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Raffique Shah


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Year we learned discretion but ignored destitution

By Raffique Shah
December 27, 2009

'Twas a year that brought mankind's madness crashing into the stark realities of the punitive sins of excesses, the deleterious effects of unbridled greed, and maybe, just maybe, it also slammed some heads-in-the-clouds freaks to ground level.

Here in Trinidad and Tobago, a government that thought the good times would roll on forever learned that there is an 'amen clause' to every economic boom. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, having to curtail unimaginable, unnecessary expenditure on mega-projects we did not need. Had it not been for the sudden slump in oil and gas prices, Prime Minister Manning and his Cabinet might have proceeded to paint the Port of Spain skyline with Manhattan-like structures.

Mercifully for us all, a sudden drop in revenues put paid to their excesses. They retreated to deficit spending, which, while not as negative as many believe (some developed countries rack up deficits of more than 100 per cent of their GDPs), does not allow for the kind of spending spree we've witnessed over the past five years or so.

I am not among those who criticise every government initiative. I condemn those I believe are wasteful or stupid. For example, the El Socorro/Aranjuez flyover project should have been constructed before, or in tandem with, the Butler/CR flyover (interchange my foot!). Common sense dictated that. But governments are notorious for wanting to look good. For all of Minister Imbert's talk of 'free flow of traffic between South and North Trinidad', what about the bigger challenge of East-West traffic?

Why must the Curepe/CR intersection, one of the busiest in the country, remain bogged down by traffic lights? Why are there no Aranjuez-type service roads plans for the Valsayn area, eliminating all those unnecessary lights? Why no flyovers at the 20-odd traffic lights that reduce the PBR to anything but a priority route? Why is government not making use of the many good roads Caroni Ltd left behind when the sugar industry was shut down? Minimal expenditure to upgrade these roads would significantly ease traffic in Central and South Trinidad.

But I digress. I am writing about the kind of year that was 2009. From the debt-ridden USA to Christmas-crazed Trinidad, consumers have scaled back their excesses. Sure, merchants complain. But wise shopping, buying what one needs, not what one wants, is a benefit of the global economic recession. People are saving more, too, for the first time in decades. The Central Bank must be complimented on its media blitz to educate people on how best to manage their money.

What about those who have no money to manage? For all the talk about 'smart cards' government has not seriously addressed poverty the way it focused on making life better for the wealthy. The latter can now dine and lounge at the Hyatt, attend performances at the Arts Centre, or, if they are among the chosen few, sip cocktails at the PM's palace. The poor continue to suffer in silence, but for the generosity of spirit that is a typical Trini-trait. That little girl who needed urgent surgery can access it now, thanks to ordinary people who contributed from their paltry salaries.

One image that remains etched in my mind is that of the Debe mother and daughter who live in a waterlogged shack. They are still there, fending off boorish and hostile neighbours. People like these are way off the radar of the minister with responsibility for housing. While I do not expect the HDC to meet the needs of all poverty-stricken citizens, has anyone in that state-funded organisation thought of building complexes to house such cases?

These people, who number a few thousand, would settle for small mercies like apartments with basic amenities and utilities. Structures like these spread across the country would cost little compared with most HDC projects, but they will bring welcome relief to so many who find themselves in dire circumstances. The cost of one of those Waterfront towers would have met the needs of most, if not all these 'sufferers'.

Eradicating poverty remains unfinished business at the end of yet another oil-and-gas boom, another decade of relative prosperity. Besides the homeless and the unemployed, governments-and society-often forget the underemployed. These are households with every available hand trying to earn something to keep their families intact. No one addresses their plights. They are invisible to most of us because we believe they are employed.

But what does the average store clerk or grocery employee or security guard earn? Many of them are coerced into signing for receiving more than they actually earn. And if their employers deduct NIS payments from their meagre earnings, they hardly pay that to the NIB. So these people labour for their lifetimes, only to learn at the end of their working lives they have nothing to get by way of pensions.

I am sure over the holiday season many of those who are empowered to make a difference to the lives of the poor go down on their knees thanking the Lord for their rich blessings. They feast on ham and turkey and sip the finest liquors. But do they spare a thought for the destitute? I think not.

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