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Betting on Santa Rosa

Sunday, September 21, 2014

There are two competing narratives over how best to treat with the issue of crime and the largely urban youth who comprise the majority of the young men inhabiting the nation’s jails. There are those, like the National Security Minister, Gary Griffith, who believe the firm hand of law enforcement can stem the growing tendency to lawlessness that finds expression in the untamed murder rate. In increasingly bellicose language, gun talk has become official crime policy.

There are also those who believe crime is a manifestation of increasing alienation in our society and what is needed are social programmes which address the causes of this alienation even as the National Security forces treat with the instant problems. The two narratives have seen billions of dollars allocated to the Ministry of National Security, the Ministry of Social Development and most recently the Ministry of Sport, which a cost-benefit analysis would show has failed to treat with the issues.

The approach to the crime problem, in which the expenditure of $63 million on armoured vehicles is only the latest outrage, displays the real problem of the 2015 budget debate.

The budget displayed an absence of any economic, political or social policy which informs government expenditure. It remains the most glaring omission, although every member on the Government benches, and some from the Senate, spoke on it. While you could argue that the budget is either good or bad for the economy, one thing was clear: it is really irrelevant to the problems we face in the country.

Last Sunday, I attended a football competition in Wallerfield being held under the auspices of the Todd’s Road United Foundation and which attracted a wide following among the youthful residents of the area. The teams were not just from Wallerfield but included young men from Valencia, Talparo, and other neighbouring areas who all shared a passion for football.

The Wallerfield playing ground in the Jacob Hill area is not an ideal football field. The foundation had to pay for the ground, overgrown as it was with grass to be cut, and the uneven playing surface was always going to be a challenge to the players. Most of the teams did not have the funds to outfit their players with a full playing kit and the makeshift goalposts sometimes posed challenges to the officials. There were no obstacles, however, which the youthful enthusiasm of the players could not overcome.

The footballers had clearly never benefitted from Life Sport and the ground staff had not been privileged with the $200,000-a-month maintenance contracts that were part of the fictitious sporting initiatives under the Ministry of Sport.

Still, they were on a playing field that was not level but was a stone’s throw away from the Santa Rosa Facility that the Government is proposing to buy for $230 million after renting it for approximately $900,000 a month for the past three years. The same one which Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner is now saying had been offered to him for $16 million a few years ago.

The real tragedy of the budget debate which ended last Thursday is that no one has to account for the conditions of the playing field in Wallerfield and the absence of resources being provided for wholesome sporting activity that has a real chance of keeping young men away from a life of crime. No one will be held to account for the decision to spend close to $300 million and counting on an underutilised facility.

The MP for the area that houses both Wallerfield and the Santa Rosa Facility, Jairam Seemungal, who is also the Minister of Lands and Marine Resources, did not attempt, when he spoke in the budget debate, to offer much hope to the young footballers.

In his 55-minute contribution, he spent about seven minutes talking about his constituency and attempting to show that he was well acquainted with the geography of the area. Although he had never lived there, he made the point that the residents had been ill-served by a succession of PNM MPs who had done nothing for the constituency.

His greatest accomplishments for the area in his four years he served as MP, based on his speech in the budget debate last Tuesday, was the illumination of six playing fields (the ground in Jacob Hill, Wallerfield, was clearly not among them) and the construction of two early childhood centres. And as a man clearly reading the writing on the wall, he suggested that for all his efforts, many of his constituents would probably choose not to vote for him when the election comes.

The truth is, the greatest single item of capital expenditure that has been approved under Seemungal’s tenure as MP is the $300 million which is going to be spent on the Eastern Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre, as the Santa Rosa Facility is going to be known. After four years, along with the ubiquitous box drains, this will be an MP’s legacy of his tenure in office—while young men still play football on makeshift grounds.

The real tragedy is that his is not a unique case.


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