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Raffique Shah


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Lawless at 46

By Raffique Shah
August 31, 2008

If Prime Minister Patrick Manning and his government had a real grasp of the shaky legs on which this country wobbles in its 46th year of independence, they would have cancelled all the pomp and ceremony and celebrations, and instead declare today a Day of Mourning. No, stupid: it’s not the economy I refer to. That is booming-which is part of the problem. It’s the people who make up this nation, the majority among us, who are guilty of turning what should and could have been a paradise-on-earth into a failure in too many ways to count.

Take the recurring problem of flooding, the most recent of which I witnessed first-hand, since I live in Claxton Bay. Works Minister Colm Imbert blamed the deluge that almost drowned the district on unusually heavy rainfall (I can attest to that) and man-made problems. Well, we cannot control nature, nor are we, like most countries worldwide, inclined to take measures to mitigate the effects of global warming. But we certainly can regulate the rampant lawlessness that contributes to this annual problem.

It suddenly dawned on Imbert, after the Claxton Bay deluge that left the country cut in half, that people “build homes and other structures outside of the regulations.” Well, excuse me, Rip-van-Imbert: have you been asleep for 46 years of your life? This is not only a problem of errant individuals who build homes on natural watercourses, only to cry blood later when they are flooded out year after year. More damaging, it’s delinquency on the part of government and its agencies that allow entire housing developments to be built on river-beds. The lawlessness can be seen by the blind, to use a Trini-pun: all those mansions that are climbing up the Northern Range (and now Central), higher and higher, are not invisible. They don’t just appear, fully furnished, overnight.

Where are the regulatory authorities that either granted permits to build, or which did not, but refuse to intervene? One of the most prestigious, not to add outrageously expensive, housing estates in the east, was built in an area that was once a combination of watercourses and paddy-fields. Did officials at Town and Country Planning grant the developers a permit? If not, why did they not intervene before the first bulldozer moved in to clear the swamp? And the developers cannot claim to have rectified the problems: year after year gullible homeowners and commercial tenants suffer immense flood damage.

Throughout the country people ignore or defy the laws governing construction with no fear of being prosecuted, of having their structures demolished. I recall one ‘bigshot’ actually diverting the Couva river to claim more land: he stopped not because any agency intervened. I, as a journalist, clambered down the banks of the river to photograph what he was engaged in, published a story, and maybe out of shame he stopped.The lawless, rich and poor, do as they please when it comes to interfering with watercourses, knowing they will escape unscathed. People make reports to regional corporations, to the police, to Town and Country. No action is ever taken.

Besides this disgraceful, unacceptable behaviour of those who should know better, we are now sinking into lawlessness on the roads that is the cause of so many deaths of the innocent, since those who cause the carnage drive away to kill again another day. Scrap dealers pile junk on public roadways, or so close to the verges, they become deadly. Who intervenes? Do we need to look far away to find causes of the deadly dengue outbreak? The culpable are all around us-even the victims themselves, or their neighbours.

When we talk crime, we think only of the mindless gunmen who are becoming more brazen than ever before. Imagine someone having the gall to shoot at a target outside a court: what next-a siege of police headquarters? But crime and lawlessness extend far beyond the gunmen that have made our lives worthless. Those who discard junk or even their status-symbol “purified water” containers into drains, are more criminal than gunmen. The latter may kill a few of their fellow-gangsters. The former inflict millions of dollars of damage on law-abiding citizens, on farmers who answer the call to produce more local food.

A few days ago I joined a queue at a supermarket to pay for my purchases. One man ahead of me had many items, so those behind knew we’d be delayed. Another jackass behind, seemingly half-drunk but wanting to pay for beer to further “badden” his head, just jumped ahead and demanded to have his grog cashed. I looked at him and thought: should I cross a right-hook to his nose and floor him? In my younger days I might have done just that. But I am more mature, 46-plus-16, so I acted with restraint.

The nation is today 46 years old. I don’t know we have matured with age. Government, its many agencies, our politicians and far too many of our citizens have embraced lawlessness as a way of life. Tell me: what is there to celebrate?