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?
Trinidad and Tobago’s youths are fully conscious of this critical fact.