By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Ravi Dev and myself made varied efforts to save the sugar estates to keep workers employed. The APNU led coalition during the 2011 and early days of the 2015 election campaigns announced that it would shut down sugar factories if elected. Sugar estates are garrisons of the PPP. Any language to close them down will turn voters away. AFC, seeking to peel away support from PPP, opposed APNU position on the sugar estates. The AFC managed to get APNU to reverse its position on estate closure in the 2015 campaign. The sugar workers voted for the coalition based on this promise. But once in office, APNU proceeded to dismantle the sugar estates and gave the land and assets to supporters. AFC was quiet. Similar broken promises were made about the rice industry when APNU led coalition promised $9K a bag for paddy and insurance against inclement weather. Once elected, the government broke its promises to rice farmers.
Some fifteen thousands lost their jobs from the closure of five sugar estates. In its manifesto, PPP committed to reopen the estates. APNU led coalition had hoped to cripple PPP base if support and win the elections. It misread the electorate. Sugar workers who voted coalition returned to PPP. President Ali government announced its intention in late August to rehabilitate the sugar estates. It is the right policy.
Ravi Dev and myself made repeated efforts to save the sugar factories (estates) during APNU+AFC tenure that would have not burdened the state with any money. In fact, the government would have earned foreign exchange plus a lot of revenues from taxes. GDP would have been boosted and business booming. Instead, the government opted to shut down the factories putting tens of thousands on the breadline and the economy in a tailspin. Coalition’s thinking was to demoralize and paralyze PPP base of support. The sugar workers were betrayed by the coalition.
The sugar workers would never forget how they were mis-treated by the regime; some of them, in addition to rice farmers, donated funds to and voted for the APNU+AFC making up that 10% that took APNU coalition from 41% to 51% of support and the government. How they regretted after experiencing racism from the people who they voted!
When the government announced its intention to close the estates, Dev and I held continuous discussion and analyses on the expected consequences that we concluded would devastate the families of sugar workers as well as communities. (At the urging of Dev and Sociologist Dr. Tara Singh I visited the estates interviewing residents and penned articles on the impact of closures. There was social dislocation, widespread poverty, suicide, disability, stress and other medical issues too many to describe). Dev and I came up with ideas that led to a plan on why the estates didn’t have to be closed. Even after closure, we advised how to salvage them. We were driven by an altruistic passion to help the workers and their families. (Both us being estate bred — Dev from Uitvlugt and me Port Mourant; we grew up among rice and cane that required tender loving care for productivity). We approached investors in India querying their interest in sugar production. The investors have been managing profitable sugar estates in Africa. I made trips to India on my own expense. We begged them to help the workers of Guyana. Would be investors from India asked for a cost benefit analysis that we prepared. They asked for other information that we were able to obtain from sources within the industry and that we supplied to the potential investors. We suggested a plan of action to them. They liked it and implemented it engaging in correspondences with Guysuco and the government. They committed to pouring in tens of millions of American dollars into the economy.
Dev and I approached the government with our ideas on saving the sugar industry. Dev penned a letter to President Granger seeking an appointment to discuss the plan. Granger advised instead a meeting with Ministers Holder (Agriculture), Gaskin (Business), and Jordan (Finance) that his office set up. Dev met with them; Jordan was not present. Dev convinced two nationally respected friends of his, very prominent former executive members of the AFC, to accompany him to the meeting hoping their presence would lead to a positive outcome. A strong case was made to convince the government to save the sugar estates. The meeting did not yield any positive result.
Separately, I met with Moses Nagamootoo and pled for his intervention to stop the estate closure so as to save jobs. He assured me that investors from India were interested in acquiring the estates and retaining the workers. He was upbeat on foreign investment to rescue sugar. Media reports of his son-in-law being among the investment group surfaced. That investment never materialized. The government was determined to close down the factories and put the workers out of a job. Even Moses could not stop it.
Separately, I met with Komal Chand and suggested the Dev-Bisram idea on how to save the estates and sought his assistance to raise it with Guysuco or the government. I also proposed an idea in which the workers would pool their money (gratuity, severance) due from the government and invest it to acquire the estates. Komal was of the view that the workers would not be interested in ownership; they simply wanted their jobs, he said. He suggested I meet various local investors to save the estates since the government was not interested in foreign investors. I met a few private investors but they wanted the estates virtually for free. Government came close to giving away an estate to a group that supported it financially in the 2015 campaign to defeat the PPP; the group recognized that racism played a role in it not getting an estate as related to me, and most of the group withdrew support in the 2020 election. One private cane farmer from West Bank offered a hefty sum for Wales estate but government rejected his offer and instead gave away the land to its supporters and other political cronies. The land remains fallow as nothing was done to it. One farmer gave some $10M to AFC to defeat PPP and was so disappointed with closure of estates. He told me he chased Clive Thomas from a meeting. He also abused Moses, Khemraj, and Raphael for misleading him about the sugar estates. The West Bank investor, as did almost all private peasant cane farmers, was very successful in cane farming earning huge profits. Private farmers are reported to produce more than twice the yield of government owned estates.
The plan Dev and I suggested and which had worked successfully for major corporations in India was the farmers would be given plots of 15 acres on lease. They would grow the cane and supply to the factories which would buy at going rates supervised by a neutral agreed upon appointee. Private farmers were interested in acquiring Wales but government did not want to give it the land or the factory. The government wanted to kill sugar because it is the support base of PPP. The government did not assist Wales farmers with costly transportation of cane to Uitvlugt. The private farmers became bankrupt. Sugar workers became penniless facing very serious family and social problems at home and in the villages courtesy of the coalition regime that led to its own demise. Politics led to closure of the estates Politics should lead to their rehabilitation including Wales. And government must parcel the land to sugar workers to grow cane to be supplied to the factory.