Our Youths today lament the fact that the Budget represents A LACK OF VISION – not even a mention of a digital economy for T&T

32

By VASANT BHARATH

Students of our country, many of whom will soon become first-time voters, have a clear and progressive vi­sion of the society in which they want to live and work.

They want a modern, competi­tive country with the values of meritocracy, and they reject the ethnic-based partisanship of red and yellow.
I was reminded of the enlight­ened and reformist idealism of our youths when I participated in a post-budget discussion involv­ing hundreds of students of four urban secondary schools.
Students are conscious – and concerned – about the world they are inheriting.
For example, they are dis­tressed about the state of the en­vironment.
Students are not impressed with Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s song-and-dance over granting household bulbs and as­sorted items as expressions of his Government’s vision of a Green Initiative.
The students are aware of T&T being an industrialised country and of the need to reduce the car­bon footprint by setting targets to lower the emission of greenhouse gases.
The PNM Government has not even made mention of this issue, far more to commit to reducing greenhouse gases.
That fact is not lost on the con­scientious students.
There have been no measures to save and restore the environ­ment, which is an urgent and ma­jor issue facing all of humanity.
Like the rest of the world, T&T is enduring soaring temperatures, coastal erosion, plastic garbage in its waterways and reduction of green spaces to make way for housing and industry and com­merce.
Sixteen-year-old climate activ­ist Greta Thurnberg recently ad­dressed the United Nations and challenged world leaders to do better for the environment.
Ms. Thurnberg told the leaders: “You have stolen my dreams and my future.”
Greta is an inspirational youth, who should motivate everyone with respect to the environment and other pressing international issues.
There are many diligent “Gre­tas” among today’s T&T youths.

Reduction in the use of plastics

Use of LED bulbs is a progres­sive step, but there is need for other urgent and far-reaching en­vironmental initiatives.
These should include the reduction of the use of plastics and proper disposal of such waste.
There should be a comprehen­sive and workable plan to reduce – and eventually, eliminate – the use of disposable water bottles.
While there have been some sporadic coastal clean-ups by government and corporate agen­cies, T&T requires a sustained campaign to remove the tons of beach and river debris.
Indian Prime Minister Naren­dra Modi recently set an example in putting aside duties as leader of the largest democracy and spend­ing time cleaning up garbage along a beach.
We can anticipate local stu­dents providing leadership by creating awareness, spearheading action campaigns and holding our leaders to account.
I am confident that our youths would utilise social media and other forums and generally raise their voices to advance this most critical world issue.
Another important issue that the budget failed to address – and is of concern to students – is the digital economy.
The digital economy refers to a society in which computing tech­nologies drive much commerce and other social and economic activities.
Major economies like China, India, several leading European, African and Latin countries have become or are on the verge of turning into digital economies.
Some countries have gone cashless, which has had an imme­diate positive effect on the crime rate.
A digital economy improves a country’s competitiveness and productivity and places it along­side the most successful coun­tries in the world.

The PNM administration has made no effort at modernising the economy

The world of work that today’s students would enter would be driven by digital processes in ev­ery single area of activity.
The PNM administration has made no effort at modernising the economy, and even the term digi­tal economy did not enter once in the Minister’s three and a half-hour presentation.
In fact, this Government had stopped the distribution of com­puter laptops, insisting that there is no empirical evidence that it improves the learning process.
While street vendors in China use their smartphones to trans­act business, students in Trinidad and Tobago are still confined to the blackboard-and-chalk era.
Students are distressed about this backward state of affairs.
They are also concerned about the absence of diversification of the economy.
Everyone knows that the main­stays of the T&T economy have been oil and natural gas, but local and international developments have affected our fortunes.
Oil production continues to slide, natural gas is the victim of volatile prices, and new forms of energy are supplanting fossil fu­els.
We are heading to the tail-end of our energy economy.
Discussions on diversification have been taking place maybe be­fore the students were born, but there remains limited progress.
Ideally, diversification should be based on the development and commercialisation of new sectors in which the country has resources, talent and competitive advantages.
Prime Minister Dr. Keith Row­ley said last week that his Gov­ernment’s main diversification project was the Sandals resort.
In other words, granting real estate, tax holidays and other in­centives to an international inves­tor was his thrust at diversifying the economy.
There have been no attempts at boosting the creative industries, marine, agriculture, tourism and other sectors in which the coun­try has skills, resources and other competitive advantages.
The food import bill is now more than $6 billion a year; T&T imports 85 per cent of what we consume.
Our students are aware that with the limited available foreign exchange, this is a looming crisis.
The Government has not pro­vided the required incentives to the local manufacturing sector that would lead to improved per­formances.
The Corporation Tax Rate is punitive and a disincentive to the sector.
Then there is the debt crisis, another matter that bothers our students.
Our national debt of more than $100 billion is the highest it has ever been.
This would be a yoke on the shoulders of today’s students, who would become tomorrow’s leaders.
It represents a debt of $80,000 on the shoulders of every man, woman and child living in TnT!

Even in the rainy season, T&T is enduring a water crisis

Students are particularly con­cerned about how T&T is faring with respect to the United Na­tions Sustainable Development Goals.
Like most countries of the world, T&T is committed to achieving these goals, but there are never any updates in the na­tional budget or in another other document.
The goals are about reducing poverty and hunger, improving health care, boosting education, improving access to water, gen­der equality, affordable and clean energy, decent work and econom­ic growth.
They also include reduced in­equalities, climate control, peace, justice and strong institutions.
It is not lost to our students that even in the rainy season, T&T is enduring a water supply crisis.
Also, more than 60,000 work­ers have been retrenched under this administration, and this has impacted poverty, educational standards, good health etc.
Education standards have fall­en at certain levels, and several institutions have declined.
Health care is in a crisis.
For example, the shutdown of the Central Block of Port of Spain General Hospital has led to a huge backlog for surgeries and other care. There are shortages of pharmaceuticals, several pieces of hospital equipment are in dis­repair, there is a shortage of doc­tors and nurses and the lines of patients along corridors remain long.
With respect to decent work, there is a need to update several important pieces of labour legis­lation.
The country has still not en­acted an updated Gender Policy.
Students also wonder about T&T’s foreign policy.
Where does the country stand on any world issue?
Tomorrow’s leaders are sen­sitive to the fact that the budget lacks vision for the growth and development of a modern, pro­gressive and competitive society.
For years, we talked about po­sitioning our country alongside tiny Singapore, but that economy is robust, without any debt, with a thriving manufacturing sector, high employment, low crime, and great exports, especially of elec­tronics.
There is modern infrastruc­ture, quality service and a pro­ductive workforce.
Singapore has no natural re­sources – unlike T&T.
What makes the difference be­tween T&T and Singapore and other high-performing econo­mies?
Leadership!
Trinidad and Tobago’s youths are fully conscious of this critical fact.