By: George S. Campbell – La Brea
No project ever undertaken in Trinidad and Tobago has ever faced the kind of intense scrutiny as the extension of the Solomon Hochoy Highway from Golconda to Point Fortin. And no other has attracted so much media attention.
But perhaps what is most striking about this infrastructure project that would open up the South Western Peninsula is the mass of misinformation that has circulated since the construction began in January 2011, much of it coming from the Highway Reroute Movement (HRM), its allies and some media.
For instance, one of the more emotional statements from the HRM is that the highway is running through the Oropouche Lagoon and therefore poses a threat to the environment and all aquatic life in the wetlands. In addition, they claim this would necessitate “moving a mountain” at exorbitant costs to the taxpayer and transporting it to the construction site. Another claim is that the highway poses a threat to the Banwari heritage site.
Both Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Oropouche West MP Stacy Roopnarine cleared that up last Wednesday when NIDCO opened the Golconda interchange, the first of many along the route to Point Fortin.
The Prime Minister spoke about the benefits of this mega project, which is the biggest ever undertaken by any government in Trinidad and Tobago, noting that it would be one of the most important development for the country.
She dismissed the misinformation about the effect on people and communities by pointing out that of the hundreds who have had to move to make way for the development everyone has received fair compensation and “no one has been forced out of their homes”. That movement of people was the first issue the HRM raised in its ever-changing objection to the highway, or more specifically to the stretch of highway between Debe and Mon Desir.
But it was Roopnarine who shed most light on the “wetlands” and lagoon issue. When one hears of wetlands the image conjured is an environmental sanctuary teeming with life. You cannot find such a scene anywhere along the route of the highway, Roopnarine said. She added that if people were to take a drive down to the disputed area they would discover that there are no wetlands, no wildlife under threat. “The community of Woodland is inside the lagoon,” she pointed out. And it has been there for generations.
She also stated emphatically that the highway will skirt the area and no mountain is moving in to construct a roadway through a swamp.
Another popular lie about the highway, one that has been repeated by people like Peter Minshall, who is now one of the new voices of HRM, is that the government’s primary interest in the multi-billion investment is that it would benefit corrupt friends and family.
That suggestion is not only a lie it is outright slander and I am amazed that the government would just let Minshall and his friends continue to tell the lie.
The President of NIDCO, Dr. Carson Charles, and other officials have stated over and over again that the $7.5 billion figure established as the initial investment for the project is fixed. So far 35 per cent of the project has been completed and the government has paid the contractor 35 per of the const. In fact, there is a clause in the contract that the government inserted that commits the contractor to capping the cost of the highway at that original figure.
More than that, ever since the construction began the cabinet has been monitoring progress through an inter-ministerial committee to ensure that everything is above board. It is fashionable these days to call everything corrupt but there is not a shred of evidence to support that slanderous statement by Minshall and other.
As for benefit to friends and family, the Brazilian contractor is in charge of building the highway and is not influenced by anyone in the selection of local contractors and suppliers. A total of 91 per cent of all the labour is from local sources and 600 firms are suppliers for this project. OAS alone determines who works for it on the project and the company chooses from the pool that’s available locally. There are a limited number of specialised contractors who work in this field of engineering and construction. They have worked for and will continue to work for different governments because they alone have the required skill set.
Another lie, which you might not remember, is that statement by the leader of the opposition that politics was behind the highway and that the Prime Minister was using it to build up her constituency. In fact Dr. Keith Rowley charged that the highway would end in Penal and that Mrs. Persad-Bissessar was just deceiving people.
Rowley, who is known for fabrications and lies (Email gate comes to mind), was probably using PNM strategy of saying one thing and doing something else when those comments fell off his lips. He knew at the time that construction was taking place in Point Fortin, Rousillac and other places but he was bent on political mischief. It’s the same way he knew that Anand Ramlogan never went to New York but insisted that the Attorney General did and that he went to the T&T consulate to complain about the ethnicity of staff, for which he had to apologise.
Dr. Charles and Works Minister Dr. Suruj Rambachan both made it clear the highway will go the full distance and that despite the delays it would be opened from Golconda to Point Fortin in 2015, with the only work remaining being the completion of some of the interchanges. So that’s another lie put to rest.
The critics and those opposed to the PP administration have found fault with everything the government has undertaken, including this highway, a children’s hospital in Couva, the university campus in Debe to name a few.
It stems from the northcentric view that development outside of Port of Spain is of no value. Such a policy resulted in decades of rural neglect, which this government has addressed with unprecedented development in communities everywhere, not just those held by its MPs. All you need to do is look around.
Recently an urban elite that doesn’t know how to even find Debe or Mon Desir has become very vocal in demanding that the government stop the Debe-Mon Desir section, repeating all the lies and misinformation that some media continue to peddle because their world stops at the borders of Port of Spain.
The new mantra of halting the construction is fed by their elitist arrogance that people in the south do not deserve to have a big cities amenities, students must not have access to a university campus in Debe, children and families should not have a hospital in Couva and the list goes on.
Despite the lies and deliberate misinformation, the government that Mrs. Persad-Bissessar leads will build this highway. It is because studies have shown that the area that it will serve has been the lowest on the accessibility index in the country.
It is because 267,000 people in neglected rural communities would benefit through the expanded opportunities; it is because the end of traffic chaos would result is greater productivity measured in millions of “man hours”. And because it is the right thing to do.
No government in T&T has gone the democratic distance as the one that Mrs’ Persad-Bissessar has led. “I have tried to govern with conviction, strength and, at times, compassion, but at all times for the benefit of the country,” she said on Thursday night at the closing ceremony of the annual Divali Nagar. “This is the light I have lit. Let it burn forever and let no one in the future extinguish that light,” she added.