Sunday, November 25, 2012

Guest column: Ira Mathur inteviews Hayden Kublalsingh

Reproduced from the GUARDIAN with the permission of the author
Wayne Kublalsingh, 53, environmental activist and literature lecturer at UWI, who holds a PhD from Oxford University, shows no signs of letting up on his hunger strike. 

Kublalsingh, who has not eaten or drunk anything for the past 11 days, has vowed to continue his fast on behalf of the Highway Reroute Movement until Government “keeps its promise” to agree to an independent technical evaluation of the $7.2 billion-dollar highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin and to halt road works until the evaluation is complete.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad- Bissessar has gone on record as saying that while she feels personal grief at the selfinflicted suffering of Kublalsingh, it is false to say she reneged on a promise made to him. 

She maintained that following meetings with him she already met the demands of his group; suspended work on the Mon Desir portion of the highway; appointed a technical review which was rejected by the Highway Reroute Movement; and could no longer “give into the demands of Wayne Kublalsingh to repeat the process to “stop a project that would benefit hundreds of thousands of citizens for generations to come” and put the State in a position of being sued by contractors.

HAYDEN KUBLALSINGH, who has closely associated himself with his brother’s struggle, tells IRA MATHUR about the man who has grabbed the attention of the nation by risking his life for a cause.

Q: I am talking to you on day nine of his fast. A consensus by medical experts seems to be that a human being can live without food and water for between three and nine days, with water being the top priority. People are questioning whether he is on hunger strike at all.

Dr Kublalsingh has trained in Sandhurst for four years— the top military academy in the world—is a marathon runner, spent months on a board in forests during the smelter struggle, has regularly fasted as part of his spiritual life— so he is extraordinary. Yes, despite nine days of fasting the doctors are amazed at his mental acuity, clarity of thought and physical state.

His weight has dropped in nine days from 140lb to below 93. His kidneys are under severe strain and there is the risk of a sudden heart attack due to the pressure on his organs. We think at this stage people should stop questioning whether he is in fact on a hunger strike. His vital signs remain normal, the blood tests have shown conformity within almost all parameters, with the only significant area being the potential impact on his kidneys.

Q: Is this a fast unto death?

He has said he would fast until the PM, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, keeps her promise to halt the highway construction and provide a proper technical review.

Q: Yes, but if that doesn’t happen, isn’t this a fast unto death?

He has said that when he has no strength left to wilfully commit to the struggle he would ask me, his relative, to take responsibility to ensure survival.

Q: Isn’t there a risk of death, of heart or kidney failure?

It’s a managed risk. The family intervened on Friday night and he agreed to IV-feed for one night at St Clair, as he was severely weakened. The law binds him and we are upholding the law.

Q: What is the issue at stake for Dr Kublalsingh and the Highway Reroute group?

The Highway Re-route Movement never contested the highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin, only to reroute it to minimise impact on communities. The hunger strike is against the Debe to Mon Desir section of the Point Fortin Highway. The highway between San Fernando to Point Fortin is 27 miles long, with a budgeted cost of $7.2 billion.

The Debe to Mon Desir highway is some 9.1 miles, with a budget of $5 billion. It’s a disproportionately expensive segment of the highway that rose from $3 billion to $5 billion, partially because the Government is making a complicated highway, through a lagoon swampland, requires nine exchanges, and significantly heavier engineering and construction because of the terrain.

The Government wants to wants to create access for areas including Golconda, Debe, Siparia to Point Fortin. We agree it’s necessary to connect communities through a highway. This can be done without the extortionate expense, the degradation to the environment or displacing communities.

The Re-route Movement’s proposal allows for a much shorter highway to pass through relatively flat state lands, avoiding the swamp lands entirely, with link roads to the highway. Even 20 link roads will be cheaper than building the highway on swampland. The Government refused to accept that proposal, bent on constructing the highway where they originally planned to construct it, with the original high cost.

Q: How did Dr Kublalsingh get involved and what was the Government’s response?

Traumatised residents raised concerns with Dr Kublalsingh about the impending displacement of some 200 families, the splintering of communities, the impact of that roadway on already challenged draining and flooding issues, lack of transparency and due process. He embarked on a fact-finding mission with state agencies to seek answers.

After numerous letters and requests were ignored for appropriate information, more stringent public demands were made on Government, with placarding, and formalised with a camp set up in Penal. 

The PM intervened on March 10, 2012, and along with technical staff and government ministers, met with members of the Re-route Movement, acknowledged flaws in Government’s proposals, called for an immediate halt to the highway and promised a technical review.

The Highway Re-route movement was happy she had taken an interest on behalf of the people, many of whom were her constituents, and many who would have supported the Partnership government. 

Without any funding, relying on goodwill and charity of people within the community and well-intentioned citizens from civil society the Highway Re-route Movement also began its own process of locating experts to determine the hydrological impact, cost benefit and the environmental implications.

Q: The PM has said it is “false” to say she “reneged” on a promise made to Dr Kublalsingh. In fact, she says after meeting with him she actually suspended the work on the Mon Desir portion of the highway project pending deliberations and the review of a technical committee, which was appointed. She said your group “walked out of several meetings with the Minister of Works and the technical team and rejected the compromises of the report presented by the Government.”

The PM is fully aware the purported review process she describes was nothing more than a public relations stunt and no real consideration was given to the people who have been crying out with their concerns. In the second meeting called between government ministers and their technocrats, of over 15 people, Wayne took his own team of seven people.

He was told he was only allowed to bring in two people. Wayne felt that without his team of technical people it would be counter- productive and terminated the meeting. The media were informed that Wayne and his team walked out of the meeting. In the third meeting with
Government we were invited to discuss the promised technological report. 

When the group got there the media was already there and a five-page unbound “report,” consisting mainly of photographs and one-line captions, was handed to him. The Government announced to the media they had met with the Re-route Movement and that they reviewed their concerns and made amendments.

This was a mockery of the entire process, manipulated in such a way to allow the Government to say a review had been done. Since then there has been no formal communication by Government responding to the concerns expressed by the affected communities.

Q: What precipitated this extreme measure of a hunger strike without water? What makes a man with a PhD from Oxford sit on the floor of the EMA?
What drove the hunger strike was every possible attempt was made to find basic information for people: the consequences of the proposed highway, the transparency issues.

What is the society to do when a genuine issue arises, when there is no recourse for ordinary people, when questions of transparency, procurement, environmental degradation, loss of agricultural land remain unanswered? What happens when questions of transparency, of procurement are left unanswered?

What happens if after you’ve written protested, argued, gone to the highest-level authority, been thrown out of government buildings, had your sites destroyed by the army and police, endured verbal abuse and been arrested, and still the concerns of ordinary citizens are not addressed in any proper manner? What is a man to do?

What happens when fundamental rights of information in any civilised society are impinged, when despite all your efforts the tractors are still cutting lands and the Government pretends they’ve done a sufficient review to the satisfaction of people? How else do you secure the interest of the ordinary people? I ask you, what type of action is appropriate?

He decided on fast since nobody is listening. The system is opaque, corrupt and full of toxicity. What is required is not civil action but drastic action to force the Government to do what they should have done in the first place. He is doing this on behalf of the ordinary citizens, of the people of this country.

Q: Do you not agree with the PM that Wayne’s “aggressive” rejection of Health Minister Fuad Khan’s intervention was inappropriate?

Wayne asked for the PM and leader of this country to keep her promise to the people. Instead she sent him an ambulance, a truck with a spinning light. The PM’s stance is that Government could no longer “give into the demands of Wayne Kublalsingh and his group to stop a project that would benefit hundreds of thousands of citizens for generations to come.” Your comment?

Sustainable development brings improvement to the people of the country with due process and transparency, without sacrificing fundamental rights and privileges of ordinary people of this country who have no voice. When it comes to sustainable development, public relations is the last thing that is required. We agree highways are a fundamental part of linking communities and an important part of development.

That doesn’t not necessarily mean that this particular section of the highway is absolutely necessary to creating the opportunities that she alludes to. When one considers this section of this highway is expected to cost in excess of $5 billion, mostly because of the route insisted upon, which passes over a lagoon, we must admit a significant portion of this money can be saved and be put to much better use, on behalf of the very said people whose interest she claims to be seeking.

Q: Does Dr Kublalsingh have a personal vendetta against the Government?

Wayne is apolitical. He has supported no political party. He drives a 15-year-old version of a Skoda with wind-up windows. He’s lost income, health, work. He has been adamant about environment justice, integrity in public life, and matters that affect people independent of which government is in power.

He was just as active, if not more under the PNM regime—lobbied, protested, and went to court over construction of the Alutrint aluminum smelter complex in La Brea. He was successful in leading that drive against a large multi-national company, rare in a country as small as this. Because of that success other groups who feel underrepresented have called on him when governments ignored their voices. That’s how his Re-route Movement began.

Q: Dr Kublalsingh’s detractors say that the fast is a manifestation of a disturbed mind, of a man who was demoted from the University of the West Indies from lecturing full-time to two days a week, who is estranged from his wife, whose son has kept his distance despite his deteriorating health; a man whose professional and personal life is in shambles, rather than that of an activist.

It wasn’t a demotion. He was persecuted for political reasons as a direct result of his anti-smelter activities under the PNM Patrick Manning-led government. His wife, Dr Sylvia Moodie-Kublalsingh, is very supportive of him, and the family has asked his son, who is studying law in Barbados, not to interrupt his studies until he is absolutely needed by his father’s side. That is Wayne’s decision. Our entire family supports him.

Q: If the Government refuses to accede to his demands, would this struggle be worth it?

Yes. This struggle will resonate in the consciousness of our country for a long time. It’s a defining moment in the history of our people and burnt into the collective consciousness of our children, our people. It’s the first real experiment in truth in our nation’s history with one man’s willingness to give of himself at any cost, in the hope of alleviating sadness, tears and frustrations of others.

It brings home the principles of those who fought against apartheid, against discrimination, against colonies.

It’s a principle that existed before us and will exist after us, but for the first time, it’s existing within us. And despite all the precautions we take, he knows and we know the extreme is still possible. No one is prepared for that, or will ever be prepared. But it’s a journey Wayne has embarked on, one that his family supports.

-Ira Mathur

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai