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It is all about transforming political culture

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wayne Kublalsingh’s hunger strike is not about the law and whatever a court may rule; it is not even about the possibility of him losing his life; rather it is about seeking to insert integrity, logic and accountability into the political process and to ensure that meaningful consultation with the population precedes the expenditure of $7.5 billion of the financial resources of T&T.

At a more fundamental level Kublalsingh is seeking to transform the political culture of one-minute democracy practised once every five years during which the government of the day does as it pleases without concern for the views of the citizens, only to become conscious in the last six months of re-election as a means of retaining the keys to the Treasury. 

Here is a short history of this matter. Kublalsingh engages a hunger strike in November 2012 to protest the destruction of communities, serious environmental damage to a wetlands and the over-expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars with the ever-present possibility of government officials receiving kickbacks because of the award of a $7.5 billion contract without a competitive bidding process.

After 21 days and mounting fears of the political backlash if Kublalsingh were to die outside her office, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar relents. At the core of the concession is the Prime Minister’s agreement to establish a review committee and to have Government pay for the independent technical study on the portion of the highway under protest and to abide by the findings of the committee.

But when faced with the reality of the committee reporting that the decision to pass the highway through the community and wetlands in question was not founded on thorough research and contemplation and such considerations should now be assessed through social, environmental and economic impact surveys, PM Persad-Bissessar reverses herself not merely to Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-Route Movement, but to the national community.

The PM’s subsequent denial that she agreed to abide by the committee’s findings and recommendations provokes the question, then why did she establish and pay for the study? During that first hunger strike by Dr Kublalsingh, when I thought he had made his point and needed to end it and save himself for other causes, I wrote to that effect.

I did not then contemplate the larger picture, which is that Kublalsingh was indeed fighting many other battles to come and seeking to set the society on the path of taking control of its resources and determining how it should be governed through this one heroic battle.

I do not consider myself a supporter of Dr Kublalsingh in the sense that he has attracted a following; what I agree wholeheartedly with the hunger-striker on is that in contracting such a project, a government cannot do so without the requisite scientific and human studies. And in this respect I lean on the technical competence of the Armstrong Committee and its findings.

“There was no holistic treatment of the project to adequately reflect a convergence of the salient environmental, social and economic issues that arise. It appears that none of the key agencies involved in the project viz, the EMA, the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure (MOWI), Ministry of Finance, Nidco, or any of the consultants sought to provide an integrated assessment of the project, including primarily a CBA. A significant concern with the Debe to Mon Desir Highway is whether or not the lawful authority responsible for this large public expenditure is conforming to due process, including observance of various oversight statutory requirements for environmental management, the development of land, and due consideration of socio-economic impacts on the affected persons.”

For a government to expend the country’s resources of land, of community habitation and social and human development on the basis of crass stupidity and to do so with our complicity is unforgivable of us.   If, notwithstanding the scientific learning of the Armstrong Committee report, the Government insists on proceeding with the Debe to Mon Desir section as planned, then there is a need for the owners (all of us) of the $7.5 billion to find out why.

Is it plain ole idiocy? Are there people in the government and in the ruling party who would receive multi-million-dollar kickbacks by proceeding without the benefit of a review? Ultimately, what Dr Kublalsingh is doing, as masman Peter Minshall has sought to illustrate with his portrayal of the Lord of Light, is seeking to shine that light through this society, which has been living in self-imposed darkness in our post-independence life.

If we inhabited the darkness during the period of colonial authority, we cannot now duck the issue of independent thought and action by all of us. Like the rest of those who care for human life, this columnist would like to see Kublalsingh’s life preserved.
However, I have come to understand that for Dr Kublalsingh, initiating the social, economic and political transformation is more important than living or dying. It is about transforming the political culture; and surely his actions are political in the same manner that the decisions of the Government are political.


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