On October 26, 2020, the high court ruled in favour of activist and academic Dr Wayne Kublalsingh in his case against the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.
Together with the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM), Kublalsingh had taken legal action against the state, making the case that construction of the highway linking San Fernando to Point Fortin had continued without sufficient consultation with stakeholders.
What should have been a moment of vindication for the activist who spent almost a decade protesting the Debe to Mon Desir segment of the Point Fortin Highway, came and went with little fanfare in comparison to the coverage received by his two hunger strikes in 2012 and 2014.
While many environmentalists hail Kublalsingh as a social warrior and true champion of the people, there remains a large segment of the population in Trinidad and Tobago who only remember him as the man who went on hunger strike.
Even though Kublalsingh was advocating on behalf of communities that would become displaced and environmentally sensitive areas that have been affected by the selected route, he was widely mocked and ridiculed by many who questioned the motives behind his advocacy and his approach.
Recently, Cari-Bois News had the opportunity to chat with Kublalsingh about his high court victory, the impact his advocacy has had on his personal life, and the philosophy that drives him.
The man behind the movement
Wayne Kublalsingh came from very humble beginnings having grown up in the Sugarcane belt in Claxton Bay where his grandmother was once a sugar cane farmer. He describes these formative years as being crucial to his developing a passion for the environment and nature. But it was not until the year 2000 when he was employed at the University of the West Indies, that Kublalsingh was approached by a student with a request that would change his life forever.
The student’s father was an employee of the soon-to-be-closed Caroni Limited and was seeking assistance for workers like his father that would be losing their jobs. This was a pivotal moment in Kublalsingh’s life that inspired him towards advocacy on behalf of the voiceless and forgotten in Trinidad and Tobago. In that moment, the then professor decided to dedicate himself towards the creation of a new economic platform that would facilitate allocating the defunct company’s 77,000 acres of flat land to the displaced farmers in need of new economic opportunities. Even though the government of the day shelved his proposals, he remained undeterred as his advocacy on behalf of people and communities only grew from there.
Highway Re-Route Movement Is Born
In 2004, residents of four villages between Debe and Mon Desir became aware of plans to build a major highway through the area. They learnt the proposed route for the highway would pass near to environmentally sensitive wetlands, and through communities that had been formed by the descendants of East Indian indentured laborers whose roots in the area could be traced to the mid-19th century era when indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago began.
The residents possessed local knowledge of the area that gave them insight into the hydrology of the surrounding lagoon system. Because of this, they understood the potential of this type of development to trigger extreme flooding and had been quietly lobbying against the highway until 2010.
Although a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) for the proposed highway had been issued, a new government had taken office, and the incoming administration promised that plans for the highway’s construction would not proceed. As a result, the affected communities did not challenge the issuance of the CEC in court.
By 2011, however, when it became clear that the promise would not be kept, the residents approached Kublalsingh to be their spokesperson, and the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM) was born.
Their primary argument was thus: instead of passing through four towns on the way to Point Fortin, the highway extension should instead be rerouted or diverted at the Debe interchange and cut across the island to the coastal road on the west. The campaign [Highway Re-Route Movement] was specifically named to make it clear to the public that they were not against the construction of a highway; they were simply calling for the re-routing of a section of the proposed highway so as to avoid destruction to their homes and the surrounding wetlands.
The HRM cause was heavily publicised, aided by several large demonstrations and Kublalsingh’s two controversial hunger strikes. The first hunger strike was successful in getting the Government to agree to an independent review of the highway project. An independent committee led by Dr James Armstrong was set up to conduct the review which led to the drafting of the ‘Armstrong Report’ which reportedly cost the government of Trinidad and Tobago over $700,000 TTD.
The government, however, never even considered the report, triggering Kublalsingh’s second hunger strike, which saw numerous trips to the hospital and a vicious reaction from state officials, politicians and the general public.
HRM’s day in court
After eight long years before the courts, Justice James Aboud ruled in favour of the Highway Re-route Movement. The order stated that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago had breached their constitutional rights and disregarded the group’s legitimate expectations that stakeholders be consulted as per the Judicial Review Act.
“Having spent over $700,000 for the HRC Report, it is unconscionable that the Government should have decided to entirely disregard its recommendations.”Justice James Aboud
The Government of Trinidad and Tobago was ordered to pay damages to the group in the sum of $500 thousand TTD for charges ranging from wrongful arrest, assault, battery and false imprisonment. They were also ordered to cover the legal costs of the HRM. Kublalsingh believes, however, that Justice Aboud should have gone further. He says a more desirable outcome would have been to order that the state abide by the very Armstrong report they commissioned.
As it stands, the Government is not bound by the decision to stop the highway or reconsider the project in any way. The HRM, therefore, plans to pursue its remaining matters before the court, in the hope that victories there would have a positive influence on the other cases. In one, Kublalsingh accuses the state of bullying citizens to get its way.
A Joke to Some, A Hero To Others
Dr Kublalsingh describes these hunger strikes as “the most terrible and wicked thing” he has ever done to himself. To this day, he is afflicted by ailments of the heart, lungs and kidneys as a direct result of his two hunger strikes.
In addition to the impact on his health, he was arrested several times, fired from his university post in 2012 and says he has had to sell his possessions to get by. Nevertheless, he has no regrets maintaining that he would do it all again:
“For 200 days I sat at the front of the Prime Minister’s office. People [would] smile at me, bring me water, stop and talk to me, and others would ridicule me when they see me up to today. They would refer to me as ’Kube’ or ‘Kublal’, ask me if I’m still on a hunger strike. They see me as a joke, and they do this because their leaders have told them that I am a joke. [Few] people understand the importance of this revolution, of this struggle, it has not been explained to them. They only begin to see you with validity and respect when the court approves you.”Dr Wayne Kublalsingh
Asked whether he feels vindicated by the legal victory, Kublalsingh said that vindication would only come “when the stories of the people are told […]the people who were the first to stand up against irresponsible development and say no – not in my community.” This is a lesson he says he learnt from his late mentor Yvonne Ashby who was the first person to stand up against the proposed aluminium smelter plant in Chattham, Trinidad, triggering a domino effect, from community to community, rejecting the irresponsible development along the Western Coast of Trinidad.
Even though the objective of the HRM may have appeared unrealistic to many in T&T, Kublalsingh still believes that things could change for the better under the right leadership. While the HRM not have succeeded in having the Debe to Mon Desir segment of the Point Fortin Highway re-routed, Kublalsingh says he remains in the fight for more accountability, transparency and inclusivity in planning and development projects.