Wednesday, February 21, 2018

T&T's first hunger strike grips nation


Endurance: Highway Re-Route Movement activist Dr Wayne Kublalsingh lies on a stretcher during his hunger strike outside the Prime Minister's office in St Clair on November 26. —Photo: ANISTO ALVES

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For three weeks, Dr Wayne Kublalsingh's hunger strike dominated the news, drawing both profound admiration and strident condemnation.

His frame shrunk right before our eyes and the story of a determined man's stand against the might of a government in building a multi-billion-dollar highway made headlines locally, regionally and internationally, as media in Canada and India picked up on the story.

The protest was in stark contrast to other union-led protests and engaged more thought and attention than those usually did.

Within the space of three weeks, from November 15 to December 5, Kublalsingh became the butt of Government criticism. He was labelled a "conman" by National Security Minister Jack Warner, who urged Kublalsingh to hurry up and die. Warner went on to claim Kublalsingh was secretly eating while pretending to fast. Kublalsingh was also referred to as a "spoiled child" by Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal, who also suggested Kublalsingh needed to "listen to his mother" and eat something.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar wrote to his mother, Vilma Kublalsingh, expressing her "love and support", but made it clear Kublalsingh's hunger strike would not stop the construction of the Debe-to-Mon Desir section of the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway extension to Pt Fortin.

In her letter, Persad-Bissessar said the insistence of the Highway Re-Route Movement to stop the development was not "tenable" and she could not support Kublalsingh's cause when hundreds of thousands of citizens of this country stood to benefit from the highway.

In the letter, Persad-Bissessar said, "As a mother, I share your concern for the well-being of Wayne. Your brief note (which Mrs Kublalsingh had sent to the PM, requesting she meet her son) tugged at my heartstrings when I read it, for I know what your son's actions must be putting you through."

She added then that as "Prime Minister, I also have a duty and an obligation to the nation in ensuring that all matters are dealt with fairly and in the interest of everyone".

Persad-Bissessar then pointed out that she had met with Kublalsingh previously and took the decision to put on hold a section of the extension of the Solomon Hochoy Highway to Point Fortin development until discussions were held and a technical evaluation conducted.

"These conditions were met, discussions held, evaluations concluded and compromises made to the development. But the insistence of the Highway Re-Route Movement to stop the project is not tenable, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens who will enjoy the positive benefits of the road linkages for generations to come cannot be denied," stated Persad-Bissessar.

That letter sparked more outrage within the protest camp, coming as it did on the heels of the comments from the other ministers and Kublalsingh supporters, including former minister Verna St Rose Greaves, Father Clyde Harvey, Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU) president general Ancel Roget and People's National Movement leader Dr Keith Rowley.

When Kublalsingh refused to end his hunger strike, pro-highway supporters were bussed in and the peaceful protest turned noisy, as placard-bearing supporters called for Kublalsingh to "hurry up and die", as they wanted the highway.

But that too blew up and several reports surfaced that the protesters were not sure why they were protesting, and that the protesters were made up of crews from CEPEP and URP and some were not even being affected by the highway.

For the first week of his protest, Kublalsingh sat quietly under a tent on the pavement at the entrance of the Prime Minister's office. By week two, when he was barred from setting up tents and blocked from the pavement, he simply crossed the street and sat under umbrellas held by his supporters in the Highway Re-Route Movement. By then, a visibly weakened Kublalsingh was moving slowly from a private ambulance to the lounge chair and back while doctors and family fussed around him, hoping to convince him to end his hunger strike.

Toward the end of week three, civil society groups, including the Joint Consultative Council and the Movement for Social Justice, mediated between the two and proposed setting up an independent review committee.

This was negotiated with the Government and agreed to, and the hunger strike ended after 21 days.

But three weeks after his hunger strike ended, Kublalsingh is bedridden. His leg muscles have atrophied by the prolonged lack of sustenance; standing and walking put too much pressure on his joints and have left his ankles and knees painfully swollen.

His three-week sacrifice highlighted the Debe-to-Mon Desir section of the billion-dollar highway extension project. It led to the informal amalgamation of civil society groups that mediated a settlement between the Highway Re-Route Movement and the Government and, according to MSJ leader David Abdulah, it helped raise the social conscience of the nation.

But in more tangible terms, the proposal that both the Government and Kublalsingh accepted encompassed more than what he had initially proposed.

"It is more extensive than ours was and included a traffic management plan and procurement procedures, which mine did not have," Kublalsingh said.

But even with his health complications and the independent review team working under a tight deadline, Kublalsingh is unwilling to commit to whether his protest was a success or failure.

"We won't be able to tell the success or failure until after the committee findings," Kublalsingh said.

The committee, led by Dr James Armstrong, comprises 14 technical experts who are currently reviewing the documents to determine the next course of action. They are expected to make their findings public by the first week in February.