By Raffique Shah
April 25, 2022
By late last Tuesday evening, the universe seemed to me to have remained intact as we have known it from creation, or more accurately, since we arrived on it—vast, mysterious, constantly moving—and the Earth did not stand still, as some politicians had hoped would happen, in a celestial display of anger by the gods against satanic price increases in auto fuels imposed by the heartless Government of Trinidad and Tobago on its people.
What we witnessed instead were mostly smiling faces of thousands of pupils, many in their school uniforms, returning to classes for the first time in two years, having been confined to their homes, as the nation, in fact the world, fought this deadly virus.
In towns and villages, as the young ones took their seats, anxious parents tried to reassure themselves that their children were comfortable—many schools were still in disrepair, furniture rotting or inadequate—before they rushed to their jobs to earn the money they needed to feed, clothe and educate their families.
Large numbers are unemployed, victims of an economy that is badly fractured, a world that is in near chaos, what with wars being fought in far-away countries they hardly knew existed, but which, to their horror, they read about in news reports and analyses that tell them we import grains and other critical commodities from.
But for those parents, whatever the state of their minds, not to add the weight, or lack thereof, of their wallets, they somehow had to try their best to give their children a better chance in life than they themselves had, hence the emphasis on education.
It was not that they had not heard about a campaign against the galloping cost of living, that they did not feel angry over having to spend more money to fuel their vehicles or, for those who use public transport, pay higher fares—at least on maxis and taxis. They feel the pinch like everyone else when they had to dig deeper in their reserves to simply put food on the family tables. Prices were rising faster than the yeast they occasionally used for baking.
They listen to Finance Minister Colm Imbert explain how successive governments had subsidised a number of basics—fuels for vehicles, cooking gas, potable water, electricity and sundry goods and services. They understand the case he is making for the removal of these “cushions”. But they wonder why he waited until this “guava season” to implement it, and then ask them, devoted citizens, “If not now, when?” Easy for him to say. His bread is not only buttered, and generously at that, but has jam, lamb and ham added for taste.
Then they listen to very vocal voices from among the ranks of Opposition parties inside and out of Parliament: keep the subsidies in place. Poor people suffer when you remove them. Oh, yes? It is not only the poor who benefit from subsidies, they mutter. The wealthy, who are fewer in numbers than the poor, enjoy most of the millions that taxpayers underwrite very year.
From Penal to Point Galera, Guaya to Chaguaramas, and add Tobago for fair measure, it’s the poor-to-mid-income earners whose incomes are taxed before they reach us. The wealthy, they have many escape valves to avoid having to pay their fair shares. Sure, they pay. But do you think they pay proportionally what they should? No way. The wealthy to very wealthy pay consultants to avoid paying what they should do by law.
The working poor, the vast majority of citizens, who earn wages/salaries just barely attractive enough to encourage you to return to the job the next day, the next month, we labour up the down escalator to live half-decent lives. And it’s not as though our children will fare any better than we, the mid-to-older generations did. At this time of the year, you are in agony over where your very bright child or grandchild will be placed when SEA (Secondary Entrance Assessment) results are released.
But you know the offspring of the well-connected already have their prestige school uniforms and books all set to enjoy the best teaching that money can afford. You look at those who encourage you to march, protest, picket, sweat, not necessarily to reverse irreversible laws or bring any direct benefits to you who pound the pavement, and you ask yourself: those multimillion-dollar briefs and consultancies that they get, do they declare them fairly to the Board of Inland Revenue?
Any which way we turn, someone is standing with a screw and screwdriver, ready to do us in. It is why we pay increased prices, new and old taxes, everything. It is why we did not stay at home or come out to protest in large numbers last Tuesday. They are connected by the highest common factor. Our only connection is the lowest common denominator. Think of that.