A couple of days ago, late in the morning, several policemen armed with baseball bat-type sticks and a tear gas launcher raided Gordons Market in Port Moresby.
The vendors fled to their hideouts as the police set alight their belongings.
The saddest part of this raid was the sight of helpless mothers scurrying in all directions with whatever they could hold onto in a desperate attempt to avoid being hurt. It seemed like the police did not care if they beat the daylights out of someone, even a mother.
Surprisingly, given that the National Capital District Commission recently declared measures to step up its fight against the sale and consumption of betel nut, the raid did not discriminate between buai vendors and other sellers.
From the way the police charged at vendors, it was clear the raid was aimed at anyone who was selling regardless of the type of activity they were involved in.
The majority of the mothers were simply selling ice blocks, cold water and cooked food with a few offering flip-flops or slippers and other household items.
I wonder what happened to the useful idea of NCD Governor Powes Parkop to issue mothers who regularly sell in Gordons Market with uniforms and identification cards with the assurance their activities would be protected from such harassment.
Is this idea still intact or has it been done away with? It also seems important to ascertain whether the NCDC partnership with UN Women under the Safe Cities Market Program is still in place.
Under this partnership the Commission undertook to effect important renovation work in key city markets such as Gerehu. Recently, Governor Parkop made it known that Gordons Market would follow suit.
While Koki Market, under the leadership of the Member for Moresby South, is already into its construction phase, it will be interesting to see if Gordons, the city’s biggest and most problematic market, will undergo similar reconstruction work sometime soon.
Gordons Market, once an icon in PNG, over the years has been taken over by petty crime and other illegal activities. A decision to reconstruct the market will no doubt be welcome news not only for city residents but most importantly for vendors, many of who are women, girls and mothers.
The situation at Gordons is now becoming dire because there is not enough space to cater for all the vendors. Mothers are now selling their wares near the public toilet and even along the footpath.
Events like the police action against our Gordons’ mothers are now on the rise in PNG and it is alarming that law enforcement agencies are performing their roles without much understanding of the law. What makes things worse is the ‘don’t care’ attitude illustrated by urban authorities when dealing with vendors.
One relevant law is the Informal Sector Development & Control Act 2004. Since its enactment most municipal authorities have not gone out to make people aware of it.
Instead most have decided to declare war on the informal economy leading to conflict and fights between urban authorities and market vendors.
What happened in Gordons Market on that morning is representative of the general attitude of most municipal authorities in handling issues associated with the conduct of informal economic activities in PNG.
It is understandable that some people’s negligence and total disregard for rules and regulations warrant a harsh penalty from municipal authorities.
However, it is also fair to say these activities got out of hand due to lack of control by municipal authorities. Nowadays, they don’t have inspectors to enforce the laws. Lack of funds seems to have been a major contributing factor.
The national government should largely be blamed for not providing enough resources to ensure that these laws that deal with breadbasket issues are effectively implemented for the good of the vendors and consumers.
In addition, unlike NCDC, other urban authorities don’t have the power to generate their own revenue through taxes.
As the government plans to review the Informal Sector Development & Control Act 2004, it will be compelled to take a stand. The consultation process will no doubt produce a combination of positive and negative responses towards the informal economy in terms of its role, importance, challenges and issues.
But, at the end of the day, the PNG government will be required to make its stance known on whether it will support the informal economy or not.
This decision must not be taken lightly because the future of this country hangs on the direction that the informal economy will take, so many of our people being dependent on the informal economy for their livelihoods.
The Gordons Market incident I have mentioned and similar incidents that have occurred in other parts of PNG, are indications of the real challenges facing our people.
Some of these challenges concern government failures: the lack of employment opportunities and incentives; the lack of recognition of the informal economy; and the lack of understanding of its vital role in providing income and employment.
The current view of the government of what constitutes the ‘economy’ seems driven by narrow economic philosophies and theories that have resulted in economic stagnation in many developing countries.
Furthermore such incidents involving our womenfolk need serious consideration as they are a poor reflection of our government’s efforts to change the image of PNG. And this will be the case for so long we neglect or abuse the role of women in our society.
Women are the pillars of our nationhood. In PNG many, many women take part in informal economic activities because they lack the skills and education to be able to get a job in a highly enclaved formal sector.
It is a reality that most top jobs in this country are male dominated. For example, only six women have been elected to Parliament in the nearly 40 years since independence.
These realities have created a situation where PNG women have taken to the informal economy as a platform to launch their careers or utilise their innate ability to produce, provide and procure.
Empowering women has an immediate and far reaching impact economically and socially and to treat the informal economy in such a negative and harsh manner is to treat the majority of our womenfolk with disrespect.
Most importantly it deprives our nation of an opportunity to improve our social development which is regarded as amongst the worst in the world.
Busa Jeremiah Wenogo is an economist and a senior project officer with the Consultative Implementation & Monitoring Council which specialises in issues concerning the informal economy in PNG