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Trinidad & Tobago: Hunger Striker Prepared to go the Distance to Protest Highway

Environmental activist and literature professor Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh has gone on a hunger strike to protest the construction of the Debe to Mon Desir section of a highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin in southeastern Trinidad. Kublalsingh is camped outside the Office of the Prime Minister in the capital city of Port-of-Spain and has refused to eat or drink anything until the Prime Minister meets with him and the other members of the Highway Re-route Movement. Kublalsingh and the lobby group he represents insist that the current highway route would displace many homes and would adversely affect the environment.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar instructed the country's Minister of Health to visit Kublalsingh and to offer him the use of an ambulance. When Minister Fuad Khan attempted to persuade Kublalsingh to seek medical attention, he was dismissed in strident terms:

Philip Edward Alexander felt the government should have sent someone to mediate the situation instead of sending Khan to see after Kublalsingh personally:

What the Health Minister was sent to offer Dr. Kublalsingh he already had, the choice and the means to save his own life. What he did not bring was the Prime Minister's best wishes, her compassion, and a promise to halt all work until the conclusion of arbitration between both sides; had she sent someone other than the generally liked and amiable Fuad Khan they might have gotten more than a good cussing for the insult.

Alexander noted that many of the people he considers indifferent to Kublalsingh's cause would have been supporters had it been politically expedient:

What is shameful is that if Patrick Manning was in power today Kamla, Prakash and Warner would have been there washing Kublalsingh's feet, championing the cause. We have strayed from good governance into questionable territory and common sense needs to prevail to save this man's life, a good man clearly intent on sacrificing himself if that is what it takes to change how we treat with each other.

Tobago Justice noted that the Prime Minister supported Kublalsingh when he protested against a proposed aluminum smelter during the prevous administration's tenure:

This hunger striker showed up among scores of supporters demonstrating their support for the highway being built in the controversial proposed manner. This hunger striker's camp was erected in Penal near Kamla Persad Bissessar's constituency office. He has now [called] for an audience with the Prime Minister as he [will] not eat until the PM meets with him.  The interesting aspect of this entire ‘war’ is that the High Way Re-route Movement's proposal removes the highway from passing within three communities, inclusive of the Prime Minister's village of Siparia. It leaves much to be considered as to why Dr. Kublalsingh is now feeling the full length of the State's might, even from a former comrade in the person of Kamla Persad Bissessar in fighting against the Aluminum Smelter proposed by the former PNM regime.  Is it the a matter of State against Kublalsingh or is it a matter of Personalities/Persons against Kublalsingh?

Just Methinks admired Kublalsingh for taking such a strong stance on a development which doesn't affect him personally:

Wayne Kublalsingh doesn't live in [the] area that's about to be razed in preparation for the Mon Desir to Debe section of the new highway. He doesn't have any personal ties to the issue. In fact, he was only called into this fight because of his success in preventing the construction of the proposed aluminum smelter in La Brea (where he also does not live). Despite the fact that he has no personal dog in this fight, he's announced that he's prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend the perspective of these people.

The blogger also wondered why other Trinidadians weren't as willing to stand up for what they believed:

What about the rest of us? Those who are too busy with the daily grind to take any kind of active interest in what's going on around us. We who sit around waiting for the world to change instead of getting up and doing something about the myriad issues we spend our free time griping about. What do we do when we see a man take a stand in a way that is all but unheard of in our culture? We laugh. We sneer. We try to undermine by quibbling about how many calories are necessary to qualify for a hunger strike.

The Eternal Pantomime also wondered why others were so apathetic:

Yesterday at  NAPA I engaged a person of the upper class in discussion about Kublalsingh’s Hunger Strike, and her response was she understood the cause but she felt Wayne must be going mad. I then asked if she didn’t think that the atrocities the government has been committing worthy of a fast….and she went silent and refused to be pulled into discussion again.

In a subsequent post she give her thoughts on the Prime Minister's letter to Kublalsingh's mother:

Mind you, Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s office is just upstairs from where Kublalsingh is holding his hunger strike/vigil. But I guess it would take too much time to take an elevator and go down and speak to Kublalsingh and the protesters in person, the way a real leader would. It was far quicker to just pen the letter and send it off to media houses…thereby ensuring that she stays in the limelight, but outside of the glare of angry citizens. Well played Kamla Rani, well played.

She also pointed out that the protest was never about stopping the highway but instead, re-routing it:

This protest has never been about stopping the building of a highway; it has been about shifting a portion of the highway so that it does not interfere with the quality of life of a village. But many think it makes more sense for the village to move than for the highway to change course.

Wired868 asked what Kublalsingh's life is worth:

Last week, National Security Minister Jack Warner said that $4.5 million spent on a Laventille family day was excellent business if it saved just one life.

The life of an environmental activist, it seems, is not worth even the chance that a highway might not be completed.

Attorney and former Opposition Senator Robin Montano suggested that Kublalsingh's protest is quixotic and it would set a bad precedent if the Prime Minister gave in to his demands:

It is tempting to argue that Dr. Kublalsingh is doing the same with this hunger strike as Don Quixote did with his windmills. He is insisting that he will starve himself to death if the Prime Minister of this little Republic refuses to meet with him (and no doubt capitulate to his demands). That this is emotional blackmail of the highest order cannot be in doubt. In other words, he is saying that it will be the fault of Mrs. Persad-Bissessar, and only Mrs. Persad-Bissessar, if he dies. Now let me be clear: whether you fall on the side of the “re-routers” or not: NO Prime Minister can ever be seen to be giving in to this sort of blackmail … and it is blackmail! If it happens in this case, where would it end. No! As much as Mrs. Persad-Bissessar's humanity and her obviously clear desire is not to see a needless death, as Prime Minister she cannot allow herself to be forced to do something like this. It is clearly not in the interests of the State. If she did this (give in) today, what would stop somebody else from doing a similar thing tomorrow? Where should we draw the line?

A counter argument was a video posted on Facebook by a group (PNM Abroad) that supports the Opposition party. In it, Dr. Kublalsingh's brother says that he is “totally shocked at the Prime Minister's behaviour”, maintaining that “it's a simple matter of her committing to a PROMISE she made” [to meet with the Highway Re-Route Movement].

Still, Montano felt that regardless of whether Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-route Movement are right, this manner of protest isn't worth it:

In other words, Dr. Kublalsingh is probably killing himself (for that is exactly what he is doing) for a lost cause. As I said at the beginning of this post: I do admire his passion; I admire his commitment, but I don't think that this particular cause is worth killing himself for. Even if you think that what he is doing is pure tomfoolery or that he is just plain wrong on this issue, I would urge you to add your voice to mine and say to him please don't kill yourself. There will be other causes where your country will need your passion and your commitment. If you are dead then it will be our loss and you won't be there to help.

Montano ended with a quote form George Bernard Shaw:

The famous English playwright, George Bernard Shaw, said it best when he said ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable man insists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

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