By Peter O’Connor
November 25, 2012 – newsday.co.tt
I have been a supporter of the proposed highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin since it was first announced by Dr Eric Williams in his Budget Speech of January 1981. However, speaking at a forum organised by the Tapia House Movement at the end of March that year, I predicted that the highway would not be built, it would yield to “bng” (although that word was not yet created) projects like the Caroni Race Track. Dr Williams died that very night, and the highway to Point Fortin died with him.
Prayers were made to resurrect the highway by every succeeding administration — the Chambers’ PNM, the National Alliance for Reconstruction, the Manning PNM — in two incarnations, and the UNC. All raised the vision of the highway in their budget speeches over the years, but obviously none prayed hard enough for the project to rise out of wishful thinking. This should indicate to us that every administration we have had since 1981, all 30 years of governance, has seen the need for, even if they did not have the will to start, the highway.
Actually, I supported this proposed highway long before 1981. I was born in Vessigny — just south of La Brea — in 1938, and still have childhood memories of my father, and then me, driving the La Brea stretch with the car feeling like you were negotiating a bad remoux in the first Bocas.
Without much fanfare, the recent PNM government had come close to actually starting the highway. In 2010, the People’s Partnership Government arrived in office to discover that a contract for construction of the highway had been agreed with the Brazilian firm, OAS. The new Government took the decision to proceed, even though full financing was not then in place.
We should note that not only every government which came to feed saw the need for this highway, but everyone who lived south of Mosquito Creek — from South Oropouche to Icacos Point. People north of La Brea needed respite from the annual flooding of Mosquito Creek, and everyone else needed that plus a break from the irreparable roads around La Brea. Over the years, roads had been blocked by protestors demanding that a proper access road be provided for the southwest peninsula. Naturally, the construction of a highway through several miles of countryside is going to displace several people. But laws exist to permit governments, including our government, to acquire lands for public purposes, like building highways, and compensation must be paid to the persons who are going to be displaced.
In my view, the people of the deep south should never have to suffer what this country did when the dualling of the then Princess Margaret (now Solomon Hochoy) Highway was being undertaken. A handful of persons prevented the highway from being widened for years, with the help of a prominent lawyer, who even publicly burned our Constitution in one of his fits of petulance. Several people were killed in road accidents where the highway suddenly narrowed, but no one talks about that.
So let us now come to the protests of the Highway Re-route Movement, a small group who over the past year has not been able to get any level of national support. Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, who was part of the successful Anti-Smelter, Pranz Gardens and Claxton Bay protests, is the leader of the movement. His recent decision to go on a hunger strike has given him the attention he had not been getting up to now. His current “cause” in this matter is that the Prime Minister promised to put the controversial section of the highway “on hold” pending reviews of the route and the alternates suggested by the RRM.
However, this apparently is not the full truth. A review was undertaken, and efforts to sit and discuss the matter were rudely and regularly rebuffed by Kublalsingh and the RRM. The dates and outcomes of those meetings have been outlined in the media.
A “review” was promised, not a sit-down lunch meeting with the Prime Minister. And no one should be surprised at the results of the review, for clearly the proposed route, selected by the PNM government and accepted by the People’s Partnership Government, provides the best options for serving the traffic needs in the southwest peninsula.
Dr Kublalsingh had engaged in popular and successful protest actions against the proposed smelters and other projects. Could it be his hubris now that is causing him to take action in a cause that is clearly lost?
It is noteworthy that although Dr Kublalsingh does not reside in the area, none of the people who do have decided to join him in his hunger strike. Should he not survive his self-inflicted torture, will they take their “settlement” and move on?