COP must earn right
The resolve by the Congress of the People (COP) to find the facts connected with the controversial Debe segment of the highway to Point Fortin marks a refreshingly sober approach to public affairs displayed by a ranking member of the ruling People's Partnership coalition.
Emotions have been stirred sky-high by State-owned Nidco's determination to build the highway on the established route, against escalated protests by the Highway Re-Route Movement.
On behalf of the State, the ultimate in escalation was marked with the June 27 dismantling by police and soldiers of a camp set up by the Highway Re-route Movement directly obstructing construction. The tearing down of such shelter as the protesters had put up, and their physical removal from the site were masterminded and personally overseen by National Security Minister Jack Warner, in astonishing performance of a role over-reaching his generally understood constitutional remit.
Fall-out from that episode continues to poison the atmosphere, dimming prospects for any coming to terms between a government keen to roll out the highway, and protesters determined to stop the project by any means necessary. Unsurprisingly, it is the taxpayer-funded national treasury that pays when colourfully expressed intransigence by the protest movement comes up against the immovable coercive force that is the lawfully established government of T&T.
It turns out that, on behalf of the Brazilian highway-building contractor, the cash register has been ringing, together with the clock, to count the cost of halting work as the Re-Route agitators literally put their bodies in the way. By last weekend the cost of doing nothing but protesting on the disputed highway section had reached nearly $4 million, with no end in sight of the haemorrhaging red ink.
The contractor gave notice that work scheduled for earlier this year must now be done amid the more uncertain weather conditions of the rainy season. The implications are for higher bills in all the categories detailed last weekend—from the opportunity cost of keeping equipment idle, through labour costs (50 calendar days lost) for presumably paying workers to stay idle—to the costs associated with preparing the claim for reimbursement.
While the taxpayers pick up the tab, no responsible protest movement can simply shrug off such costs, deeming them the collateral damage incurred by the taking of decisions with which it disagrees. By the same token, no judicious administration can heedlessly proceed on a course that excites public sympathies for an underdog antagonist.
The COP plea to revisit the facts of the matter thus marks a welcome time-out for the hostilities that have marked exchanges over the Debe highway site, now spilling out to other media-sensitive parts of T&T. "The truth is what matters," said COP leader Prakash Ramadhar in an admirable intervention. "Opinions should be based on facts, and we need the facts before we could really enlighten our opinions. And that is what we want in this country more than ever."
Mr Ramadhar's urging to calm down is relevant not only to the highway quarrel. His appeal to reduce the level of noise and hard-edged partisan bickering is both timely and optimistic, given the degree to which passions are regularly inflamed over issues large and small.
For the COP successfully to assume the role of honest broker concerned to establish facts as a basis for informed consensus, however, it must convince a national audience of its possession of the moral authority to do so. Mr Ramadhar and his COP colleagues should not lightly assume that it enjoys such authority, but this is no reason for a significant national organisation not at least to try to restore sanity where so often it seems in danger of disappearing.