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PNM problem, PNM solution

By Raffique Shah

THE tragedy of the crime-infested, poverty-stricken, pitiful and problematic ghettos located on the eastern fringes of Port of Spain is that they ought never to have degenerated to the mess they are today. There was a time when they could have been salvaged. Maybe that possibility still exists. But for as long as the politicians see Laventille, Beetham, Sea Lots and surrounding districts as permanent problems deserving only of temporary quick-fix solutions, the festering sores will spread, infecting and affecting the entire society.

The political entity that has a moral and historical obligation to intervene, to attempt to save the ghettos (I use this to encompass all the depressed districts) is the PNM. I make this bold assertion on several bases, as I shall develop, the first of which is that the PNM was an architect of the problem. Second, while governments like the incumbent People's Partnership may pretend that they want to effect solutions, they do not understand the root causes of the problems nor do the people trust them. Third, if the PNM is to salvage the ghettos, it must first revolutionise itself.

Contrary to popular perception, the PNM did not create the ghettos. From colonial times they existed as natural extensions to the city, providing shelter for the poor who worked in it, often in the most menial jobs, but at times middle class people who could not afford better housing. CLR James's first novel Minty Alley gives a good account of that era.

These districts expanded rapidly during the wartime boom when rural people and islanders stormed the capital to meet the high demand for labour on the American bases, the port and industries and services that thrived in those years.

I need add that many a scholar, successful entrepreneur and gifted artisan emerged from the maze that the slums had become.

When Dr Eric Williams and the PNM stormed the national political stage, they found very fertile ground among middle class blacks.

But Williams also enjoyed spirited support from the slum dwellers largely because of ethnicity. By then, however, the country's economic fortunes had declined, so there was not much largesse to dole out. Unemployment increased. Those who bore the brunt of low-income or no-income were the ghetto people.

One thing led to another, and soon, powerless to help them except through educating their children, Williams adopted the appeasement mode—make-work programmes and handouts—that he would institutionalise in order to retain the "votes bank".

One might forgive Williams for this expediency during the lean years, when he could do little to change the ghetto-life. But the country enjoyed an unimaginable oil boom from late 1973 through 1981 (oil price rocketed from US$3 a barrel to as high as US$30).

What did Williams and the PNM do for these people? They built some badly planned housing estates that would themselves degenerate into ghettos. They also built a few schools, community centres and play-courts. Worst of all, they replaced the hardboard-and-cardboard Shanty Town (yes, that was the gateway to the city) with the bricks-and-mortar Beetham Estate, right next to the mangrove and the biggest garbage dump in the country. I was an opposition MP then, and I pleaded with the government to relocate Beetham dwellers to a better environment, away from the swamp and the dump.

Hansard will have a record of my stirring plea for those people, some of whom lived off the dump (now euphemistically called a "landfill"). You know what was the PNM's response? Williams had Cuthbert Joseph inflict a severe tongue-lashing on me, justifying the creation of a concrete "mang" and daring me, "You go tell those people you want to move them away from the dump!"

My vision of moving communities away from "cobo-like" conditions did not impress Williams and his minions. It was a Third World phenomenon, so why fight it? I argued: why not? I didn't see poor people in England or countries in Europe that I had visited wrestling with vultures to eke out a living.

I know Keith Rowley and those at the helm of the party today weren't around then—some had not yet been born. They, however, bear the burden of atoning for its sins of the past, especially for not extricating those wretched people from the netherworld in which they are doomed to live and die.

Listen up: sometime in the latter 1970s, two young, gifted architects, (Clive) Alexander & Bacchus, sensing my interest in urban renaissance, invited me to their office to view a model they had designed. That was before the computer era, so they had a handcrafted model. I was blown away by the concept. Affordable, well-designed apartment units dominated a complex that included a small police station, a kindergarten, some small shops and a mini-playpark.

That was how Zanda and Bacchus saw east Port of Spain and surrounding districts being re-developed, engendering a community spirit. As far as I know, the Government showed no interest in their designs. The oil boom came and went; other than whisky replacing rum in fetes, and fridges and colour television sets jostling for cramped space in "decanting centres", the ghettos remained grimy and degenerated into dens of crime.

These are my reasons for telling Keith Rowley that by holding the mantle of leadership of the PNM today, he owes these people a huge debt that his forebears incurred. He needs to fashion an implementable vision for their renaissance, something that goes beyond the boundaries of the East PoS Plan that was proffered when he last held ministerial office. We know that basketball hoop-la, costly family days and magical make-work programmes won't work.

Beetham will continue to erupt in fiery protests. Laventille will seethe. Crime will simmer, then explode. Over to you, Keith ... PNM problem, PNM solution.

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