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Transport Minister: Expect changes in 90 days
Newly-appointed Transport Minister Chandresh Sharma is promising the nation that within the next 90 days, citizens will see an enhanced delivery of services by the ministry, which includes the much-maligned Licensing Department. The Member of Parliament for Fyzabad says he cannot wait to tell the people about the qualitative and quantum strides that would be achieved by then. He is also claiming that Opposition Leader Keith Rowley is not qualified to criticise Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar for the recent reconfiguring of her Cabinet.
Q: Mr Minister, the Licensing Department is in a virtual mess, traffic congestion is horrendous. Which of the two gives you the biggest headache in your new portfolio?
A: (At his Tower D office on the Port-of-Spain Waterfront, Thursday afternoon) Of course, the Licensing Department is under the Ministry of Transport, the traffic congestion requires a collective effort between the Local Government Ministry and the Ministry of Transport, which is the vehicle in the context of the Licensing Department.
Clevon, after the election of 2010, the new prime minister did what I consider to be very instructive, in that she invited the national community to get involved in the governance of Trinidad and Tobago, which would allow the best minds to come together.
Did the population respond positively to this offer and how was this manifested?
Yes. Yes, they did. A lot of NGOs, CBOs and business organisations came forward and that plays a very important role, as governments always need new ideas…they are not the owners of all the best ideas in the world.
Early in his tenure as Minister of Works and Transport, Mr Jack Warner spoke about corruption at this department, from top to bottom. How do you intend to deal with that issue?
First of all, I have not yet seen…and you will appreciate I am here less than ten days now…and the job of the minister is not to see the corruption but to treat with it, if it so obtains. It is the duty of the police to do the relevant investigations, but certainly over the years we have heard many stories, and we are aware, for instance, that some cars on the roads were licenced in a manner in which the law did not intend and the police have been looking at these and other matters. I intend to make sure these investigations continue.
Before you go on, when I was walking into your office, the Transport Commissioner (Reuben Cateau) was leaving. What was the nature of your discussions…corruption down there?
No. He is still in the building, but he attended a meeting of the Transport Board.
Very well...can you continue?
Yes. So the police are required to investigate any allegation of corruption and for too long we have been hearing stories of persons being able to obtain all kinds of things for a reward: car numbers, certified copies, changing of chassis and so on. We are trying to straighten that out with the assistance of the government of Nova Scotia.
In this regard, we are hoping to have an electronic number plate, which simply means you will be able to have a PIN ID, which would give a lot of information on the vehicle itself, such as the type of the car, when it came in, the previous owner...
Would this be for the exclusive use of motorists?
No. It is intended for good governance, in that Government would have easily accessible information on the population, which would make for even better planning for social amenities and facilities, what is your age group, the pension group in particular areas...and so on.
Mr Sharma, we have been hearing for several years about the proposed computerisation of that department, which is still to be achieved. Some are claiming that this is not being done because of political considerations…jobs for the boys and girls would be reduced if the system is computerised...?
(Crossing his legs and with a serious expression) I don’t think that it is the case.
Have you been able to assess as yet what is required of you in the discharging of your duties as Transport Minister and what is the most pressing need at this time?
Well, as the name implies, this ministry is responsible for all transport—air, land and sea. So the first thing maybe is transport on the ground: the Public Transport Service Corporation, all school kids need to get to school on time, and the administration of the maxi-taxi system. Over the last few days, I have been meeting some of the stakeholders very quietly, in the absence of the news media (laughs), and hopefully by the end of this month I would have met all of them under our watch.
From what you have been able to gauge so far, what areas do you think need your immediate attention?
We need to make sure that our stakeholders, the persons who run the operations of the ministry, that they are comfortable, as they operate at their best when they feel they are part of the organisation and we intend to involve them as much as possible.
We have to find out why persons have to wait five hours for service when they go to licensing offices, the cashiers’ cages are closed from 12 to 1 pm, they leave at 3 pm. Persons have to come with cash...all over the world people pay with cards. We are moving in those directions and some of these may require legislation.
To change from paying with cash to plastic needs legislative sanction?
You may need legislation...also, the infrastructure. For instance, in all licensing offices we don’t have the services of a copying machine. You need to have your photographs taken, which means you have to go and find a studio outside of the licensing office, which translates into further delays for the customer.
Mr Minister, these situations have been plaguing the system for many years. Have you been able to ascertain, over the last ten days or so, why they were allowed to continue up to today?
(Furrowed brow and poking his right cheek with index finger) Many of our ministries suffer from staff shortages. We are now addressing that, and in the short term, really through the OJT programme, we can also use returning scholars. We have started that process already and we are looking at the private sector in this regard and over the years, the records have not been kept in the best condition.
On that subject, Mr Sharma, I recently did some business down there and I was appalled to see handwritten documents in paper files in the Roll On/Roll Off section, stacked in an airless, leaking room. They were scattered on the ground and I even saw what looked like a mega rat, scampering about the place.
There must be a level of carelessness, and papers in a government department are the property of the State but more than that, getting those things to the electronic stage, it has to be copied in a particular way and that is time-consuming. Unfortunately, this is still new to Trinidad and Tobago. You would also appreciate that the shelf life of a vehicle in this country is much longer than in many other countries.
Mr Minister, you know that we cannot talk unless we deal with a little of the politics.
(Hands folded across his chest and a huge grin) Yes. Come with it.
Ok. In announcing the reconfiguration of her Cabinet, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar spoke about the importance of delivering to the people. Leader of the Opposition Dr Keith Rowley described the exercise as a waste of time...
Yes. Well, the Leader of the Opposition is not the sharpest kid in town. He is not known to have made any intelligent statements in the last three to five years. In fairness to him, we were both first elected to Parliament in 1991 and I am shocked at the low level of their political intelligence; he and Colm Imbert.
They seem not to be focused on the bigger picture...they seem to be far from the crowd. They have a penchant, especially Mr Imbert, of saying things, knowing that they were economising with the truth, and then change their story some time after.
But isn’t that the forte of most politicians?
Mr Raphael, that is why the PNM was voted out of office. Too many of them fooled the population over the years and I dare anybody to bring factual evidence to show that we in the PP Government have consistently lied to the population...and I mean real evidence.
On the issue of the reconfiguration of the Cabinet, Mr Rowley was transferred during PNM administrations on more than one occasion...at one time he even refused the Ministry of Gender Affairs. So I fail to see how they could say that Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar is wasting time to achieve the best for the country by shifting around her performance team. And, in fact, when you look at the performance of this Government and compare it with any of the previous PNM regimes, you would see that we have substantially done more in two years than they did over several of their terms.
Finally, Mr Sharma, what assurance, promise or guarantee can you give, that citizens would see a quantum and qualitative upgrade in the performance of this ministry anytime soon?
Clevon, the short answer is that I am obligated, it is no longer a promise. A minister is obligated by law and by their oath of office to successfully discharge our duties to all citizens and I think we will begin to see that change within 90 days time, maximum.
You know I am holding you to that and will return to check on your report card within the next three months?
I would love that and I cannot wait to tell the people what we have done within our first 90 days in office at this ministry.