State Lands: Grab and Go!

Our citizens hardship and suffering, especially the senseless destruction of their homes and livelihoods, should not come as “collateral damage” of diversification and industrial gains and big business deals, especially during this extremely difficult Covid-19 period. 

Suffering at Savonetta

On June 18, 2018, eTecK and Enterprise Development Company signed a Memorandum of Understanding between Mr Zhang Chuancheng Deputy General Manager, BCEG and Mr Steve De Las President of eTeck for the development of the Phoenix Park Industrial Estate.

The results of that signing however, has had a detrimental effect on several fenceline communities that fall within the boundaries of the land earmarked for this development. The Couva South constituency is represented by MP Rudranath Indarsingh, who, acting on requests from several residents of this community, wrote letters to eTecK and the Minister of Industry and Trade, as well as the Minister of Agriculture under whose purview this issue fell, to seek redress for the residents.

MP Indarsingh stated that the lack of care and callous actions of bulldozing the homes and crops of those families showed they failed to exercise due diligence and had no care for the mental anguish and trauma they caused to the residents. Had they done this analysis and site visits they would have realised that their actions affected actual human beings.

MP Rudranath Indarsingh notes, “Had they done this impact analysis and site visits, they would have realized that their actions affected humans, this needed to be done before, not after the fact and only now when the UNC demands it.”

The residents told MP Indarsingh that talks only began in earnest in 2020 and no agreement was reached between them and eTeck. Warner said the company’s compensation offer was rejected because the company wanted to relocate them to a dump site at Phoenix Road junction and that their offer of money inadequate for how long they had lived there. 

In April, they were served with an eviction notice giving them two weeks to vacate the land. In this period of Covid-19, when persons are supposed to keep their social distance and the earnings of everyone has suffered major setbacks due to the almost complete lockdown of not only our borders but large segments of our economy, what could they possibly do? Where were they to go?

“I refused to meet without the residents present because this ultimately impacted them in a major way.”

Meeting with EtecK

MP Indarsingh said EtecK’s officials had initially asked for the occupants to not be present. MP Indarsingh felt that this was unprecedented and unethical as any discussions significantly impacted the residents and they had every right to be there.

MP Indarsingh said his constituency members were traumatized that their homes were being demolished and bulldozed, two homes were already flattened on August 4, 2021, and the crops they had planted for their livelihood were destroyed.

There are many pictures showing the devastating grading and demolition that was ongoing in the area. MP Indarsingh together with California/Point Lisas councillor Ramchand Rajbal Maraj met with two of the affected residents, Agnes Warner and Carolyn Mc Inroy the same day who showed them the destruction done to her crops and she was fearful that her home would be next. 

Accompanied by Couva South MP Rudranath Indarsingh, Opposition Senator and attorney Gerald Ramdeen and councillor Ramchand Rajbal Maraj, the residents met with company officials and their legal team at the Yara Compound in Savonetta.

The company had arranged for the councillor for the area to do a site visit to determine whether the families lived within the boundaries of eTeck’s project and if they did, then appropriate compensation and relocation will be considered while eTeck holds dialogue with the Minister of Agriculture through the office of the Commissioner of State Lands. Some of the residents had been occupying the land for more than 25 to 30 years and the residents deserved fair and equitable treatment.

MP Indarsingh expects that within six weeks, the people in Savonetta will get some feedback about relocation and compensation. Without the UNC representation on behalf of the resident constituents, the outcome for these families might have been completely different. MP Indarsingh, Gerald Ramdeen and councillor Ramchand Rajbal Maraj rallied to their cause and a site analysis and assessment will be conducted, something MP Indarsingh said should have been the first thing done.

PNM Encouraging Political Sqatting in Couva?

In complete contrast, residents in another area of Couva, bounded by Grant Street and the Couva River, have made reports to MP Indarsingh about former state lands previously occupied by the Couva District Hospital and had been given to the Ministry of Health in 1977, showing that an alleged PNM minister has encouraged settlement on those lands and they were told that the government would use their political office to regularise in the future. 

These lands had been cultivated by a group of residents with fruit trees and crops that they shared with the community and the land was kept clear of excess brush and weeds. The heavy equipment and grading trucks coming and going daily into the land despite there being no clarification of any authorization given to MP Indarsingh is of deep concern to the residents.

He believes this is being done in an effort to balance the scale of perceived unfairness of former Caroni workers being granted land settlements. They have ssupposedly been told that under the advisement of certain PNM ministers, persons have been encouraged to settle on the property and have been promised regularization with the use of political will.

The question is while there seemed to be no site visits or impacts analysis done for the Phoenix Park Industrial Estate, have there been any site visits, or impact analysis on the activity going on in this property?

The settlement of Couva in the last few decades seems to have added a host of problems in terms of traffic, crime, crowding and a lack of community with a mish mash of development.

It leads one to wonder if the reason for this is purely political voter padding, as has happened in other areas throughout Trinidad and the ensuing problems this can cause to established communities. Any such developments should be done with transparency, fairness and accountability.

Land Tenure Problems in St. Augustine

Another area affected in this way has been in the St. Augustine constituency that MP Khadijah Ameen highlighted.  MP Ameen said one of the reasons she had first joined the UNC was their policy on home ownership and squatter regularisation. There were some farmers who had leases for over 30 years that had not had the leases renewed despite putting in applications.

The issue of land tenure affects the farmers in their ability to feed the nation. The designated sites for squatters and the lack of regularisation affects their ability to access utility services and their very future existence. 

MP Ameen mentioned that farmers had made applications for lands that have been ignored and leases are given to large construction companies to develop housing projects without a change of use being sought. The haphazard way the citizens are dealt with leave them exposed to annual flooding caused by lack of access roads, improper retention ponds and levees, lack of drainage and supporting infrastructure.

Some of the people had been leasing for generations and denying them regularisation was a serious disservice. MP Ameen, in fighting for the people, had even been arrested in 2009 at a protest against HDC bulldozing lands marked for regularization. It was only after two weeks of protest that the HDC stopped what they were doing.

However, there are still leases being given to big construction companies, there are still secret land deals and in some areas such as the Pasea Estate, there are generations seeking regularisation.

UNC People-Centred Policies Unmatched

MP Indarsingh has stated that the UNC has always been a people-centred party, it kept inflation rates below 5%, schools and education have always been a high priority. These are the things that are needed now as well a more extensive stimulus package to businesses so they can survive this economic setback.

Under Kamla Persad Bissessar’s Prime Ministership, 56,000 had been created. Her Economic Transformation Master Plan has many initiatives to create jobs and get our economy working again after the complete stagnation of the Dr. Rowley administration. They have destroyed so many jobs during his tenure and undone all of the work that Kamla Persad Bissessar’s government set in motion.

So many of the economic policies and infrastructure that the PP Government set in motion are the main reasons that we are able to weather the storm of Covid-19, the Children’s Hospital they had refused to open and the Scarborough Hospital were completed under the Hon. Kamla Persad Bissessar-led PP government. The many schools that were built would have served very well to accommodate the social distancing that is required for schools to resume operations today.

The laptop programme the Hon. Kamla Pesad Bissessar started would have allowed most of the students today to seamlessly carry on their education if the PNM had not cancelled it. They said it was cancelled as a result of a UWI study but today they lament the lack of devices available to the students. Even the airport that they are bragging about lately was built by the Panday UNC. Yet these very measures are what is sustaining us through this period.

The Economic Master Plan of the UNC would have brought progress and hope for the nation instead of the hopes of residents, children, farmers, single parents cultivating lands to support their families, being dashed to the ground by bulldozers and demolition teams.

Karena Bachan