March 20, 2005
By Raffique Shah
Two years into the consultation and planning stages of Prime Minister Patrick Manning's "Vision 2020", I am convinced that instead of this country moving forward to "developed nation" status, we are mired in a kind of stagnation that is unbelievable. True, one does not expect significant changes to miraculously take place in a short time. But I am convinced that those who are charged with delivering us from the evils that haunt underdeveloped, poverty-stricken countries, are blind as the proverbial bats.
For purposes of this column I shall not address the plight of the poor, which, for me, should be priority number one to be addressed by any government. I shall stick to the "visuals", to what any one-eyed man can see. Starting with our main city-centres, why do those in authority allow property owners the "right" to keep unoccupied buildings or plots of land in "jungle" conditions? Aren't there laws in place that prohibit such insensitive-not to add dangerous-acts to go unpunished? A little over a week ago, one such building in the heart of San Fernando was burnt in a fire that officers said "might have been set by vagrants" who occupy the abandoned structure. Luckily for neighbouring property owners, only a few suffered as a result of that fire. But it could have been worse: the entire block could have been wiped out, but for prompt response by fire officers.
The building in question only comes up for mention because of the fire. There are numerous such properties not only in San Fernando, but in Port of Spain, all along the East-West Corridor, and in most built-up districts in the country. In residential communities, there are absentee land-owners who allow their patches of "jungle" to serve as eyesores to residents and havens for criminals waiting to strike. Why are these delinquents, who are potentially more dangerous to the country than petty thieves or drug addicts, allowed to flout the law? If those who are so empowered fail to act under existing laws, what in Vision 2020 would cause them to be more pro-active? Truth be told, from the various city councils, boroughs and regional corporations, to institutions like the Police Service and the EMA, they, too, are as delinquent as the culprits, as "toothless" as one-time Commissioner of Police Jules Bernard proclaimed himself to be.
It does not take a mayor or the Commissioner to act on these seemingly minor nuisances that could turn into major disasters. Every day, as ordinary citizens drive or walk around the country, they note these eyesores with disgust. Years pass and nothing is done: the buildings deteriorate into unsightly shells, the empty plots become mini-jungles and dumping grounds for waste. Why, Mr Manning? Why Mayors Murchison Brown, Suruj Rambachan and Ian Atherly? These are basic things that need to be dealt with before we can even start talking about progressing beyond 2005. Yet, the manner in which they are allowed to fester signals to us that such primitiveness exists both among populace and those in authority. We have allowed our cities and towns and even villages to mirror the stark social divisions in the society at large. Just as there are the filthy rich and the dirt poor, existing almost side-by-side (well, at least on Carnival days), so too we have futuristic glass-towers springing up within spitting distances of well, slum-type structures.
I choose to ignore one of my pet peeves, the state of our sidewalks. I shall not comment on the strong stench of urine that assaults pedestrians in many parts of these cities and towns. Nor shall I mention the homeless who, in a country as richly endowed as ours is, grow in numbers every day. What I would like government ministers and other high ranking officials to tell the public is if, as they drive on our highways and pot-holed roads, they do not notice the roadside derelicts that assault the eyes of anyone who can see. Dealers in used car parts are the most offensive in this regard. They pile rusted and cannibalised vehicles on the very verge of main highways. These are not only unsightly, but they are downright dangerous. It seems to me that they are encouraged to flout the relevant laws, not be afraid of them.
Recently I wrote an article on the growth of the scrap-metals business. Those who read it will have noted that I promoted the business acumen of the people involved, from the landfill-salvagers to the businessmen who have explored the growing and lucrative market opportunities for scrap-metals. But why are they using the shoulders of public roadways to conduct their business? One has merely to drive onto the Claxton Bay flyover to see tonnes of scrap iron staring you in the face. Unsightly is a mild term to describe what residents of the district have to put up with. And that is only one operation. In other areas unscrupulous businessmen are melting metals like lead, copper, etc, not caring about the dangers the fumes pose to nearby residents or to their employees and they themselves.