Sunday, January 21, 2018

‘Curiouser and curiouser!’


Mark Fraser

‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English); ‘now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye, feet!’ (for when she looked down at her feet, they seemed to be almost out of sight, they were getting so far off). ‘Oh, my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears? ‘Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking!’

That introduction was with credits to Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Her confusion over her feet is like clarity over the highway issue which recedes further and further away with the passing of each day! However the issues that I am finding particularly curious at the moment are some of the statements being made in support of the new highway since it seems to me that I have heard them in the recent past in discussion of the proposed aluminium smelter-progress is necessary, economic development for underdeveloped areas, provision of employment—but these arguments were strongly opposed by some of the same persons who are now using them in support of the highway!

Heroes of yesterday are now vilified in the worst way. Yesterday it was said—the smelter will be built; in fact it was said that three would be built—today it is said that nothing will stop the highway from being built. With the smelter the issue of disposal of spent pot-liners was never properly answered—today environmental issues such as flooding or damage to the lagoon are not properly answered. In neither case was a cost benefit analysis produced.

The most detailed and logical discussion that I have read on the highway project has been set out in a series of articles by Trevor Sudama, a former minister in a United National Congress Government. I accessed these by using Google (insert “Sudama on the Highway”).

It is alarming what misconceptions are propagated by senior Government officials giving the impression that the Highway Re-route Movement is against the highway in its totality when in fact the issues that the movement have raised concern the Debe to Mon Desir section. Is this just carelessness or is it done deliberately to mislead? Or perhaps, like Alice and her feet, pronouncements on the highway issue are moving further and further away from reality.

Dr Carson Charles, the chairman of National Infrastructural Development Company (Nidco), in recent television interviews, has blamed the media for not reporting that reports are available on the highway and I got the impression from his statement that these reports would answer all the concerns being raised about the highway. If it is indeed the case that the concerns which have caused environmentalist Dr Wayne Kublalsingh to go on a hunger strike were answered by available reports that are in Charles’ possession, the fact that he did not before now reveal this fact is inexplicable. In the Guardian of December 3, Radhica Sookraj reports that Charles has apologised for not providing more information on the technical aspects of the $7.5 billion highway which sparked the hunger strike.

Charles should apologise to Kublalsingh and beg his forgiveness.

I have searched for such reports on both the Nidco and the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure websites and up to Sunday 2nd December there was nothing available. I e-mailed the Ministry through the website asking for these reports and have had no reply.

Government has daily time on the television stations, puts numerous full page advertisements in the daily newspapers and so it is no excuse to say that the news media did not report on Charles’ earlier press conference.

It is significant that in spite of the reports in Charles’ possession Gail Alexander in the Guardian of December 1, refers to a report supplied by Nidco which apparently states: “It noted Nidco was mandated to undertake detailed engineering studies of the South Oropouche River Basin with detailed designs of the proposed solutions”. The report further stated that the Works Ministry and Nidco “are making every effort to mitigate the flooding concerns of the region by addressing the issue on two fronts, by studying and implementing a plan for mitigating flooding in the entire South Oropouche River Basin and by ensuring that increased run-off due to the highway structure is addressed”. The report also noted that “Nidco was about to begin additional studies which would address the concerns of the stakeholders and the wider community in greater detail”. Have these additional studies been carried out?

In Monday’s Express (December 3) Charles is reported by Susan Mohammed to have stated: “All the reports and studies were done. Studies of hydrology, studies of social impact, engineering studies—all done before. The contractor must study the hydrology and catchment and designs for it. We told him that when he designs for it to make sure there is less flooding than there is now. We told him what we want of his designs, we have to approve it (sic). The Minister of Environment and Water Resources has to approve them also.”

Charles said the highway extension project was the only major construction project ongoing in the country, and it was needed to boost the economy. How will this project boost the economy in a way that building schools would not?

If a $7 billion highway has been started why are further studies needed? To me, that is an admission that something was missing from the original studies. If so, how then was a cost for the project arrived at? Perhaps by asking Alice!

I support the intervention of groups led by the Joint Consultative Council (JCC) and the acceptance by Government that the groups shall review all the documentation on the highway project. I await their findings with much anticipation. I hope the issue of the necessity for further designs (and any additional costs) will be clarified.

—John Spence is professor emeritus, UWI. He also served

as an independent senator.