Yesterday's decision by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), the state provider of subsidised housing, to clear productive agricultural lands at two locations may strike many as being a case of the left hand of the administration not knowing what the right hand was doing. The HDC, which is an arm of the Ministry of Planning, Housing and the Environment, undertook to clear lands at Mausica Road in D'Abadie and in Egypt Village in Chaguanas for the purpose of constructing houses. The fact that the HDC chose Easter Monday to undertake what is a clear part of its mandate must have come as a surprise to the Minister of Food Production, Vasant Bharath, who, within the last fortnight, indicated that farmers on State-owned agricultural land who had applied for leases would be allowed to continue cultivating those lands. "Farmers who have applied for leases and, through no fault of their own, have not as yet received their legal documents are encouraged to continue engaging in productive agriculture."
This seems like an eminently sensible policy position for a government that is sensitive to the need for greater food security to take-especially in light of the large amount of money that this country spends importing food. The need to increase the country's food production at a time when the price of food escalates at an annual rate of over 25 per cent is obvious. But what is also obvious is that the Government must respond to the tens of thousands of people in desperate need of low-cost, state-subsidised housing. This need has been driven in the post-Independence period by the sociological change in the structure of families in this country whereby the extended family, with several generations living under one roof, has been replaced by the nuclear family in which children move out of the parents' house. There have been more recent permutations of the nuclear family in the single-headed household and the "barrel" experience in which the mother leaves the children with the grandparent or a relative and seeks her fortune in "greener" pastures.
How does the Government go about balancing the imperative of increasing the country's food production with the imperative of providing more shelter options to the thousands of people who need houses with running water, electricity and a sewerage system? In a perfect world, the Government would be able to provide its citizens with both land for increased food production and the space needed to meet the expanded demand for housing solutions. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world and given T&T's limited land size, the choice will eventually come down to either land for housing or land for food. It would be a tragic mistake if yesterday's bulldozing of productive agricultural lands in Mausica and in Egypt Village were to be an indication that the Government is choosing land for housing over land for food. What the Government needs to do is put a halt to all destruction of agricultural crops while it goes about the difficult process of determining which parts of State's holdings of land throughout this twin-island nation should be dedicated to housing and which to food.
This process of determining the land that is going to be dedicated to agriculture or housing should be based on a clear and scientific assessment of, among other things, the soils, the access to water and the proximity to markets. In other words, the lands that are best suited to agriculture should be dedicated to agriculture. It goes without saying that this process of planning should take the other aspects of the country's future development into consideration and that the planning process should encompass light manufacturing and heavy manufacturing and exclusion areas in which no productive activities would be allowed. And this process of national planning must involve widespread consultation with all of the stakeholders who may be advantaged or disadvantaged by this planning process.