Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tall Tales

After Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh announced his intention to go on a hunger strike, it became painfully clear how much nonsense was floating around in the public domain about the Mon Desir to Debe section of the San Fernando to Point Fortin highway.

It was only after watching the Prime Minister address the matter for the first time today, that I realized how much the People's Partnership Government is responsible for the fact that some of the most intense commentary on the issue is coming from people who have no clue what they're talking about.

In the spirit of the Communication Ministry's 12-point Fact Sheet aimed at refuting Kublalsingh's claims, please allow me to cut through just a bit of the b.s.:

In response to countless calls for her to meet with Kublalsingh, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said today that she has been willing to visit with the activist, but that he has declared from the beginning that he does not want to see her.

This is nothing but obfuscation. The Movement has been begging for a meeting for months. In fact, about 30 protesters spent last Saturday in front of the Prime Minister's residence hoping to speak with her. Kublalsingh himself said then: "We don't expect to meet with her today but we at least expect her to contact us in some form or fashion and treat with the matter..."

The Works and Infrastructure Ministry's response at the time was that it would be "inadvisable, if not inappropriate" for the government to meet with the Highway Re-Route Movement, because the matter is before the High Court.

It wasn't until Monday (Day 5) that Kublalsingh seemed to change tack, instead saying:
"We don’t want to meet with her. We want her to commit to the undertaking she promised which is that she will set up an independent committee to review and put on hold the project that will devastate 13 communities. We want her to have all the technical experts look at the project  and get an independent scientific review of it. That is all we want, a commitment from her to review this project”. [emphasis mine]
All of which is the real point that the PM worked to obscure today: Wayne Kublalsingh is not on a hunger strike against the highway. He's not trying to unilaterally convince the Prime Minister not to build it. What he's requesting is for the project to be put on hold while an independent technical review committee determines whether an alternative route - one which doesn't result in the demolition of 13 communities and a wetland - isn't also feasible. That's all. He's also said that, should the committee conclude that there is no feasible alternative, he is willing to pack up and go home. Bear in mind that the group has been asking for an independent review since before the government commissioned the first one.

Now, I can't speak to what kind of review was done, because the results haven't been made available to the public. The Highway Re-Route Movement even claims that they've never seen the review, which - if true - could be why they don't trust its results. But - much as this government has given us countless reasons to be suspicious - for the sake of fairness, let's assume that the first technical review was unbiased. The fact remains that the government is preparing to demolish the homes of hundreds of families and - while some are cool with it - others are not. So, what's the harm in doing an independent review? If the initial review was fair and unbiased, wouldn't an independent review come to the same conclusion? Isn't that best practice anyway?

Let me be clear here:

Unlike the countless residents of everywhere except deep south who have voiced adamant opinions in the last eight days, I do not pretend to know whether the Highway Re-Route Movement or the government is right here. I also do not pretend to know how cut off the people living in deep south must feel from the rest of this country. I have heard some very disturbing accounts of the absurd amounts of traffic they face just to get to San Fernando, so I do empathize with the frustration of those who want the project to go ahead as planned.

What I don't understand is the way the government has been handling the situation. If it's not ok to meet with the Highway Re-Route Movement while the matter is in court, why is it ok to continue the construction? If they were fine with reviewing the Movement's suggestions for re-routing the highway, why not allow a team of experts who aren't affiliated with the government to look it over in the first place? Why is it costing so much more per mile to construct this highway than the world average? Why does every single move this government has made in the last two-and-a-half years seem to reek of corruption and special interests?

In her speech this afternoon, the Prime Minister asked what she was expected to do. I can answer that one: As Prime Minister, she is expected to account to her citizens. Too many questions remain outstanding on this project, and considering that we're talking about razing people's homes and destroying a wetland, she's expected to answer these questions as straightforwardly as possible.

Regardless of what you think about Kublalsingh's decision to starve himself in service of this cause, recognize that his hunger strike is essentially an attempt to force the government to account to the public. That cannot be a bad thing, especially not for an administration that sang of transparency and accountability prior to May 2010.

If everything is on the up-and-up, it should be no problem to prove it. Who knows, if the truth is brought to light, it might turn out that everyone can get what they want.

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