By Raffique Shah
March 28, 2022
I believe every word that the former minister of agriculture, land and fisheries, Clarence Rambharat, wrote and uttered with respect to the rampant stealing of State lands by persons high and low, and the refusal, maybe complicity, of others in authority who are empowered to do something about the multibillion-dollar racket to act, as well as his charge that senior public officials and professionals in private practice, from doctors to attorneys, are part of a mafia-like organisation whose members and agents have grown wealthy off this cancerous crime that has overwhelmed the body politic of this nation.
Based on my knowledge of this “bobol” and my experience in seeking but failing to expose its principals and possibly bring them to justice, I can understand why ex-minister Rambharat must have concluded after seven years of trying to slay the hydra-headed monster, only to see it grow stronger, he surrendered and fled to Canada to retain his sanity and secure his family.
I have often written and spoken out about corruption, saying that it had reached epidemic proportions, but no one seemed remotely interested—not when I was a member of the board of directors of Caroni Ltd, representing cane farmers, nor as a journalist/columnist. Everyone I thought had the influence to act just shrugged in the, “What yuh go do, boy?” mode, looking seedless and a trifle ashamed of themselves.
As I recall events that once more put this plunder of this most valuable resource that belongs to citizens, I remember a young Rambharat joining Caroni’s executive management team as a legal officer (I think) sometime around the year 2000. He would be present at board meetings and will have heard my interventions, especially in 2003 when the Patrick Manning government moved to shut down the sugar industry. It was the only option open to government then. Three years or so earlier, government had written off more than $1 billion that Caroni had owed sundry creditors, including employees’ pension plans, the NIB (National Insurance Board) and the BIR (Board of Inland Revenue). Manning wiped the slate clean, and asked only that the company become solvent—or, better, profitable.
That was not to be: in two years, sugar production slumped, workers’ productivity fell flat, and if government did not pump money into it, Caroni could not pay its workers and farmers’ salaries and earnings. It was in that hopeless scenario that the industry was shut down. Government added a 50-per cent “sweetener” to their termination packages, and a vast majority of employees were happy with that. Their union, All Trinidad, which was sidelined up to then, sought to win back some confidence by demanding that each employee be given a lot of residential land. Mattered not that Caroni was one of a very few companies which, because of its vast landholdings (70,000 acres), had virtually created new villages and communities by selling building lots to their employees at “peppercorn” prices. And the workers enjoyed very soft loans through a labour welfare committee that existed from the colonial era, and probably does to this day. My deceased father and many of his colleagues built and owned houses that way.
That single act of generosity by the Manning government, a gesture that would elevate sugar workers to having the best severance package ever in the country’s history, exposed the naked greed of people, and triggered the “great land grab” that split families, divided communities, led to murder, mayhem and organised crime where such had never existed before.
Wealthy people in the society—professionals, business elites, drug lords—who had amassed cash by whatever means, swooped down on the mostly gullible workers, offering them “solid, liquid cash”, as the late Sham Mohammed used to say, and land for the “poor, weeping sugar workers” soon morphed into a spending spree that outdid the conspicuous consumption of the first oil boom (1974-1980).
As if by magic, millions upon millions of dollars, many notes contaminated by cocaine, changed hands. Nothing was said of title, of ownership of these new holdings. The new “owners” knew that by hook or crook, likely both, they would get their titles.
Meanwhile, lawful tenants of the sugar company who paid rent by the year, and who had applied to purchase our plots (yes, my wife and I were victims… it took us more than ten years to be offered to purchase our lot before we could build a house), looked on as the invaders moved in on recently “purchased” lands with a fury. Bulldozers, excavators, et al, rumbled away as State-owned lands changed hands.
Thus began the sordid saga of how interlopers could defy laws governing state lands, bribe or muscle their way past government agencies and make millions of dollars, some of which they must have shared with public officials who, for enough dirty dollars, could make it happen.