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Raffique Shah


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Fly flag at half-mast

By Raffique Shah
September 5, 2018

If I'd had a national flag that I hoisted on important occasions, I would have been sorely tempted to fly it at half-mast on Independence Day last Friday.

I don't own one, so the temptation to display my shame over our inability to attain some achievements during 56 years of nationhood did not arise. I must confess though that the major electricity outage that struck large parts of Central Trinidad just when the military parade got underway relieved me of rendering my patriotic duty that has been an annual ritual for as far back as I can recall.

The most recent insult to our dignity was the announcement by Government that it had decided to shut down the Petrotrin oil refinery because it is no longer a viable enterprise. I cannot imagine Trinidad and Tobago, which has been in the oil industry longer than most countries in the world, and which once boasted of having the biggest oil refinery in the British Commonwealth (it processed as many as 355,000 barrels of oil per day), being without that mass of steel tanks, hissing contraptions spewing steam, gas flares lighting up the landscape, and that smell of petroleum assaulting the olfactory senses as generations of nationals and visitors drove through the refinery en route to the south-west of the country.

When I wrote a few weeks ago that if the principal stakeholders could not agree on measures to restore the refinery to profitability, then "shut the damn thing down", I didn't think they would take my prescription literally. But they have. In so doing, they will spend more billions of dollars in generous "separation packages" for the said managers and other employees who brought the behemoth to ruin.

And in rewarding recklessness, corruption and laziness, they leave us citizens burdened by an additional $15 billion-or-more in debt, and a number of petroleum plants that would deteriorate rapidly when not in use.

That singular act of stupidity warrants weeks of national mourning, hence my inclination to fly the flag at half-mast or no mast at all. I can't recall experiencing such overwhelming shame in my life.

What angers me is that besides being a pioneer in the petroleum business, this country's finest technological minds were able to persuade the politicians in government to venture into the then uncharted waters of petrochemicals, blazing an exemplary, not to add very profitable trail in the production of ammonia, urea, methanol and liquefied natural gas. Up to a few years ago, T&T was the global leader in exporting ammonia and methanol. And we all but taught Qatar and Australia the science and economics of LNG.

All of these sterling achievements we can boast of, but we could not get a relatively simple oil refinery right. Every plant upgrade, from the gas-optimisation plant to the ultra-low-sulphur diesel complex and the gas-to-liquids plant experienced massive cost overruns that reeked of gross mismanagement if not outright corruption, and timelines that were incomprehensible. And not a single culprit has been held accountable.

In China, hundreds of them, from thieving managers and contractors to complicit workers would be held in dank dungeons wearing leg-irons and eating from and defecating in slop pails.

Here, they are rewarded, promoted, or retired in relative luxury.

At the very least, all of them who brought such shame to the nation in our 56th year of independence should be formed up in front of the refinery and shot—with "goat pills"!

Look, I am not among the nihilists who moan and gripe that we have not achieved anything since independence, that we are the worst country in the world, and so on.

They who don't know their history might be surprised to learn that fewer than 20 percent of secondary-school-age students enjoyed free education in 1962: mostly, parents paid for their often bright children to attain "O" and "A-level" schooling. Free secondary education was one of the legacies of Dr Eric Williams as the country's first prime minister.

When the first "oil shock" triggered windfall revenues from 1973, secondary schools mushroomed across the country. State housing settlements sprung up, private housing estates emerged with government-led low-interest mortgage-financing facilities. Primary health care facilities were established or upgraded. There were improvements in electricity and potable water supplies, the former more successfully than the latter. And one can only try to imagine North-South commuting before what are now the Butler and Hochoy highways, and the dualling of other main arteries in the East-West corridor.

Of course not everything worked according to plan, and in pursuing lofty goals, Dr Williams sowed the seeds of some of the worst social and economic maladies that would haunt modern T&T with a vengeance. Corruption ballooned from the favoured few to "all ah we t'ief", the work ethic of colonial times all but collapsed, the dependency syndrome expanded to include all classes (think fuel subsidy), crime grew exponentially, from being endemic to epidemic proportions…shall I continue?

But for all our problems, we can be thankful for some mercies: there are still many decent human beings in the country, people who are kind, generous and patriotic. More than that, we know we have evolved when the divisive few have failed to trigger racial or religious wars in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

If only for that, we can take a bow. Then go outside, gather "goat pills" and prepare to fire on those who have misled Petrotrin into ruin.

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