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Raffique Shah


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People must be part of the development process

September 03, 2006
By Raffique Shah

I was not surprised when several Cabinet ministers underscored what Prime Minister Patrick Manning has been saying for some time now: the Government's current construction frenzy will not be stopped, delayed or revisited. Manning wants to make history as the leader who changed the skyline of Port of Spain, re-introduced the rail system, and who commissioned the biggest industrial projects ever in the country. If, at the end of it all, the population is worse off for cardinal errors made by the PM, so what? He and his colleagues will have long departed to the hereafter. It will be a case of those who inherit the bitter-sweet fruits of hyper-development "to catch".

I listened to Works Minister Colm Imbert, as he announced approval of the new $800 million freeway linking Princes Town with San Fernando, chide individuals and organisations who, while complaining about the frenetic pace of development, will selfishly seek out what infrastructure they need. Other ministers have, within recent times, spoken in a similar vein. Sadly, they all misunderstand valid arguments advanced, not by those who do not want development, but those who have the country's interest, its future, at heart. From the way the PM and his colleagues react to anyone who dares disagree with them, you'd swear they are facing enemies of the state, possibly a new breed of "anti-development terrorists".

Thus far I have heard no one say: do not build! Hey, we have the money now, thanks to the oil and gas windfall, and we must use it to transform this country from underdeveloped to developed status. If we do not make fundamental positive changes over the next decade or so, the country may never again enjoy the wherewithal to so do.

But having said that, the question arises again: what really is developed country status? Does it mean an impressive skyline, but sidewalks that can challenge hurdlers to evade spewing sewage, huge craters and vagrants aplenty? Does development mean two aluminium smelter plants to add to our already impressive array of industries, but not far from them people living in abject poverty, so far removed or excluded from the wealth of the nation as to appear to be in a time warp? Does it mean overpasses, freeways and rapid rail built at the expense of our lush mangrove and other environmentally sensitive natural forms of life? Does it mean shiny tertiary level education centres even as close to 50 per cent of the over-18 population are functionally illiterate?

Those who are crying out for planned development ask only that the Government address these and other structural weaknesses in the society even as we enjoy a construction boom. And in the latter case, we ask that the Government pace itself like a good distance runner so that its current frenzy does not peter out into a cost spiral that is self-defeating.

Except for the UNC-in-disarray, who else is complaining about the many houses being delivered by the Government and its agencies? Who protests the many roads and highways upgrade programmes, even though we may be inconvenienced while works are underway? Aren't we all waiting for the thrust in agriculture, seeking to get involved in producing food for ourselves and for the nation? Haven't we been begging for better school buildings for our children, police stations for our cops, and even improved prisons and prison conditions for our prisoners?

When, therefore, the PM and his colleagues adopt a defensive, at times hostile stance, towards those who make suggestions that run contrary to their concept of development, they alienate people who have every right to help shape the future of this country. The Government may have a mandate from the electorate to rule the country. But it does not have the exclusive right to determine our development path, or for that matter, how it spends the huge revenues that have come our way because of our oil and gas resources. These belong to the people of the country, not to any government or any political party.

There are reasons for people expressing our fears over construction overheating, and they are not confined to its link with inflation. It has to do with priorities, with taking care of one's own, alleviating poverty, beautifying the capital city in a holistic manner, dealing with the social ills that spawn crime and criminals, ensuring that all have a basic education even as those who are so capable move on to the tertiary level. There's more, much more. But how can we engage in discussion when the Government has closed the door to dialogue? When, for raising genuine concerns about the direction in which we are being taken, one is branded as being obstructionist?

I don't expect what I have written here will in any way influence the path the Government has chosen. I hope, though, that ministers will understand why so many people believe that between the PNM and the UNC, they are caught between a rock and a hard place.