Friday, February 23, 2018

More Caroni land for SIS

Farmers getting cash to vacate 35 acres


licks: Farmer and jab jab masman Ronald Alfred demonstrates the use of the whip outside his home at Perseverance Village two weeks ago. —Photos: Ishmael Salandy

Mark Fraser

A move by Couva-based Super Industrial Services (SIS) to fence some 35 acres of land in Perseverance Village has made some farmers, who are squatting on the lands once owned by Caroni, quit their crops for cash.

SIS, founded by Krishna Lalla in 1979, already has a warehouse operation on Farm Road adjacent to the land that the company has fenced.

The Sunday Express understands the 30-acre parcel of land in which SIS’s warehouse is located was leased to it by Caroni.

In the past two months SIS vehicles, workers and tractors have been on the adjacent 35-acre piece of land, clearing and fencing it. 

For the past 15 years, the land was used by farmers.

When the Sunday Express visited the site, most farmers had already moved out. 

Some claimed to have been paid $2,000 in cash for their crops to vacate the land. Others claimed to have received up to $5,000 in cash to leave their crops behind.

Only two farmers have stubbornly remained and one of them has left his animals—cows and pigs—on the land. 

Officials at Caroni (1975) Ltd say they are unaware of any approval given to the company to expand its operations on the land. 

The lands, which once belonged to Caroni, were once vested to Estate Management and Business Development Company Ltd (EMBD) but are now vested with the Commissioner of State Lands, Ian Fletcher. 

That unit falls under the Ministry of Land and Marine Resources which is headed by Jairam Seemungal.


Farmer’s Plight


Ronald Alfred has spent six years trying to acquire a 1.75-acre piece of Caroni land at Perseverance Village, Couva.

He’s been squatting there for the past 15 years.

Alfred, a third-generation Carnival player, is also the head of the Original Jab Jab.

In the land, he plants herbs, which he uses for the spiritual preparation for mas and the lash plant, which is used to make the whips.

In addition, the land is also the space where he and his members practise before Carnival.

The whipmaking is an artform which was taught to him by his father and he’s territorial about that knowledge.

Alfred, who goes to different schools to educate pupils on Jab Jab mas on behalf of the National Carnival Commission (NCC), was honoured to have the road which leads to his home named Whipmaster Avenue.

The demands of being a band leader for a dying artform of mas, means he supplements his income with farming on 1.75-acre piece of land opposite his home.

One month ago, Alfred says a worker from SIS approached him to vacate the land.

“I was told that ‘(Krishna) Lalla get the land’ and they would compensate me for my crops,” said Alfred.

SIS, founded by Lalla, is a business conglomerate that has been the recipient of million-dollar contracts by the People’s Partnership Government. 

SIS’s main office is at Rivulet Road, Couva, but there is another office at Farm Road, Perseverance.

In the past few weeks, a further 40 acres has started being blocked.

Alfred said the worker who said he was from SIS informed him that Lalla had received a lease for the 40 acres of land being blocked.

“When I asked him how Lalla got the land, they wouldn’t say,” he said.

The land had housed squatters and farmers like him for the past 15 years.

“People were given $2,000 in cash to move out. Some were given $5,000. That was lost in a weekend,” said Alfred.


Squatter Tenancy


Alfred’s 1.75 acre piece of land, fenced around after he was visited by former Caroni officials, stands alone in a flat, brown terrain.

Alfred explained that he went to Caroni’s offices which are still operational at Brechin Castle to find out about the land he uses.

He showed the Sunday Express a document from Caroni which he had acquired in 2009 which stated: “This serves as an acknowledgement that the undersigned has/have participated in the regularisation exercise being conducted by Caroni (1975) Ltd on behalf of the State.”

He was given a squatter tenancy number of 286.

“When they pulled up my file on their system, my name was the only name listed for that plot of land,” he told the Sunday Express in an interview at his home two Thursdays ago.

Alfred’s wife, Shalima Buckradee, said an offer was made to them by SIS for $50,000 to vacate their land.

Alfred said when he refused, another worker from SIS came with a Sponsorship Agreement for the Original Jab Jab.

The agreement is for a sponsorship of $15,000 for one year starting on January 1, 2015 to December 2015.

For $15,000, Alfred would have had to have SIS logos sewn into his costumes and perform at 12 SIS events for the year.

Alfred, who also fixes cars to help supplement his family income, explained that $15,000 does not cover the costs of costumes for the 58 members of the band.

Shalima, who sews all the costumes, explained that the costumes are given free to all those who play in their band because that was what they had learnt from her father-in-law before he died.


Claiming Land


Most of the land being fenced around has already been cleared. All that’s visible are mounds of debris from clearing the land and a few trees.

When the Sunday Express visited the area, a van from SIS was parked and several workers were under a tent around midday.

Questioned as to the company’s purpose of the land, they just said they were just told to have it fenced around and said the person in charge would visit later in the evening.

A tour of the land acquired showed that one farmer, like Alfred, refused to move his animals form the land. There were cows and pigs in his acre.

The animals, which were ring-fenced by their owner, were further ring-fenced after the land was blocked around the animals.

Several portable toilets were on the land bearing the company’s name JaniKing. A company search of JaniKing showed that it was a janitorial services company registered by Lalla in 1994.

Alfred said he has approached his MP, Ramona Ramdial, for assistance in getting a lease for the land but she said she would pass on the information to the Jairam Seemungal, the Minister of Land and Marine Affairs.

He explained that, schools and international students come to interview him to learn more about jab jab. He said he’s been given the assurance by the Ministry of Arts that should he acquire the land, they would help in erecting a small museum-type facility.

“This is about the mas and wanting to keep the tradition alive,” he said.

Ramdial confirmed she had met with the family and said she would try and arrange a meeting with Minister Seemungal.

Seemungal was out of the country when the Sunday Express tried to contact him and this newspaper has been unable to contact him via cellphone or text messages.

When the Sunday Express contacted SIS, chief executive David Lumsden was always unavailable. The Sunday Express tried several times over the course of three weeks but was told he was always out of the office when the Sunday Express identified itself.

Contacted two weeks ago, Fletcher explained that he was new to the office and did not have the information on the acquisition of the land.