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Raffique Shah


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Vision 2020: all talk, little action

November 21, 2004
By Raffique Shah

LONG-TERM social and economic planning, which was all but abandoned by the late Dr Eric Williams many decades ago, has returned under the Patrick Manning government in the form of "Vision 2020". I must confess I have not followed this exercise closely, but I am aware that the Prime Minister has put together a number of committees comprising people he considers the "finest minds" in the country to come up with proposals to take Trinidad and Tobago from its semi-developed state to fully developed status by the magic year he has chosen. What must bother him is while this vision is being pursued, people are making just demands for immediate action on issues that have adversely affected them for far too many years.

And why should they not gripe? It is one thing for government to undertake an exercise that may well provide us with measures that we, government and people, need to take to improve the quality of life of our citizens and make the country reflect its wealth. Not many will disagree that changes do not happen overnight. But when we look around us and see some of our neighbours in the Eastern Caribbean who are economically less endowed than us, living in conditions superior to ours, we must ask questions. Indeed, we must raise hell over some very basic amenities that we ought to have long enjoyed, having benefitted from three oil booms and an otherwise robust economy.

Let's begin with the state of our infrastructure roads, sidewalks, bridges, drainage. Port of Spain (POS) is one of the worst examples of a capital city when compared with cities elsewhere, or even with nearby Bridgetown or Kingstown. Sure, some parts of the city are aesthetically pleasing, and we can boast of the tallest, most impressive office structures and shopping malls in the Caribbean. But step out of Issa Nicholas' new towers downtown and what do you encounter? Vagrants perched against the walls of adjacent buildings (now they have to seek higher ground because of the all-too-frequent floods), lying like dirty rag dolls on just about every sidewalk downtown. And we are not talking here about those who come out only at nights. Every day citizens and visitors who have to walk through the city must step gingerly over or around these decrepit characters.

Citizens are fed up, too, with the state of our sidewalks, which, instead of providing safe havens for pedestrians, are more like obstacle courses. One has to walk around numerous damaged sections (or face damaging oneself), hurdle open or damaged manholes, not to add holding one's nose to escape the stench from open, stinking drains that remain a fixture of the capital. And when it comes to sheer nastiness, it's not only the restaurants that have been identified by the Mayor's inspectors that should be shut down. Merchants do not take pride in their premises. They dump garbage on the streets much the way one would expect of primitive people. Charlotte Street businesses complain about the many robberies that take place there daily. I don't hear them complain about how stink that street could be on any given day or night. So the bandits blend easily with the nasty-scape!

Worse, this is the city that the Government is pushing to house the headquarters of the FTAA. Does Trade Minister Ken Valley really believe that the dump we call Port of Spain will win out over many cleaner, well-manicured cities? He and his colleagues in government must understand that a Lara Promenade and 10 or 20 high-rise office buildings do not a city make. It's the grime, the open sewers, the excuses-for-pavements that citizens and visitors alike first see. And while we, the people, must take much of the blame for the unhygienic conditions that pervade all our main towns and villages, we who litter at will, who spit or discard cigarette butts where and when we feel like it, who toss the remains of fast foods anywhere, government is also as culpable.

Will "Vision 2020" bring us relief from the horrendous traffic that clogs up just about every highway and road on a daily basis? True, traffic congestion is seen as a sign of prosperity in wealthy countries, meaning more people having the means to acquire vehicles. But most such countries, especially in the developed world, also ensure there are adequate and efficient public transport systems in place, thereby allowing many people to leave their vehicles at home and travel to wherever by bus or train. Recently, the British Government saw inner-city-London becoming chaotic with traffic, and a fee was imposed on anyone wanting to drive into town with his car. That is the kind of thinking and measures we need to put in place. PTSC, I notice, has started a city service, but isn't that geared more for touring rather than commuting?

Every time I hear Works Minister Franklin Khan outline plans for new roads and highways to be built, I scowl. Such ideas have been bandied about for decades, even before the first oil boom of the 1970s. True, the then government did build or expand several main arteries: by the early 1980s, one could drive from Westmoorings to San Fernando on four-lane highways. But within a few years the vastly increased numbers of vehicles on the nation's roads obviated their benefits. Then came Minister Sadiq Baksh, who, in seeking a solution, turned four-lanes into six, making those highways even more dangerous for motorists.

What of proposals to decentralise POS (and other unplanned towns) in order to bring relief from traffic-jams? Instead of shifting some ministries and public buildings out of the capital and into many more suitable and accessible towns, the Government has plans to construct many more, including four mega-buildings on lower Richmond Street. And the one car park there that offered minimal relief has been closed, to make way for yet another monstrosity. Is this visionary planning or remedy-by-vaps? Even stop-gap measures like staggered working hours have not been considered. So the average working citizen puts in at least 14 hours a day, traffic-time included, and is expected to be a productive worker for eight hours. Madness! I'd rather sell doubles on some grimy sidewalk than be forced to go through such horrors daily.

Besides the lack of roads to cater for an increasing population and the resultant increase in vehicles, there are also the many woefully bad roads people have to face. Admittedly, most of our highways and main roads are in relatively good condition. But once one ventures off them and into districts where much of the population live, you encounter roads that range from pot-holed-mazes to virtually impassable surfaces.