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Gas, bus fares rows settled; now for consumer satisfaction

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Fri, Aug 12. 2011

It is with immense relief that Vincentian consumers greeted the announcement of the settlement of two disputes which threatened to create much hardship and inconvenience for the public. It is not that consumers welcome the new prices approved by Cabinet after discussions with the operators concerned, but at least, the uncertainty of the past few weeks is behind us.{{more}}

In respect of the gas row, essentially an impasse between two foreign operating companies over pricing and profitability, supplies of at least one type of liquefied petroleum gas had been disrupted, leaving many consumers to have to put up with great inconvenience. This dispute is by no means new, and it is left to be seen what more long-term arrangements can be worked out to avoid repetition in the future. Surely, the interests of Vincentian consumers cannot be left at the mercy of such foreign operators and their drive to maximize profits.

The dispute over increased bus fares has also been with us for some years now. Indeed, over the last ten years or so, the National Omnibus Association (NOBA) found itself at odds with the Transport Board and Government over the level of increases sought by the bus operators. After much wrangling and public quarrels, some increases were approved by Cabinet, but the level of these did not meet with the approval of NOBA, and for one reason or another were never, or only partially, implemented. Government had also put in place a subsidy scheme to offset steep fuel increases and head off a possible strike by drivers and operators.

No one who is aware of the international situation where fuel prices are concerned would dispute the need for some realignment of prices so that those who provide the service are able to recoup their outlay and make a reasonable profit. This is not of our own creation locally, but rather reflects our vulnerability to external factors. At the same time, however, Government has a duty to protect the interests of local consumers, especially the poor and working people, and to see to it that whatever increases are agreed are not more than the public can bear. With an ever-increasing cost of living, new hikes for cooking gas and bus fares will place greater stress on most families. Those with children in school will feel it most.

Now that the operators have been given their due, attention must be paid to ensuring that consumers get some sort of satisfaction. There are several outstanding complaints about the quality of service from both cooking gas and bus operators. Take the former, for instance. Is it not unacceptable, both from health and safety perspectives, to be supplying cooking gas, to be put in the kitchens of consumers, in bottles in such a deplorable state, as one observes in many, many cases? Surely, we deserve better.

The quality of service on mini-buses has been notoriously inadequate for some years now. The complaints are many and well-documented. NOBA, in spite of lofty promises made when seeking fare hikes, seems incapable of addressing them. It can no longer shirk its responsibility in that regard and must live up to those responsibilities to ensure the safety and comfort of the travelling public. Special attention needs to be paid not just to the common complaints about loud music and proper seating, but moreso to ensuring respect for the elderly and the young on buses.

Transport Minister Julian Francis has demonstrated his capacity for frankness as well as efficient implementation of plans. The long overdue clean-up, physically and morally, of the Tokyo bus terminal must be placed on the front-burner as part of the overhaul of the transport system. Finally, our consumers can only expect to get a fair deal when they are prepared to be organized. SEARCHLIGHT in a previous Editorial had called for the revamping of the Consumers Association. That call is even more relevant today.

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