Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A nation in 'agony'


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AS the agony of Wayne Kublalsingh's hunger strike spreads across Trinidad and Tobago, parts of the People's Partnership Government seem to be multiplying their blunders in response to the challenges arising from the unprecedented protest action.

Within the second week of Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike protest to influence a reversal of the decision by the Government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to proceed with the Solomon Hochoy Highway extension project, Dana Seetahal SC, also an Express columnist, had warned that he could face a criminal charge for "attempted suicide".

By last week, while cabinet ministers, and notably National Security Minister Jack Warner, were mocking the environmentalist's extreme form of protest, Seetahal thought it necessary to debunk "unacceptable rum-shop talk" by those who ought to know better.

A different scenario of "warnings" involved also the National Infrastructure Development Company Ltd (Nidco), which pointed to the report of a technical review committee that has fully endorsed the highway project. It also appealed to Kublalsingh to terminate his hunger strike protest with a message that the $7 billion highway project was in the national interest.

In between, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran, original leader of Congress of the People (COP) came forward with a most surprising intervention, making a public statement, while in the Dominican Republic, urging the Prime Minister to "show compassion" for Dr Kublalsingh by striking a "compromise".

The position adopted by the normally reticent Dookeran would have startled not just the people of T&T but also others in the region.

For one thing Dookeran, an experienced politician and technocrat, is yet to explain why he chose such a public route—however well-intentioned—in preference for a private appeal, via written note or telephone conversation with the Prime Minister. He was to be subsequently rebuked by the Partnership's flamboyant Chief Whip in the House of Representatives, Dr Roodal Moonilal, with his known penchant for controversies of his own making.

Against the backdrop of Minister Warner's infantile political talk to the media of Kublalsingh being a "con man" by fasting in public during the day and carefully eating at certain "safe houses'' at night, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar was left to defend her own statement against unnamed Partnership dissenters who she has warned against being "chewed and spit out" by the electorate when the bell rings for new local and national elections.

Interestingly, she went on the defensive when questioned by the media that she had implicitly included Winston Dookeran among the dissenting coalition partners accused of "betrayal of trust". No such mood surfaced from Jack Warner, chairman of the coalition's dominant partner, United National Congress. For Warner, Dookeran has shown "disloyalty" at a crucial phase.

While the war of words was being played out among Government and opposition politicians and their allies located in other places, Dr Kublalsingh increasingly revealed a worryingly frail physique as he continued his hunger strike — even as doctors were beginning to ring the alarm bell.

By the weekend, as the Prime Minister maintained her government's firm resolve to press ahead with the highway project and president of Nidco Dr Carson Charles, was reaffirming that there was "no need" for a further study to avoid the threatened environmental destruction envisaged by Kublalsingh's "Highway Re-route Movement" .

Having been presented with a copy of a draft agreement reached on Monday between a Joint Consultative Council (JCC), that includes Nidco, and the Ministry of Works, Kublalsingh told the media he would read it and convey his position by yesterday the 20th day of his hunger strike.

To judge from his mood, according to media reports, Dr Kublalsingh did not give much hope for ending his unprecedented form of peaceful protest, though he confessed to "feeling very weak, extremely weak…"

Undoubtedly he prides himself as a martyr with a cause. But even some of his admirers and sympathisers have doubts about his resolve, conscious as they are of objective scientific and management arguments that were also advanced, well ahead of the Highway Re-Route Movement the environmentalist had spawned by a commitment not easy to replicate.

Amid the more recent dread warning signals from doctors, it is to be hoped that the protesting environmentalist survives the self-imposed punishment to his body, having more than jolted a government and nation with his focused vigilance against destruction of the environment while pursuing laudable and quite costly infrastructure projects in the national interest.