Sunday, February 18, 2018

A hunger strike we don't need 

Dr Wayne Kubalalsingh's decision to embark on a full-scale hunger strike has escalated the confrontation between the Highway Re-Route Movement and the Government. Despite initiating legal challenge against the controversial Debe to Mon Desir section of the Point Fortin highway, the environmentalist has decided to up the ante, prompted by fresh signs of contractor mobilisation at the construction site.  

Dr Kublalsingh has made it clear that his extreme hunger strike, which avoids even water, is a desperate attempt to force the reluctant hand of the Prime Minister in this matter.

The Highway Re-Route Movement is demanding that the prime minister follow through on her promise to review the concerns that it took to her back in March.  

 For its part, the Ministry of Works has said that it cannot engage Dr Kublalsingh and his group since the Re-Route Movement has carried its objections to the courts.

In the circumstances, therefore, all indications are that Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike will not force the Government to budge on this issue. For now, it would seem that unless the already frail-looking UWI lecturer can be persuaded to abandon his protest, Trinidad and Tobago could soon be in the international headlines as a country where an environmentalist is laying down his life before a stony-faced government in a battle over community rights.

This situation must be defused before it gets there.

There is enough blame to pass around on both sides in this matter.

While in opposition, the main players in the People's Partnership Government, led by the Prime Minister herself as then-Opposition Leader, were only too happy to climb on the Re-Route Movement's anti-highway bandwagon against the Manning administration.

Protesting residents in the Debe-Mon Desir area were therefore entitled to expect that once in government, the Partnership would support their case for re-routing the highway. Their hurt and sense of having been used and betrayed are therefore understandable.

In retaliation, the dramatic tactics employed by Dr Kublalsingh and the Re-Route Movement to draw public attention to their plight have not endeared them to a significant segment of the population.  

This situation should not be allowed to escalate into a full-blown hunger drama. Whatever his demerits, Dr Kublalsingh is an environmentalist of international repute who has earned the respect of people in small communities all over the country who have found themselves up against the might of the state and big business.

Having given the Highway Re-route Movement an undertaking to review their concerns, the Prime Minister should follow through and meet with the group to outline her findings and explain her decision. 

Meeting the group does not constitute a loss of face nor does it require a change of government policy. But it would demonstrate that power is willing to be held responsible for its promises and decisions.