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Raffique Shah


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Squatters' rights, squatters' wrongs

March 07, 2004
By Raffique Shah

UNTIL two years ago I lived in an old wooden house that could be easily mistaken for a squatter's hut. In fact, I was a tenant of Caroni Ltd, paying an annual rent as I desperately sought to purchase the lot on which the shack stood. Bear in mind that for several years I was on the board of that company, and even before that a union leader who regularly interfaced with its directors and managers. But long after the passage in 1981 of the Act of Parliament that gave tenants of residential land the right to an automatic lease or purchase their plots, I was denied that right.

From as far back as the mid-1970s, I could have moved to some upscale or middle-income neighbourhood where I would have had to pay an inordinately high price for land or a house. But I resisted that for several reasons, the main one being I resisted locking myself into a debt trap that would bind me for 30 years (into which so many middle-income people fell and would end up losing their properties when there was a slump in the economy in the early 1980s).

More than that, I liked the spot where I lived, and by law I was entitled to it. And I refused to bribe any Caroni official, which was the norm. To cut a long story short, it was not until the year 2000 that I was able to purchase the land and later build a house. Over the years, my family, more so my two children, suffered. But I was prepared to show all those who thought I'd go down on my knees and beg them for what was not a favour, but a right, that I was a man, not a mouse. Never was. So there I was, a legitimate land tenant, denied my right to purchase my lot, and reduced to near-squatter status because of corrupt officials at Caroni.

Now, here's the contrast-and the rub. I sat on Caroni's board in the late 1980s when the government of the day decided to regularise most people who had squatted on the company's lands, numbering in their thousands because of Caroni's vast landholdings. I should add that in most squatters' settlements, the moment it was announced that only those who were there by a certain date would be regularised, hordes of others hastily erected half-shacks in order to qualify. The plots were sold for around $7,000 each, and very generous payment terms were extended to the beneficiaries. Tenants, on the other hand, paid at least $15,000 a lot.

As someone who always championed the cause of the poor, I was all for helping people acquire shelter, a basic right in any civilised society. I have also insisted there could be no agricultural squatters once people who occupied abandoned lands and cultivated them. If, however, anyone occupied lands for the purposes of speculation, he should be kicked out with ceremony!

I therefore understand the plight of the many squatters we have spread across the country. I have repeatedly said that in a country as wealthy as ours, we ought not to have poor people who cannot afford a meal, far less a home. But I also hold the view that we cannot allow squatters to do as they please, not merely because they are breaking the law, but because unplanned developments lead to myriad problems years later. In this country, though, it seems that breaking the law has healthy rewards, with politicians capitalising on the seeming heartlessness of the government of the day. In the current showdowns at Waller Field and Carlsen Field, UNC ministers are condemning the PNM government for being harsh on squatters. They forget that when they were in office they ordered the breaking down of squatters' houses not far from the Brechin Castle sugar factory, their heartland (among other places). One UNC MP's brother "acquired" a huge piece of Caroni's land in a prime area-hoping, I suppose, that he would be "regularised".

We cannot have people "squat" wherever they feel like living just because they are poor (and worse if they are rich!). Housing developments must be properly planned in accordance with a broader national housing plan. It pains me to drive down the Hochoy Highway and see huts littering the landscape, just as it angers me that anyone on any highway can just open an entrance-way and the authorities do nothing about it. When we encourage such lawlessness in the name of politicking, we set dangerous precedents that will haunt us in years to come. Squatting is but one such problem that we need to deal with. By extension, that's a poverty problem (in the main). So if we address poverty, we will get to housing.

That still does not explain to me why a woman would choose to bring into this world six-to-a-dozen children, knowing she has no man or means to bring them up, then cry foul at the State for not feeding her kids or housing her. Or why a man would plant his seeds (literally!) all over the place with no regard as to how he will grow the saplings that spring therefrom. Such irresponsibility eventually leads to lawlessness, and by extension, crime. Is it any wonder most of the deadly criminals who haunt us today come from squatter settlements? Yet, there are politicians who encourage such activities, pretending they empathise with the poor, only to complain later about government's inability to control crime.

It's that kind of cheap vote-hunting that has hurt us in the past (look at the thousands of NHA tenants who pay nothing for their "squats" and will hurt us even more in the future. Talk about "The Cashews" in Carlsen Field? I wonder how many people are aware that huge areas there, World War II runways, have long been occupied by hundreds of squatters, many of whom were "sold" plots by unscrupulous hustlers? Or that such dens of crime are replicated throughout the country?

On this issue, although I will insist that the government has an obligation to address poverty as a priority, I stand squarely behind Minister Keith Rowley when he says he will not allow anyone, squatters or others, to break the law. And I appeal to people who are poor to think before they "go forth and multiply" like animals, not caring about the future of the products of their unbridled lust. We cannot create our own problems and then insist that others, especially government, rectify them. In other words, we cannot be "wrong and strong".