On the 16th day of his second hunger strike against the construction of a section of highway that would displace an entire community and threaten a sensitive environmental area, Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh was surrounded by supporters, activists and well-wishers, most of them women.
The gathering was intended to bring the women of the Highway Re-Route Movement into focus and to make the country understand that real people are being affected by the impasse, which has mushroomed well beyond the issue of a road and grown to represent, like the adventures of Alice in Wonderland, all that is wrong with the world — in this instance, growing public dissatisfaction about matters of transparency, democracy and the way in which the concerns of civil society are often disregarded by those elected to serve the public.
Yesterday, university lecturer and activist Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, who helped organise the women's gathering, said on her blog:
Fifteen days into this second hunger strike, I’m left feeling overwhelmed at how much it takes for citizens to be heard. Does it really take this much time and sacrifice to successfully secure accountable government? People are critical of Kublalsingh’s choice of strategy, but the alternative is lifelong commitment to disallowing corruption or lack of transparency in whatever form. None of us may choose to die, but how many of us make this other choice instead?
A media release signed by one of the most resolute and loyal women of the Highway Re-Route Movement, Leela Boodhai, noted what the demonstration was all about — not just one man's remonstrance, but the future of a nation.
The release identified the tangible ways in which women would be affected. There would be a disturbance of family life, since the community operates very much in the spirit of “it takes a village to raise a child”, relying on extended families to pitch in. The highway would also affect women's ability to sustain employment while children are at home, especially since for many the “place of work [is] within the community itself” and small businesses would either be lost or relocated, resulting in fewer clientele and therefore lower income. Loss of lands through dislocation would have a negative effect on women’s ability to “assist menfolk in planting of crops to supplement family income”.
Both the elderly and children have also not been “adequately considered” in the government's highway plan. The Re-Route Movement says that the threat of dislocation has caused “severe trauma” for people who have lived their entire lives in the community, with land being passed down from one generation to the other. Most children “have safe and ready access to schools via the existing network of connecting roads in the area” and relocation will be a huge adjustment for them — one that many families might not be able to afford.
The movement has put forward its “Optimum Connectivity Proposal”, which suggests an alternative route for the highway that wouldn't adversely affect the community and surrounding environment. The government, despite the recommendations of the Armstrong Report which reviewed the records relating to the highway's construction, has not given the proposal any consideration.
Hosein's blog post continued:
I have read about the women of the Highway Re-route movement […] and thought [Prime Minister Kamla] Persad-Bissessar should explain to the population why she first marched with these women when out of power, then ignored them once in.
I saw press photos of their sit-ins outside the PM’s office, their camp being illegally demolished […] and their brave blocking of tractors. Knowing that, amidst looking after sick family, managing traffic stress and earning a living, no citizen anywhere petitions and protests time after time without valid reason, I wanted to learn more about why this movement had not given up.
By the time of Wayne Kublalsingh’s first hunger strike, I came to understand that there were billion dollar non-tendered contracts at stake, unnecessary destruction of parts of the Oropouche Lagoon, massive, avoidable quarrying of the Northern Range, and demolition of long-established religious and familial communities.
She also made the point that the issue of transparency is raising its head again and again in different “development” projects throughout the country:
We want development, but development that is more than concretization. Development includes a right to information, truth and the best plan possible for future generations, not just the partial truths and wasteful plans that governments choose. After all, who bears the costs? We do.
On behalf of Global Voices, I attended the gathering and spoke with Leela Boodhai, who emphasised that their cause was representative of all women, and that the battle Dr. Kublalsingh was fighting in the name of the Highway Re-Route Movement was really about country, integrity and accountability. “Some will dismiss us as ‘country women’,” she said, “but we will stand up, because this will affect the next generation.” She expressed disappointment in the approach of Trinidad and Tobago's first female prime minister. “We put a woman there and thought that she would embody the virtues of the home; be more nurturing.” Instead, the prime minister has distanced herself from the controversy.
Boodhai lamented the destruction that has happened thus far, both tangible and intangible — a particularly poignant point given that Dr. Kublalsingh was lying stoically, mere feet away from her; she became visibly upset when asked about his decision to embark on this second hunger strike. “We've all tried to convince him otherwise,” she said. “But we have to have respect for him.” Since 2005, when the residents approached him to speak for their cause, Dr. Kublalsingh has mobilised the community and highlighted the issue on a national level. “All the advice he's ever given to us was good and every action he's made has had a positive result,” she explained. She has faith that this protest action will turn out well.
The supporters of yesterday's demonstration obviously hope so too. They turned up with placards emblazoned with words that encapsulate what was important to them. One stalwart, Dalton Dorman, cheekily asked if I'd ever heard of “the Neil Armstrong report.” Since the Chairman of the Independent Review Committee was Dr. James Armstrong, I said no, all the while contemplating what would be the most diplomatic way to correct him. He didn't miss a beat: “Well, we're calling it the Neil Armstrong Report, because it's apparently in space.”
Actress Cecilia Salazar, who played the role of Gene Miles, a public servant-turned-whistleblower who exposed rampant corruption in the 1960s in what came to be known as “the gas station racket”, was on hand as a sobering reminder that corruption has plagued the country for decades. Miles went public with the fact that several high-ranking politicians were awarding gas station licenses in return for bribe money; her name was slandered by those in power and she died a premature death, vilified and alone.
Dr. Hosein ended her blog post by addressing that very principle:
Citizens may debate strategy, may not even like each other, and may disagree, but we are our only source of solidarity. Politicians will say yes to our face and then lock us out on the street. They will not account for billions spent unless we insist that is it ours, not their money. They will hire PR guys to convince us we are each other’s enemy. But, plain talk, no communities spend eight years of their lives petitioning and protesting unless truth about injustice is at the heart of their cause.