Back to the future: Peripherilising Indians

Back to the future: Peripherilising Indians

Photo : Ravi Dev

There are some, who, when they become advanced in years, do not think anymore – they merely remember. This is particularly dangerous when those who lead a country, such as in Guyana today, fall prey to this tendency, since they merely repeat initiatives that may not only be inappropriate in the present circumstances, but may have actually failed in their first incarnation.

One of the prevalent beliefs in the African Guyanese community by the PNC’s accession to office in 1964, was that Indian-Guyanese controlled the economy and if this were combined with political power (in the form of the PPP) then they would have nothing left for themselves, as citizens of a country that they had literally slaved to found.

This conclusion about the “injustice” of outcomes within existing institutions and structures was the concrete manifestation of the “African Security Dilemma”. It led them to justify and accept the rigging of elections and other “innovations” by the PNC from 1968, which was explained as the only way to level the playing field. When the PNC secured sole control of the government after 1968 they moved to make the “small man a real man”. Very soon it was apparent that the PNC saw only the “African man” as a “small man”.  We have come a full circle in 2018.

By 1970, with the UF out of the way, the PNC announced that the model of economic development would be “Cooperative Socialism” and formulated a new 1972-1976 plan intended to “house, clothe and feed” the nation by the end of the plan period. Ironically, nationalization was to be the grand strategy for growth.

The bauxite industry was the first to be nationalized with the expectation that the learning curve of running industries would be first overcome by its supporters.  The PNC then moved to control those sectors of the economy in which Indians were prominent such as agriculture and petty retailing. While the PNC would like to justify their policies as guided by the model of “Import Substitution Industrialization” where money is squeezed from the agricultural sector to finance manufacturing of items imported, the execution of the policy meant that the burdens fell overwhelmingly on the Indian population. For instance, rice was compulsorily bought cheaply by the government then sold on the world market at high prices thus placing a huge implicit tax on rice farmers and in the process destroying the industry.

The proposed spending in the PNC’s 1972-76 development plan reduced the PPP’s 55% of budgeted funds to Agriculture down to sixteen percent and redirected sixty-two percent to various public works where as in the previous plan, its supporters dominated.  The PNC exacted a levy on windfall profits in the sugar industry (1974), nationalized it (1976), and further politicised and squeezed the workers to eventually bring the industry down on its knees. The PNC instituted an External Trade Bureau (ETB), which took over all importation of goods into the country, distributed through the intriguingly named “Knowledge Sharing Institute” (KSI) - most located in African areas, and put most petty retailers – predominantly Indians – out of business.

The co-op scheme was the vehicle for the “small man” i.e. the small African man, to become a “real man”. Huge swathes of agricultural land were transferred to co-operatives founded by African villagers. The newly established Co-op Bank (more jobs for the PNC elite) provided them with agricultural loans while the Ministry of Cooperatives provided land and technical help and the Guyana Marketing Corporation provided a market. Co-ops paid no taxes on profits.

The PNC established at least fourteen housing schemes, with thousands of homes, all for African Guyanese. The upper and middle class supporters of the PNC were empowered through jobs in the enlarged public sector (including the nationalized industries) and the boards, and directorships of the Government Corporations. Unfortunately, the sad fact is that most of these policies failed and by 1980 Guyana was bankrupt and defaulted on its international commitments. What had gone wrong?

The PNC proved several things, which they appear determined to repeat today. Firstly, no Government can exclude or penalize half of the population of a country and still expect development, unless it is willing to introduce slave camps. Secondly, if a group is thought to be lagging in any sector of national life, and there is a need for programs to rectify such disabilities then the need and the programs must be identified openly. Government may have been moving to rectify historical imbalances against Indians and Africans; however, efforts to present the programs as facially neutral fuelled suspicions of discrimination and racism.

These suspicions increased the ethnic and political polarization, based on the nature of Guyanese ethnic politics.