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Sunday, December 08, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Plains, trains and automobiles
Last week I had my first encounter with Dr Wayne Kublalsingh and his followers.
Outside the Office of the Prime Minister there were women in tears, their homes on the verge of being bulldozed. Kublalsingh is unmovable in standing up for what is right. His quest has brought notoriety, his level of determination seems unprecedented in contemporary T&T society.
In 1996 we had our own Kublalsingh in England. Swampy was his name, an environmental activist who led a group of protesters fighting the construction of the Newbury Bypass, a nine-mile dual carriageway around a town in Berkshire in south-east England that cleared 360 acres of countryside, 150 acres of woodland and felled 10,000 trees.
Unlike T&T, where a handful of people have rallied to Kublalsingh’s cause, 7,000 activists joined the Newbury protest. Eight hundred were arrested. Swampy and his mates climbed trees and built treehouses that they occupied for months claiming squatters’ rights.
The bypass was agreed by the government in 1988 to ease traffic congestion. The route ran through rolling countryside, destroying wildlife habitats. To England’s environmentalists it was anathema. But the road was completed by 1998, with an extra £24 million added to the £100m bill for security measures.
The UK government is at it again now, authorising the High Speed Rail Network (HS2). Construction will begin in 2017 and be completed by 2026 at a cost of £33 billion. The route runs through areas of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns and people’s private land, which will be acquired.
In England, and T&T, there are reasons for and against enhancing transport links. Both countries’ populations are expanding. In England people want to get places fast. In T&T people don’t want to be stuck in traffic day after day.
But the Newbury bypass did not ease traffic, it increased it. Nothing about the new San Fernando to Point Fortin highway convinces me traffic will be reduced. When people travel at the same time every day, one person per car, with no car pool lane, the result is gridlock.
As for removing people from their homes, I hear: “It’s always going to be somebody’s home.” You might as well say, “As long as it’s not my home, I don’t care.” But if it was your home you’d be out there protesting with Kublalsingh.
There is a level of hypocrisy, of course. I am opposed to building highways (they encourage car travel which the planet doesn’t need and they destroy countryside) and yet I drive on highways. Dr Kublalsingh drives on highways. These situations become heart-wrenching battles between the needs of the many and the anguish of the few.
“I have the right to drive my car!” clamour the motorists (90 per cent of the T&T adult population). “I have the right to live in peace!” cry the affected minority.
Kublalsingh’s protest is peaceful. Motorways are not peaceful. Try standing next to one. A constant stream of cars 24 hours, day and night, creating a huge, endless noise of engines.
A brilliant documentary called The Secret Life of the Motorway was broadcast on BBC television in 2007. You can find it on YouTube. It charts the social impact of motorways since their inception.
The first British motorway, the M1, which runs from London to Leeds was built between 1959 and 1968. In those post-war years the “baby boom” generation rapidly expanded the population. Visionaries planned an expansion of Britain’s infrastructure. The green and pleasant land was built upon.
For those whose land fell in the way of the bulldozers, whose lives would be blighted or displaced, it was a vision of impending horror. Naturalists saw destruction and pollution, as they did when the first railways were built in the Victorian era. Industrialists saw progress, speed, change. It is impossible to halt the endless march of time, the spread of concrete and tarmac, and you cannot change the past.
It would be a shame if T&T became one giant network of highways like the UK. There are already too many cars in T&T, and no trains.
Whilst I am opposed to Britain’s HS2 rail network, I know rail transport is greener and more pleasant than car travel.
Regular services carrying thousands of Trinis, gliding from north, south, east and west is a more endearing image than an island of bumper-to-bumper gas fumes.
One of my oldest friends is a committed environmental activist. I would be too, if I could be bothered. The trouble is, like most of us, I’m lazy even though I know it’s the right thing to do.
Thank God Dr Kublalsingh is not lazy. He won’t win this battle, but he has no choice but to keep on fighting. It’s about more than just Mon Desir to Debe. It’s about the direction the country is heading in.
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