Good sense will prevail and the construction of the Debe to Mon Desir section of the $7.2 billion Point Fortin highway extension will continue without any delays, says Works and Infrastructure Minister Suruj Rambachan.
Speaking to the Express by phone, Rambachan said Government was not in the habit of aggravating people and will work towards peacefully resolving all matters surrounding compensation for those to be affected by the highway’s construction.
Asked if he anticipates any delay in the contentious leg of the project, Rambachan said, “Not necessarily, we have said we are going about this in a reasoned approach and Mr (Edward) Moodie himself has said that they don’t intend to stop the highway’s construction,” said Rambachan.
Moodie is a community liaison officer employed with the National Infrastructure Development Company (Nidco), the State company that is overseeing the highway’s construction and also president of the Debe to Point Fortin Highway Action Committee .
On Monday he led a protest where a number of residents living in the path of the proposed segment blocked roads demanding fair and just compensation.
Rambachan said work was underway in terms of land acquisition and “hopefully we will work out everything within the specified period of time we have set”.
Rambachan was unable to give the exact time frame but said he would disclose all this information.
“I don’t see the project being delayed, I think there is good will on all sides and we shall resolve it speedily,” he said.
Environmentalist Dr Wayne Kublalsingh and members of the Highway Re-Route Movement have been protesting outside the Office of the Prime Minister in St Clair demanding that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar abide by a report from the Highway Review Committee (HRC), an independent body which was headed by Dr James Armstrong and formed with various civic groups and industry stakeholders, including the Joint Consultative Council (JCC).
Rambachan said, “We do not want to do anything to aggravate the people, we want to have a mutually agreed to approach in the settling of claims and that’s why we are having private treaty negotiations so that amicable settlements can be arrived at.”
Legally, Government can go forward with the construction of the contentious Debe to Mon Desir leg of the highway extension as there is no court order or ruling which stipulates that the mega project be halted.
The Prime Minister said she never gave any undertaking that she would abide by the Armstrong report and will follow the ruling of the court.
On August 3 last year the Highway Re-Route Movement filed a constitutional motion against the State in respect of the Debe to Mon Desir portion of the Point Fortin highway extension. The matter is scheduled to be called before Justice James Aboud on October 28.
Rambachan said he was in discussion with the contractor to determine whether work can begin on other sections of the highway as the land and compensation issues were being sorted out.
Brazilian-based Construtora OAS has been given the contract to undertake the project, and the Golconda to Debe segment of the highway is nearing completion.
However Rambachan said preliminary works on the Debe to Mon Desir section such as designs and planning cannot be stopped and will continue.
“A number of people have settled their claims, in fact 150 people have already settled their claims,” said Rambachan.
He said there was a situation with squatters that needed to be addressed whereby some have accepted payment for their properties and structures, while relocation was being looked at for others.
Rambachan stressed that the Government does not intend to displace anyone and alternative accommodation was being looked at.
The minister said affected residents who were earning $8,000 and under could seek soft loans though the bank with a preferential interest rate of below two per cent to fund the construction of a new home on lands allocated to them.
“Government has provided very attractive and meaningful compensation,” said Rambachan.
Noting that there was no court order to halt the project, Rambachan said, “We do not intend to ride rough shod, we will try to settle and ensure there is a mutual agreement between Government and the people.”
He said the Armstrong report was being reviewed by the technical staff at Nidco and they would determine what was the best way forward.
“We are doing everything possible to satisfy all interest groups in the matter,” he said.
Persad-Bissessar has said the Highway Re-Route Movement had the option of also filing for injunctive relief to stop the highway’s construction.
Attorney for the group, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, had told the Express that this was not an option at this time and it was up to the Prime Minister herself to deal with the matter.