Monday 24th February, 2008

Prakash Persad
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We deserve much better

Trepidation, dismay and an anger-based resigned attitude juxtaposed on frustrated hopelessness would be a fair characterisation of the emotional state of most people who have to interface and interact with state agencies, particularly those that deal with immigration, vehicle licensing, medicines and old age pension.

The requirement (perceived or otherwise) to obtain the new format passport has resulted in a situation that can only be described as nightmarish.

In the past, you needed to go the immigration office and line up in the streets at 4 am or so, in order to obtain an appointment number which conferred on you the privilege to be able to eventually enter the building and sit and await your long-awaited turn to meet with an immigration officer.

These days, however, in some locations people go as early as 1 am in order to be able to present their passport documents, and in at least one other location the word is that you have to go as early as 10 pm on the previous day.

If you have a mistake on your documents, brace yourself for a repeat performance.

There are, at present, only four passport processing centres in operation, with a fifth reportedly being slated to open soon. Judging by the number of chits being given out daily, 150, and assuming that the fifth centre is opened in the very near future, it means that only 750 passports can be processed on a daily basis.

This translates to 3,700 passports a week.

Assuming that we do in fact have 45 full working weeks and all five centres are working at 100 per cent rated capacity, it means that at the best 168,750 people can obtain their passports in any one calendar year.

At this rate approximately 58 per cent of the population will get their new passports in about four and a half years time, that is by the middle of 2012.

So the big question is this: what happens to those people who do not obtain the new format passports?

Surely before deadlines were set and announced publicly, the sensible thing to do was to look at the present processing capacity of the immigration offices and either base the changeover deadline on the present system or, if an earlier period was envisaged, then upgrade the capacity. But apparently “vaaps” is the preferred mode of planning in these here parts.

I am sure the country awaits, with bated breath, as to how the goal of giving the new format passports, to all those who require them, will be achieved in the stipulated time frame.

Trying to renew your driving permit is another exercise in frustration. Here again one is traumatised by the inadequate facilities and the lengthy waiting periods.

Other than the plain human suffering and misery being inflicted on the population, it would be most instructive to determine the cost to the country in terms of lost man hours.

No wonder our competitiveness and productivity continue to slide in the wrong direction.

Would it not be more cost-effective, not to mention more humane, to increase the processing capacities either through the opening of more centres/offices or expanding the existing ones?

Listening to the trials, tribulations and suffering of the pensioners and the poor sick, as related by them on radio, as they attempt to obtain their pension and pharmaceuticals from the public health system, severely perturbs one’s emotional equilibrium.

A society that does not treat with the vulnerable in a just and caring manner is not a civilised society.

Maybe that is exactly what is happening to us. We are gradually becoming more uncivilised and hence the lack of respect for life, for the welfare of others and the don’t-care-a-damn-attitude that pervaded life in sweet T&T.

Who does the planning in this country? And does it matter to anyone that these public services have always been rotten and have now acquired a repugnantly putrid state that is totally unacceptable, even in a banana republic of tenth-world status?

As a people we need to demand a minimally acceptably decent level of service. That is the reason why we pay taxes. Furthermore, aren’t citizens entitled to be treated with some degree of dignity and respect?

Maybe as citizens we are too accommodating and do not assert our rights to proper service. Of course in typical Trinidadian beat-the-system style, people, instead of demanding the services be improved for everyone and for us too when we next require them, the focus is instead a selfish one, using the “connection route.”

This only makes the system more inefficient.

Slowly but surely as the economy grows and the gap between the required public services and the actual present capacity of these services grows, corruption increases.

It becomes institutionalised and costs go up while productivity goes down.

Even more tragic is that suffering of the vulnerable in society increases.

That is not a path we want to travel. It leads to a place we should not be.

There is a need to drastically improve the quality of services at Immigration and Licensing. Pensioners need to be attended to in a expedient and humane manner. Citizens need to assert their right to proper and courteous service.

* Prof Prakash Persad is chairman of Swaha Inc

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