By A. T. Freeman
Recent news stories from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago – islands at opposite ends of the region – point to enduring problems with delivering water and electricity on a consistent basis to their populations.
In Trinidad and Tobago the Water and Sewage Authority [WASA] denied news reports of nationwide rationing but not the likely increase in prices, attributed to depleting reservoir stocks caused by lower than normal rainfall and shortfalls caused by millions of dollars in bill payments arrears. Radio phone-ins regularly feature citizens complaining of water shortages, no water in the line and requests for truck born water.
According to the Jamaica Observer protests at the new Kingston HQ of state owned utility Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) have denounced price hikes. Increases are justified by pointing to alleged theft of resources – apparently users are able to hook up electricity use outside of formal systems – and commentators point to the difficulty of carrying out essential work. So price increases are justified on the grounds the need for repairs and maintenance delayed by violence directed at workers instigated by political party affiliated gangs, and to electricity theft.
Representatives of both JPS and NWC maintain that price increases are imperative and caused by the need to reclaim costs spent resolving unauthorised electricity connections and water use.
Discussion of this topic in Jamaica in many cases reflect frustration that unauthorised water and electricity use persists. Not a few commentators point out that that paying utility bills should be prioritised by communities over apparent obsession with purchasing consumer items and using illegally hooked up electricity at outdoor dances. Be that as it may, and no doubt unauthorised use and violence towards maintenance are seriously problematic.
‘Electricity theft’, it could be surmised however, is an intriguing concept. The workers in those companies and industries create all the value produced – in other words the social wealth generated to provide the services. A small portion of that wealth/value is returned to those same workers in the form of wages and salaries. The larger portion is claimed by the owners of the company (in this case the JA state but that doesn’t say much, only that state ownership is the most efficient method currently for the elites who control the economy to manage the utilities). Some of the wealth/value created will be used to provide the water/electricity services, for which customers pay in the form of bills. Probably some wealth/value produced is used for marketing, PR, and advertising. Given the capital-centric logic and outlook which prevails in the region one assumes that the priority of the JPS and NWC owners is to make maximum capitalist profit – to ensure that they are handsomely rewarded. It’s likely that this reimbursement far exceeds the proportion paid to the workers who actually produce the wealth/value.
So in this equation ‘who is stealing from whom?’ is as important a question to answer as identifying and recognizing the essential role of public sector utilities in a modern socialised economy. As well as the illegal connections said to be harming the financial stability of the utilities the other robbery, it could be said, is performed in the priority given to profit over efficient provision of service.
Such problems – problematic access to water and recurring electricity current outtage are a feature of life in the Caribbean. Failure to provide the region’s people with consistent access to such basics of modern life is an indictment of the system – and points again to the necessity that decisions on the direction of the economy should be removed from the elites and placed in the hands of the organised people empowered with full decision-making authority to manage and decide the direction of an economy which serves the needs of the people rather than perform as a cash cow to line the pockets of the elites.
[Photos – Screenshot of Jamaica National Water Commission Tweet; Hillsborough Reservoir, Tobago from WASA website]