Br Dr HENRY OKOLE and Dr MICHAEL UNAGE
THE recent social unrest in Lae city has once more ignited the familiar calls for control mechanisms to stymie the flow of rural – urban migration drift.
Lae particularly suffers from the symptoms of this migration. It is the main economic hub for the country’s exports, and transportation along the Highlands Highway and Madang province. Being Papua New Guinea’s second largest city and an industrial centre, makes it another major focal point for individuals searching for job opportunities and the novelties of city life.
Momase Police Chief and Assistant Commissioner, Giossi Labi, among others, has echoed a familiar line that the erstwhile Vagrancy Act should be re-introduced. In the past, the country had a Vagrancy Act but was abolished subsequently since it was deemed to be unconstitutional when it was ruled to be infringing on the people’s freedom of movement.
Debates on vagrancy have taken place from time to time over the last three decades. This is hardly surprising as quite often the issue has mainly been in response to a spate of criminal activities or growing squatter settlements in urban centres. The fact remains that vagrancy is a consequence of major changes affecting the overall PNG society.
Therefore, the best and plausible lasting solutions should be those that deal with the roots of these fundamental changes. The consequences of societal changes such as criminal activities of course should be dealt with immediately under the law as well. The opportunity to address rural-urban drift and its consequences should have been an ongoing endeavour and not a sideline issue as how it has been treated since the 1970s.
Perhaps the biggest mistake committed by successive governments over time has been to do little or nothing at all about this festering problem.
Freedom of movement is a constitutional right of all individuals. In the milieu of the rural-urban drift, it is only fair then that the freedom of law abiding citizens and urban landowners/property owners are protected too from illegal activities – including unlawful occupation of land. Today it would be expensive and next to impossible to evict everyone back to their provinces of origin or localities for a plethora of reasons. The present atmosphere in Lae and more so past experiences from Madang and Rabaul after the 1994 volcanic eruptions should aptly portray a picture that people just do not return back to places of origin and immediately re-settle with ease. Adjustment is a challenge of its own and quite often there is no land for the ‘returnees.’ Besides, some of the current squatters or settlers in many urban centres are third or fourth generation.
Where do they belong now?
The best strategy forward is firstly to recognise that rural-urban drift and vagrancy are not likely to stop overnight just because there is a so-called solution in the form of a Vagrancy Act. Secondly, rural-urban drift is a problem that is bound to stay unless drastic measures are adopted that can stop the flow of people and perhaps reverse the trend. Thirdly, a Vagrancy Act can also become a revolving door since people can easily slip back to urban centres if there was nothing to stop them from leaving rural areas. For such reasons, the best way to address the problem arguably is to take a holistic approach and adopt systemic solutions that mitigate the impact of a fast-changing society. Solutions should be designed in the form of medium-term and long-term solutions. The following are plausible solutions:
• the government should introduce a multi-purpose identification system complete with proper keeping of birth records, residential permits, village records and operating under the Ward councillors and Local Level Governments. This ID system can be used for other purposes such as elections, census and tracking criminal activities. As things stand here in PNG, people suffer from what can be termed a “curse of anonymity”. That is, where people drift around as strangers both in and outside social groups without the formal ID system of identifying individuals;
• the government and people should appreciate the importance of citizens’ groups that are set up for specific reasons. State agencies such as the Royal Police Constabulary can play a proactive role/s by facilitating interactive meetings among local groups in rural areas, or among mixed groups in urban centres. Thus, inter-ethnic conflicts in squatter camps in Lae, for example, stand a better chance of being averted if there were proper communication channels in the community between people and state authorities. Underlying mechanisms would have been created to forge understanding and address problems well before they get out of hand. Furthermore, trouble-makers would have been readily identified and dealt with without the unnecessary involvement of everyone which often inflames ethnic rivalries;
• the government should seriously consider upgrading and refreshing the Royal Police Constabulary with an emphasis on civic education where they are taught people skills, community policing and cultural sensitivity rather than a unidimensional role of reacting to and apprehending law-breakers;
• the government should make a concerted effort to upgrade/improve basic services in rural areas; - the three main areas being Education, Health and Infrastructure. All political parties and all new governments regurgitate these essential sectors in their visions and planning, but there is nothing much to show for their efforts as evident today. There is economic value to the rehabilitation or building of major roads since it is bound to facilitate economic activities. It is this conventional knowledge that leads one to question why the rehabilitation of the Highlands highway has been left in the doldrums for far too long; and
• the government should seriously look at channelling more resources into the rehabilitation and strengthening of the Agriculture sector and cash cropping. With better infrastructure and the government’s support in securing markets for locally produced goods – both nationally and internationally – incentives are generated to make people toil their customary land rather than drift to urban centres in search of other income-generating avenues. All things considered, solutions such as the Vagrancy Act will only offer short-term and unsustainable answers – if at all. What is required is proper planning at all levels of government to address the rural-urban drift. That includes proper urban planning too. Solutions will have to be sustained over time.
The government must recognise that it is worth investing in long term solutions to curb what can easily become a social time bomb and in the recent case of unrest at Lae and other places in PNG are signs of dysfunctional communities. Otherwise, solutions put forward can easily become cyclical and sporadic instruments that offer little or nothing in the end.
Drs Okole and Unage are senior research fellows under the Institutional Strengthening Pillar of the National Research Institute
Dr Henry Okole is a Senior Research Fellow under the Improving Governance Programme while Dr Michael Unage is a Senior Research fellow and program leader under the Improving Basic Services Programme.
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