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Raffique Shah


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No Happy New Year for the destitute

December 31, 2006
By Raffique Shah

Forget those never-fulfilled New Year resolutions as the not-so-magical midnight hour approaches tonight. Let's be realistic: we hardly ever adhere to our wishes because we simply do not have the will, the discipline to break bad habits or to adopt new, supposedly good ones. I can visualise it even as I write on Friday. Sloshed-to-bollocks, as the Brits would say, wealthy men and women with those gaudy, comical (and conical) hats, whistles and champagne glasses competing for space in their mouths, shouting in drunken stupor: Happy New Year!

But even as merriment, resolutions and alcohol-fuelled bonhomie reign, and nasty hangovers lurk, many if not most are already plotting in the innermost recesses of their minds how to shaft people sitting at their tables. For a few million dollars more they would do evil, commit sin or worse, all in the pursuit of material things. Are they any different to the bandits who think alike, plot in similar fashion, and are more brutal only in the execution (pardon the pun) of their nefarious activities? Often, those who cry out loudest against the depths of depravity that this society has sunk to are as guilty of taking us there as the kidnappers and bandits and murderers.

So let's cut the seasonal bull and get real. This past year has seen the country enjoy a level of wealth that we could never have dreamed of 10 or 15 years ago. To hear Prime Minister Patrick Manning boast of the tripling of our GNP or foreign reserves, you'd swear he and his Government were responsible for our good fortune. You'd never think that the developed countries' insatiable appetite for oil and gas, and the fact that this country is endowed with these resources, are the factors that led to the national coffers bursting at the seams.

Wealth, however, does not signal an absence of stupidity. Nor does it, by itself, transform the wealthy into sages or a nation into paradise. If anything, and certainly if we are both human and humane, we can use wealth to uplift our people, to bring equity to the society. What has happened thus far, three years into significant revenues from our resources, is that the rich-poor gap has widened, paving the way not to prosperity, but to a social crisis that could explode in a manner never before seen. The seemingly unstoppable crime rate is but a minor manifestation of a larger problem that neither the Government nor those of us who live in relative comfort care to admit.

Let me tell you what I have personally observed. Within recent times, because of the horrendous traffic one needs to brave to get into or out of Port of Spain, I have taken to commuting by bus to the city. The bus (I should add that the buses are clean, cool and quite efficient) offers passengers the perfect vantage point from which to observe what one cannot see if one drives a vehicle. There are some huge but unsightly industrial complexes confronting the eyes as one passes through Champs Fleurs into Laventille.

But it's when you hit Beetham Estate that you see the conditions under which the poor are doomed to eke out an existence in this land of plenty. In what must be known as Phase IV (I really don't know), almost in line with the La Basse, one sees excuses for homes that are primitive. Hidden from the public eye (since most of us zoom past that area on the Beetham Highway or the Eastern Main Road) are human beings living in sties. I make no apology for so describing those ramshackle pieces of old board and old galvanise that are called "homes". How well I recall when, in 1977, the government was about to relocate some Laventille residents and Shanty Town people there, and I protested in Parliament, I was put down by Cuthbert Joseph. "You go tell those people you don't want them near the dump!" he challenged me.

Further up Beetham where the houses are better (actually renovated!), there are drains and canals that seem to be permanently stagnant and totally polluted. One day the water looks black, another day it's off-white and foamy. From the bus I cannot smell it. But I am sure there is an unbearable stench that not even corbeaux should be subjected to, far less human beings. I should add here that although I've never been to Sea Lots, I have looked at it from high up on the Eric Williams Plaza. It's a sight no human being should be subjected to. Yet, PM after PM, not to add other senior ministers, must see that mess every day as they enter their plush offices.

This is but a vignette of a larger mess that is downtrodden, forgotten Trinidad and Tobago. There are hundreds such ghettoes, thousands of "sufferers" living in similar or worse conditions. How I can wish anyone a "Happy New Year" when such images of destitution haunt me? Peace, brethren, peace.