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Go after State lands thieves
Posted: Thursday, June 7, 2018

By Raffique Shah
June 07, 2018

I was about to write a column on my concerns with the Valuation Division of the Ministry of Finance, which plays a critical role in the implementation of the new Property Tax, when I read the lead story in the Sunday Express that pertained to a number of "hanky-panky" deals involving the distribution of State lands by officials of the Division of State Lands, which falls under the Ministry of Agriculture.

For those who did not read the Ria Taitt story, which outlines the travails of Minister Clarence Rambharat as he personally sought to track down land transactions conducted by senior officials who work under him, I strongly recommend that you do. The lurid details come across as being stranger than fiction, comically so if it did not involve an almost free-for-the-boys (and -girls) feast on valuable real estate that these public officers are charged with and paid for managing and securing on behalf of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

The reason I chose to divert attention to this (I shall return to the Valuation Division soon) is because I have written before about the grand larceny of State lands, naked banditry by persons high up the social and economic order and many low down the ladder, invariably facilitated by unscrupulous public officers, which will have cost us tens, maybe even hundreds of billions of dollars since independence in 1962.

If that number startles you, the reality might well be "wuss than dat".

In the matters that Minister Rambharat reported to the Prime Minister, which will go before a Joint Select Committee, the most scandalous is the case of a female employee of the Land Management Division who applied to the Commissioner of State Lands (COSL) for lease of a plot for her family. Within nine days, the woman, in her official capacity, inspected a plot in Arouca, and, as the interviewer, recommended that the applicant (herself) be granted a residential lease!

To cut a short, incestuous story shorter, in a record five weeks from the date of the application, the COSL authorised that Cabinet be advised to approve the lease. But the matter suffered a fatal setback when, three months later, a man who claimed to be the owner of the said plot, having paid $700,000 to the previous owner, was granted a court injunction restraining the occupants (the public officer's family) from entering the property. The matter is currently before the courts.

To illustrate just how these entrenched public officers operate as laws unto themselves, when Minister Rambharat sought to personally inspect the controversial land, he was given a mighty runaround by senior employees of his ministry.

By way of information, I should state that there are thousands of applications for new leases and renewal of leases for State lands, mainly for agricultural purposes that are 20 years and older, which are buried in dusty files in the offices of the COSL. These have been studiously ignored by successive office holders.

The irregularities that Rambharat has uncovered are the proverbial tip of a monstrous mass of nepotism and corruption that have, over the years, seen the State stripped of valuable lands. For too long, governments have all but condoned this banditry to the extent that large communities of squatters have been "regularised" (given free lands with infrastructure) and wealthy thieves legitimised after moving in on choice real estate for which they have no title.

I live on lands that once belonged to Forres Park Estate, which was merged with Caroni Ltd sometime around 1980. I was a residential tenant and was given the option to purchase my plot (circa 2000), which I did. Few other tenants bothered to buy: they simply continued to occupy, even extending their plots, confident that neither Caroni Ltd nor Government would do anything about their banditry.

In fact, for many years, agricultural tenants of sugar estates' vast holdings (Caroni, Orange Grove, Woodford Lodge, Reform) have "sold" their tenancies to business and residential "buyers", with only cash changing hands since no deeds could be produced or transferred.

In addition to a virtual infestation of squatters' shacks, huge mansions and large business enterprises now sit on illegally-acquired lands. When the sugar industry was shut down in 2007, Caroni had landholdings of 70,000 acres. Petrotrin sits on approximately 180,000 acres, which, ultimately, are State lands. I have not factored in other State lands that fall under other government ministries and agencies.

Since 1962 when government assumed control of all State lands (hitherto Crown lands), one can hazard a guess that at least 100,000 acres have been illegally occupied. From entire quarries (gravel and sand) to reclaimed watercourses, forests to paddy fields, squatters' settlements to upscale gated communities, people have stolen State lands without fear of having to pay for it or face prosecution.

I say enough is more than enough. Minister Rambharat must be commended for personally pursuing public officials who are disposing citizens' lands as though it's theirs. Hopefully, he would get the support of all parliamentarians to go after land bandits, to take whatever action is necessary to have these thieves pay full current market prices for what they have stolen-or forfeit their illegally-occupied properties which government can dispose of to earn much-needed revenue.

Let's see: 100,000 acres at $500,000 per acre (dog-cheap!) would yield $50 billion. If the collection exercise takes 10 years, that's $5 billion a year… Need I say more, Minister Colm Imbert?

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