Burnham’s rectification of African economic challenges

There is much talk about the economic challenges faced by post-Emancipation African Guyanese; but, intriguingly, there is a deafening silence on Burnham’s dogged efforts to rectify these between 1964 and 1985. Burnham inherited an economy dominated by colonial interests, where Indians had independently created their major economic niches outside of sugar – rice and a toehold in importation and retailing. Rice production had reached 275,000 tons, becoming the largest employer of Indians, who had by then entered mainstream retailing in Georgetown.
However, after 1965, the PNC mandated all rice be bought and sold through governmental entities. It fixed a low domestic price, and then exported the rice at much higher prices. The huge 118% implicit tax on rice farmers crippled the industry, which by 1985 had shrunk to 95,000 tons. “Zambia” was carved out in Black Bush for Africans, and the new rice mills were constructed and managed by Africans. Examining the proposed spending in the PNC’s 1972-76 development plan, present UG Chancellor J.E. Greene concluded, “The crucial factor in terms of patronage is the shift in the proportion of government expenditure away from the Indian farmer into the pockets of the African wage earner.”
In sugar, Indian Guyanese comprised the bulk of the low-paying field labour, and were pitifully poor compared to, say, mostly African Bauxite workers. But after “profit sharing” in the sugar industry was arbitrated in 1968, they received a welcome average of a month’s salary as “back pay”. In 1974, however, when sugar prices spiked, the PNC Government imposed a levy on profits, scooping off US$256M by 1975 alone. Neither the workers received their share of profits (60%) nor the industry their 40% for reinvestment in field and factory. Sugar was crippled by PNC’s misguided policies, even as it funded the economy.
The military and militarized units such as Police, Army, National Service and Peoples Militia were boosted to absorb the bulk of unemployed African-Guyanese youths. By 1976, according to Prof Ken Danns, Guyana had “Disciplined Forces” with a combined strength of 21,000, up from 2631 in 1965. Its soldier-to-civilian ratio of 1:35 was one of the highest in the world. According to the Latin American Bureau, “The intake into all of the disciplined services is 90% black,” in violation of the ICJ’s 1965 recommendation. To support this manpower, spending moved from $22M or 8% of the budget in 1966 to $113M or 14.2% of the budget, in 1976.
By 1977, the Government nationalized and controlled over 80% of the economy. By 1981, the bureaucracy – including that for “regionalization” and 7 new Ministries – grew by over 400% from 27,000 to 124,000. The upper and middle-class supporters of the PNC were empowered through jobs in the bloated public sector (including the nationalized industries), boards, and directorships of Government corporations. “State control …gave to the regime control of the lion’s share of the country’s economic resources, to be used for the satisfaction of the patronage claims of its black and coloured supporters,” according to Prof Percy Hintzen. Indian-Guyanese were further miniaturized in the historically African- dominated Public Service.
Housing was another area transferring wealth to PNC supporters. The 1972-76 “Feed, Clothe and House the Nation” plan called for building 65,000 “housing units”. According to Carl Greenidge, “Some 31 subsidized, low-cost housing schemes were initiated between 1970 and 1980…The estimated costs were some $500M. In addition…several housing schemes, including North Ruimveldt, Meadow Brook, and Lodge Backlands, were developed by the CH&PA.” There were also several schemes in rural areas for PNC supporters, such as De Kendren, Crane, Wisroc. They were all African-Guyanese- dominated, Indian-Guyanese had to “squat”.
The PNC instituted an External Trade Bureau (ETB) to control importation of all goods; distributed through the intriguingly named “Knowledge Sharing Institute” (KSI) – most located in African-Guyanese-dominated areas. In Linden, there were 11 KSI outlets, while in the more massively populated sugar belt stretching across the Coast, there were five. These destroyed Indian-Guyanese importation and “shop-keeping”/retail sector.
Co-operatives were the vehicle for transforming the “small” African-Guyanese man into a “real man”. The newly established GNCB provided loans for private industry entrepreneurs, while the Ministry of Co-ops provided land, implements, seeds and technical help. The Guyana Marketing Corporation, Chaired by ASCRIA’s Eusi Kwayana, provided markets. Co-ops paid no taxes on profits. Unlike present assertions on land, the MMA, which opened up 54,000 acres for rice and cash crops, huge swathes of lands to African- Guyanese from Region 5. Ditto for Essequibo.

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