the nation.

And while sugar cane may have lost its economic appeal, the land and the expertise existed to create a revolution in agriculture that would have been the envy of the region and the world. 

Year after year under the PNM, the floods came, the roads remained unpaved, the lands lay abandoned. 

In the past three years the People’s Partnership administration has been making efforts to change all that and make agriculture both respectable and profitable. From the ashes of sugar, Trinidad and Tobago could still build a sustainable agriculture sector. 

Jai Parasram

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai