Tuesday, February 20, 2018

public needs to know the facts

By the time this editorial appears, the subject matter may well have been settled or consigned to the garbage dump of history. We refer to a Joint Consultative Council (JCC) initiative to diffuse, and possibly resolve, the impasse that has gripped the nation's attention and attracted unflattering international media coverage the prolonged hunger strike by environmentalist Dr Wayne Kublalsingh.

More accurately, the JCC's missive to the Prime Minister last Tuesday sought to address the underlying causes of Kublalsingh's many protests against a section of the Point Fortin Highway. The JCC is an amalgam of mostly professional organisations that cannot be dismissed as being politically aligned or "mischief makers".

They include the Association of Professional Engineers, the Institute of Surveyors, the Contractors Association, the Institute of Architects and the Society of Planners. Their initiative in this instance was endorsed by several civil society groups, among them the local chapter of Transparency International. A number of prominent individuals and organisations have expressed their support since the document was made public.

The JCC proposed to the Prime Minister two options to resolve the impasse, either of which, if accepted, would see Kublalsingh end his hunger strike, and the issues that prompted his extreme action dealt with speedily. Last Thursday, Kublalsingh agreed to abide by the JCC's proposals if the Government accepted them the first hint of a compromise after months of protests and turmoil.

The first option was, "...if an independent review (pertaining to the controversial section of the highway) exists on matters pertaining to the hydrology, drainage, environmental engineering, transport and highway engineering and economic analysis, then this review should be made public immediately." The alternative, if such review does not exist, is to set up an independent committee comprising professionals in the required fields to conduct the exercise and produce a report within three months.

The latter, which would cause delays in construction, may be unnecessary since the Prime Minister has publicly stated that a review has been conducted and a report produced. At several forums, she waved a document, but up to last Friday its contents had not been made public. The PM must understand that the $7 billion-plus highway is the costliest project undertaken by her administration since it came to office 30 months ago. It involves the use of public funds, so transparency is critical, especially since on the campaign trail in 2010, in the face of some dubious, costly projects by the previous administration, her People's Partnership promised transparency.

The issues for review enunciated by the JCC are also critical to the integrity of the highway. Because the Debe to Mon Desir segment seems to cut through one of the few wetlands in this small country, it would be reassuring to know that drainage, hydrology and environmental studies and reviews show that the construction works would have no negative impact on drainage (leading to flooding) and the ecology and environment. The JCC noted, and we agree, that "...environmental issues are national issues (that) go way beyond the concerns of a specific community...."

The other issues the JCC raised transport and highway engineering and economic analysis are also very important. Once the highway is completed, there would be no room for re-engineering. And Kublalsingh and others claim that the controversial segment is prohibitively costly ($5 billion), that there is a cheaper, practical alternative. The public needs to know what the facts are, what the experts said regarding these contentious issues.

Nobody has spoken against the construction of the highway, certainly not Kublalsingh and his Re-Route Movement, as many residents in south Trinidad and the southwest Peninsula are misled into believing. Political propaganda on the one side and extreme action on the other have brought us to this sorry spectacle. The government and Kublalsingh must heed voices of reason (such as the JCC's), restore governance without paranoia and protest that is acceptable.