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SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Jan. 24) – Students and teachers on Fiji’s outer islands have been stranded because there are not enough government vessels since most are awaiting repairs.

The problem is further compounded by the surge in oil prices.

This was confirmed by the acting director of Government Shipping Services, Captain Seci Waqa, who said both reasons boiled down to the lack of money.

Repairs cannot be undertaken because funds earmarked for it in the 2006 Budget had yet to be released by the Finance Ministry.

"I had a meeting with senior officials and we can't provide services properly as we are waiting for the release of funds to service our vessels as the maintenance of these vessels require a lot of funds," said Captain Waqa.

He was responding to criticism from teachers and students wanting to travel to Lomaiviti and Lau for the start of the new school year but they cannot because of the breakdown of vessels.

Captain Waqa said the MV Raiyawa developed engine problems and could not travel to Lomaiviti as scheduled on Friday.

The only ship servicing the area is the MV Iloilovatu, which travelled last week to the Lau Group.

Captain Waqa and Transport Minister Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu contradicted themselves on the availability of MV Raiyawa. Ratu Naiqama said the vessel left for Moala last week. He said upon her return, she would take teachers and students to Kadavu and would then serve the Lomaiviti Group.

Captain Waqa said the fuel price restricted them from sailing the Iloilovatu more often.

"The cost of fuel has gone up so we can not schedule our ships to go to outer islands. For example the ship Iloilovatu consumes three tonnes (about 3000 litres) of fuel per day." Ratu Naiqama said the ministry had tried to address the problem of transporting teachers and students.

Passengers on the wharf at the Narain Jetty said the ship MV Raiyawa cannot sail and that was the reason why they were told to return home on Friday when they were supposed to leave Suva.

Ratu Naiqama said the ministry was not aware of any complaints from anybody and they were working with the Ministry of Education and they urged teachers and students to take their complaints to their ministry.

The Government announced an increase in funding for the shipping franchise scheme for 2006 to almost FJ$2 million [US$1.1 million]. Access to Rotuma, Lomaiviti, Kadavu, Cikobia, Yasawa and the Lau Group will be given a special government subsidy under the scheme.

Some FJ$370,000 [US$215,800] has been allocated to improve air access for uneconomical routes such as Vanuabalavu, Lakeba, Cicia, Koro, Rotuma, Moala and Gau.

A decision by Cabinet last week to provide monthly air services to Ono-i-Lau after it was included in the Government's domestic air services subsidy scheme was met with joy by people from the island. Fiji Labour party president, Jokapeci Koroi, who hails from Ono-i- Lau, said she was elated to hear the news, as it was very difficult to travel to her island.

January 25, 2006

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