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One man stands in the way of UWI Debe Campus construction
After paying $7 million to relocate 49 farmers from 100 acres of agricultural lands to begin construction of the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, South Campus in Debe/Penal, one defiant farmer is standing in the way of its development.
Shaheed Diljohn, 49, has refused to surrender his rights to his two-acre parcel of land at La Fortune, after he was offered $140,000 by the Estate Management and Business Development Company Ltd (EMBDC), thereby delaying the start of construction. Diljohn had the option of relocating to Petit Morne or accepting monetary compensation, neither of which he felt had met his expectation.
Diljohn is one of 55 farmers who were asked to give up their leased agricultural lands. Chinese construction firm, China Jiangsu International last month secured a half-billion-dollar contract to build the campus, which in its first phase will consist a Faculty of Law, multi-use Academic and Student Union buildings, as well as a Student Hall of Residence and Outdoor Recreational Facilities.
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar turned the sod for the university on January 30, 2012. Diljohn feels the $140,000 offer was insufficient. Nor was he offered compensation for losses incurred and inconvenience caused by the Government.
In 2009, Diljohn received a 30-year deed from Caroni 1975 Ltd after he accepted VSEP, having worked at the company for 18 years as a crane operator. The EMBDC in 2010 was named as the owner of all state agricultural lands at La Fortune which the farmers leased.
Diljohn’s crop failed
In a letter, dated August 2011, sent to EMBDC’s CEO Seebalack Singh by Diljohn’s attorney Stephen Boodram, it was explained that in 2010, his client (Diljohn) obtained a loan from the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) for the purpose of cultivating the said lands.
The crop, Boodram explained, failed because the EMBDC refused to assure the ADB in writing that the said land would not be acquired by the Government. As a result, Boodram stated, Diljohn could not re-finance his loan, since the EMBDC was in the process of acquiring the land from his client for the purpose of the South Campus.
Boodram called on the EMBDC to relocate his client to a suitable location or to adequately compensate him for the two acres. Boodram also asked for $85,000 compensation to cover the cost of digging a pond, laying of pipelines and for loss of crops. In response, via a letter dated August 16, 2011, Singh, indicated to Boodram that the “the EMBDC is not in the process of acquiring the land for the UWI South Campus” and the farmer was free to continue tending his crops.
Having put his mind to rest, Diljohn said, he purchased 13,000 hot pepper plants and 5,000 tomato seeds which he began planting. However, on November 23, 2011, Diljohn received a letter signed by Singh, asking him to surrender his lease. Singh reminded Diljohn that the Government had the option to acquire his land under the Land Acquisition Act if the land is needed inter alia in the public interest.
A raw deal, life on hold
Diljohn said since then, his life has been on hold. He has not earned a cent, can’t repair his car and unable to service his $189,000 ADB loan. “My whole life has turned upside down,” Diljohn said on Tuesday. The hot peppers and tomatoes, Diljohn said, could have netted $500,000, if they were planted.
“I am not against the university being built because I know my three grandchildren will benefit later on. But they (Government) going about things the wrong way. They did not even hold a public consultation in the district to hear the views of the people.” Diljohn feels he was given a raw deal. He said, “While the Prime Minister could shower her grandchildren with things I can’t give mine anything.”
Faced with financial troubles, Diljohn said he had owed family and friends over $100,000. “I am surviving on borrowed money, which I am unable to repay. I am willing to settle with them but they want to pay me next to nothing.” Diljohn said he has received no word from Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath, who along with Tertiary Education Minister Fazal Karim and Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal who he had met in January, to iron out the issue.
“Minister Bharath promised to relocate me to lands closer to my Mohess Road, Penal, home. But I am still waiting.” At a farmers’ forum on May 5, Diljohn raised the issue with president of the Trinidad Unified Farmers Association Shiraz Khan.
Bharath—No abuse of power
On Wednesday, Bharath admitted that the Government had opted to enter into private treaty with 55 farmers to purchase the land from them at open market value, at a price to be determined by the Commissioner of Valuations, which falls under the finance ministry, rather than acquire it through compulsory land acquisition.
Bharath said the valuation was not done by him or the Commissioner of State Lands. Of the 55 farmers, Bharath said 49 accepted the offer of $140,000 each based on a private treaty arrangement in January. The five remaining farmers did not show up. The payments to the 49 farmers, amounted to approximately $7 million.
“Mr Diljohn was the only farmer who refused to accept the offer of relocation as well as open market valuation.” Bharath said the arrangement was to move farmers as close to their farms and where they live. “I don’t know if the EMBDC has been able to find a parcel of land with regard to Mr Diljohn’s preference. There is an offer of relocation on the table for him as well. I am not sure where that matter has reached. I will have to follow up to find out what has happened.”
Bharath said he would continue to negotiate with him to come to some kind of amicable solution. Bharath said Diljohn had requested “in the region of over $600,000, which is clearly not acceptable.” Asked if he was willing to raise the $140,000 compensation offer, Bharath said he could not do it for one farmer, if 49 farmers had accepted the same.
“We have to treat everyone fairly. If it is that Mr Diljohn does not wish to sell the land, then we are looking at the option of relocating him.” Should Diljohn refuse to leave the land, Bharath said the Government always has the option of compulsory land acquisition. Bharath said that was not an option they wanted to exercise or pursue since this would be to the detriment of Diljohn.
“I really sympathise with Mr Diljohn. It is not my intention of the ministry to abuse our power in any way. This is a major public project that has to go on.”
Karim: UWI to sign contract
Karim said based on feedback from the Commissioner of State Land Kumar Koonoolal, Diljohn has been occupying his two-acre plot Lot No 740, which he is entitled to, and Lot No 739, which he has encroached on. Karim explained that Diljohn’s land fell within the boundary of Lot 739 of the service land. “Those two plots we have asked him to stay clear of.”
Karim said because the matter has not been resolved the Government will continue to negotiate with Diljohn for an agreement, either to be compensated or relocated. Karim said he has been consulting with UWI’s principal Prof Clement Sankat.
“Our next move would be take a note to Cabinet to compulsory acquire the land to start the project.” Asked when construction will begin, Karim said it all depended on when the university signs the contract.
Singh: Delay in construction
Admitting that Diljohn was delaying construction of the university, Singh said he could not tell if the EMBDC had located another piece of land for Diljohn. “I am not sure—that matter is about two months old. I would have to consult with the EMBDC to find out.”
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