The rule of law and social order: Riverton fire, poor management, and Charter of Rights

I’m not by nature a litigious person, so I was a bit surprised that one of my first reactions to the latest fire at Riverton was to ask if and how the NSWMA could be taken to court. I had a vague recollection from last year that they had already been put under legal sanction by the NEPA, but could not remember the details. Jamaica, being the kind of place it is, I had not expected the media to stay on top of that story since last year, but it’s the sort of thing that media should be doing–keeping the finger pressed on a topic when it gets into the boring, nothing much happening phases. 

So, I was smiling a little when it seemed too good a coindicence that NEPA raised again that NSWMA is in violation of its mandate and that the renewed risk of their losing the operatiing licence has come to the fore.

Today’s Gleaner kindly reminds me of the details and that fact that the Public Defender has a case heading to court, though its timing seems to be far too slow for the serious problem that is at hand. The drag that is our slow legal process is an issue that has too many bearings on the quality of life. What is significant, to me, is that this is not common-or-garden case, but one brought in defence of breaches of Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, ie, it goes to the core of how this country is supposed to function as a society. It’s not about balance sheets and budgets, but about what is the basic right of all citizens. Normally, we don’t look at the sloppy way that we deal with garbage as being of that sort of issue. But, in Jamaica, it is.

I often say that jamaica is like the child who does everything possible to avoid doing what it should do, with plenty of time in hand, only to scrammble madly to try to get it done before the inevitable embarrassment occurs, like parents coming home and the trying to wave the cigarette smoke out of the windows. 

Though Jamaicans like to think of discipline as beating and lashing people, it really isnt. Discipline is knowing the right thing to do without being told. By that definition we are often faced by lots of seeming indiscipline. What is sometimes surprising about Jamaica, especially its public agencies, is how they often have to be told–repeatedly–what the right things are to do. (I turn a side eye towards the police, JCF, who are apparently ‘concerned’ about overloading of veheicles, rather than just getting off the tree stump and implementing the laws that say this should not occur. What are they waiting for? Another horrid accident, and a chance to wave their collective arms high in anguish?)

I watched the ‘media briefing’ last Friday that lined up the main agencies involved in dealing with the fire at Riverton. I do not know any of the people who were on the panel, and that’s good. I don’t need to know them. I need to know that they know what they are doing. The Executive Director of NSWMA said that poor ‘management’ was not a problem in the lead-up to the fire, and that the agency had not facilitated the fire. Read carefully the statements:

“The fire at Riverton is certainly not something that the NSWMA has facilitated, encouraged or otherwise, so I’m not of the view that there is a lack of management. What we may have is lack of resources to implement that management plan….I believe the NSWMA has managed the facility as best as is possible based on what we have there. I believe that, based on all of that they have done very well in keeping the disposal site from erupting more frequently.”

So, the argument goes that because the frequent fires are put out quickly and that fires don’t break out more often, then a good piece of management is on display. Give me a break! Those are not management objectives worth talking about. That’s like having a leaking pipe and praising oneself that everytime the house floods you can mop up the mess, and that only having the ceiling cave in is better than the whole house collapsing. It elevates failure. It does not address what should be done to get success and avoid future failure. 

Here. we also have one of those signature moments of dissemblance. If you are under instruction to deal with lapses in how you manage the activity for which you are charged, then you are mismanaging. You ‘facilitate’ any mishap by the simple fact that you have not done, and are not doing, what you can and should to avoid certain mishaps, like improving security. It is the crock of all crocks to start crying about ‘financial resources’ not being made available for the purpose. It’s not money that is stopping the actions, but an unwillingness to act.

I don’t think I can do better than today’s Gleaner editorial, though, so I commend that to you. Read, especially, the penultimate paragraph to understand how waste ‘mangement’ is understood. Did I mention the role NSWMA also plays in mismanaging waste on a daily basis? Check the stories of how regular garbage collection not happening is putting school children at risk. 

One of the take aways from episodes like this is how we need the other pillars of society to be strong and independent. The media should be all over the issues like white on rice–sorry, the questions last Friday were really soft. We need the courts to take officials to task and hold them to account. We need civil society to stand up as individuals and collectives to demand proper actions and explanations. Some, have lamented the lack of regular updates about what is a health crisis in the guise of a fire: the consequences are not temporary and need to be monitored well as potential health risks.

We also need to go for the ‘low-hanging’ fruit of political appointees to public agencies. Every agency should be subject to open competititon, and if not done correctly, then it’s the sort of failing for which international financial agencies should hold governemnt to account. I’ve no problem squeezing out cronyism. No one’s friend or political affiliate has any business running anything unless they are proven to be the best candidate.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

One thought on “The rule of law and social order: Riverton fire, poor management, and Charter of Rights”

  1. I agrees completely discipline is a way of thinking rather than a result of the lash. I always hate it when my Jamaican and Indian friends try to get away with things in the UK by taking a “third world approach” to driving or cutting lines or whatever. I try to remind that that is precisely the reason Jamaica or India are in the state they are in.


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