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Works Minister on Sando highway: People have a right to protest
Works and Infrastructure Minister Emmanuel George is prepared to sit on the road and join the protesting members of the Re-route Movement who are against a certain section of the multi-billion dollar San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway being constructed.
Although funding is a major bugbear in his ministry, Senator George said the most pressing challenge he has today is getting a hold on the operations of the ministry to which he was recently appointed by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. George is also defending the Government from the charges being levelled by the Opposition PNM that the PP administration is only interested in PR stunts and not delivering to the people.
Q: Mr George, what is the most pressing issue at your ministry, apart from the Re-route Movement and the experimental traffic plan protests?
A: (Sitting erect in his London and Richmond streets, Port-of-Spain, office Wednesday afternoon) Well, trying to get a hold of the ministry is my most pressing challenge. It is not the extension of the Solomon Hochoy Highway, it is not the issue of the traffic experiment in St James and Ariapita Avenue. It is a very big ministry and there are several projects taking place, and there are also many people here and a lot of divisions that you have to understand how they all coalesce to give the ministry its ability to function.
I don’t recall reading your areas of responsibility, you know...the job specs?
As you are aware, the transport segment was removed from this ministry and, more recently, the drainage aspect was separated, so the focus now is really on highway construction and road rehabilitation, and bridges. We have responsibility for repairing landslips, coastal erosion because it is a big part of...
Senator George, when you recently visited Princes Town and surrounding areas to view landslips, it reminded me of my junior days as a reporter in south Trinidad, when these adverse conditions were in the news. Why are we still hearing about these same untenable situations affecting the lives of thousands of citizens, almost on a daily basis?
(Hesitatingly) Well, you are asking me about something that would have taken 30 to 40 years to reach where the roads have deteriorated to such an extent.
And which would cost taxpayers more than $1 billion to repair?
Yes. And I did point out too, that on a visit last week Tuesday to the Tableland/Moruga constituency, I saw a similar situation and it is a significant challenge to restore those roads back.
I don’t want to break your train of thought but what about neglect...isn’t that a significant factor in the roads being what they are today?
Certainly, there is neglect but there are also some natural issues taking place down there...the quality of the soil and the fact that the soil tends to move a lot and moves, moreso, when it is wet. Adding to that, of course, is the use of those roads by trucks and heavy vehicles. We have that problem and it is one I don’t know as yet how to address.
Minister George, I thought you would say those two projects mentioned at the start of this interview were your most pressing headaches at this time?
I have been pointing out that it is an experimental traffic scheme, meaning that we can experiment and we can adjust it if it needs to be adjusted, on the basis of our own assessment of what is going on, as well as comments and concerns expressed by all those who are affected by it.
We can tinker with it, tweak it for 90 days under the law and so on, right? We will tinker, smoothen out the kinks and the problems to minimise the negative effects it has on the people. If we cannot do that and it results in more of destruction to people’s lives than a help, then we would stop it.
There seems to be a very vocal chorus of objectors, especially from the business sector, claiming they are losing business and are sending home employees. Are you waiting until the expiry of the experimental period before dealing with this particular allegation?
Let me say this, Clevon. There is a reason why it is a 90-day exercise and it is to give it a chance to work. Anything that you put in place that brings change, human beings resist. We talk about change being constant but anytime change comes, they resist. Sometimes you have to embrace change and give run over
On protests in St James, Ariapita...
Traffic plan stays for 90 days
“Democracy says the greatest good for the greatest number. It doesn’t say it is good for all. If we can get the numbers of those who are negatively affected down to the barest minimum, then we can go with it.” this experiment a chance to work…only by doing so we would know.
Aren’t you concerned about the cry of the business people and their employees?
Certainly. We are concerned about the cries of everybody, there are other people crying out. There are old people who are saying they now have problems because of the distance they have to go to get transport, to cross the roads. We are very concerned about those old people...
But are you going to wait until 90 days to…?
(Interrupting) Well (slightly impatient tone), this is only nine days since the plan was implemented and let me say this, Clevon, a lot of people, in fact they might be in the majority, are saying that they like the plan and it could work, OK? Now there would always be people that would have positive reactions and those who are negatively affected and what you try to do in a democracy...
Wait, wait, Clevon. And remember democracy says the greatest good for the greatest number. It doesn’t say it is good for all. If we can get the numbers of those who are negatively affected down to the barest minimum, then we can go with it.
Very well sir, let’s go down South now. The Re-routers seem hell-bent on stopping that section of the highway from being constructed as planned. Do you have any contingency plans to deal with them if they refuse to budge from their position in the interest of the greatest good?
(Leaning back in his chair, still in an erect position and speaking in measured manner) We in Trinidad and Tobago forget history and whenever we do so, we treat every single thing that happens as if it was the first time it was happening. We have been building highways for decades in this country...
Yeah, but where are you going…?
Let me finish (hands outstretched), let me finish. The biggest protest we ever had against a highway construction was at the Guayamare section of the Solomon Hochoy Highway, you are aware of that. So why...
What that has to...?
You hold on. Why don’t you reflect on that? Reflect on that and look back at history and see what happened...take that and transpose that to today and that answers the question for you. We are making a big issue about protesting but people will always protest, so why are we making a big issue of it? They have a right to protest, it is their democratic right, okay? Nobody must take that away from them and if anybody tries to take away that right, I, myself, would go and lie down in the road to protest with them, okay?
Senator George, you are...?
Clevon, I am saying (raised voice and slightly irritated) the protest by the Guayamare people…look don’t ask me the question. You go back in history and examine and remember what happened then. Just don’t ask me, you just ask yourself.
But Mr Minister, I think it is a fair question. Are you going to take action to prevent these people from blocking...?
(Another sharp interjection) It is a fair question and I am asking you a fair question, too. I am repeating, Clevon, go back into history of how we have created highways…look at the protests. The people who lived in the way of the highway, the people who protested about environmental concerns, right?
And so on and see what happened. I am not focusing on those things because those things would work themselves out, the people of the country always find a way to address the people who stand in the way of the highways. The people of the country do that, not any politician, the people eventually sort it out.
Are you suggesting, Mr George, that it is we, the people, who have to move the Kublalsingh gang?
(Pausing for about five seconds with an exasperated expression) Clevon, Clevon, go back in history, you are a reporter of how many years? And if you have forgotten, go to the Guardian library and retrieve the files where you would get all the history you want.
Can you briefly remind me?
No. I don’t have to remind you. Go back to the Guardian because you are working there and you will see exactly what happened; the highway was constructed and there were protests against its construction...
You think good sense will prevail at the end of the day?
Good sense will always prevail.
Finally, Mr George, the Opposition is claiming that the Partnership administration is only engaging in PR stunts; ministers up and down the place, visiting here and there and nothing substantial is being delivered to the people. How valid is that assertion?
I want to ask the Opposition to reflect on my two years as Minister of Public Utilities and just take water and look at the considerable improvement we have made in that regard. They cannot deny it.
Do you have any hard evidence to back this up?
I will take one constituency—Diego Martin West—represented by the leader of the loyal Opposition where people have been clamouring for water for 40 years-plus, we did it in one year. So they should stop talking nonsense but they are just being themselves—absolutely hypocritical.
He has never delivered to his constituency and has the gall to say we are on a PR campaign. This Government is committed to serving the people, and residents of Big Yard in Carenage will soon be having pipe-borne water, which they never had before. This Government cares about people and we will try to deliver to the best of our ability given the funding and so on.
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