Property Matters – St. Augustine Nurseries

northgrove-plan.jpg

The previous article dealt with the Eden Gardens scandal, now before the Courts, which I termed ‘a most grievous case of Grand Corruption‘. I provided a list of ten questions for media colleagues to put to the accused and their spokespersons on this complex fraud.

Senior former Public Officials preferred the valuation advice of a civil servant, who was not professionally qualified, over that of a seasoned professional of 28 years’ post-qualification experience. I don’t think any reasonable person would adopt that approach if the health of their relatives or the wealth of their family was at stake, but some persons seem comfortable to defend that kind of decision. As David Rudder would say – ‘with a straight-straight face‘. I expect we will be subjected to less and less appearances from those persons.

This article will attempt to put the controversial “St. Augustine Nurseries project (North Grove Housing Development) into context with existing land and housing policy. This project is emblematic of what has gone so badly wrong in our state housing policy. To be entirely clear, in this case I am making no allegations of financial corruption or voter-padding. This case is one of ‘Phantom Policy‘ in which intentionally-suppressed policies, developed to advance the public interest, are either ignored or selectively invoked. As we say, is according. Continue reading “Property Matters – St. Augustine Nurseries”

Board Games

demming xed out
Dennise Demming (left) was “removed and replaced” as the chair of the Tourism Development Company by Corporation Sole. Standing with Demming are Tourism minister, the Hon. Shamfa Cudjoe MP and TDC director Tonya Laing. Photo courtesy Trinidad Express.

The recent controversy over the dismissal of Dennise Demming as Chair of the Tourism Development Company (TDC) has sparked yet another round of debate on the role and operation of State-owned-Enterprises (SoEs).

Some of the issues which have arisen are –

  • What is the purpose of these SoEs?
  • How do the Boards of these SoEs get appointed?
  • Are Board Directors of SoEs required to follow directions from the line Minister?
  • Do Board Directors of SoEs have the right to get involved in managerial decisions such as hiring of staff and awarding of contracts?
  • Do Ministers and Permanent Secretaries have the right to meet with or direct staff of the SoEs without the input of the Board of Directors?
  • Given the recent Appeal Court decision in the eTeck case, what is the legal liability of Board Directors of SoEs?

Continue reading “Board Games”

Our Land – The Review

“…A small State such as Trinidad & Tobago must accord a very high priority to the judicious management and utilization of its land resources or perish. All elements of land policy must be designed to ensure that these finite resources are efficiently utilized and husbanded in such a manner as to serve the long term interests of the national community…”
—Conclusion of “A New Administration and Policy for Land” (19 November, 1992)

The PNM won national elections on 7 September 2015 by 23-18.

Two key themes emerged during the PNM’s successful campaign –

  1. Firstly, there was a strong emphasis on the critical need to restore proper standards of Accountability, Transparency and Good Governance;
  2. Secondly, a commitment was given to ‘keep the various promises made by the PP government’.

When one considers the various promises, policy changes and actions of the PP in relation to land and property, it seems clear to me that those two campaign commitments made by the PNM are entirely incompatible.

Our country has a very high population density and the previous Minister of Land and Marine Resources estimated that some 63% of our country’s land belongs to the State. It is therefore a cardinal State responsibility to properly manage those critical resources so that short and long term interests can be reconciled in a sustainable manner. The present situation is so serious and damaging to our collective interests that I am calling for a halt to any attempt to keep promises with respect to land and property while a fact-finding and policy review is conducted.

landpolicyThe opening quotation is from the National Land Policy 1992, which is now a virtually unknown document since its very existence is denied by all the relevant agencies. This Policy provides critical guidance for how this scarce resource should be best managed in the Public Interest.

The severe crisis now evident in relation to our State Lands resembles a ‘Tragedy of the Commons‘ in which this crucial resource which should offer long-term collective benefits is effectively abused by self-seeking individuals. The pattern of abuse is facilitated by gross mismanagement, in profitable partnership with deliberate obscurity in how the State Land system actually operates.

Food Security

foodplan-2012-15This remains elusive since in March 2012 the Ministry of Agriculture, Land & Marine Resources published its Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015. The major goal of that Action Plan was to halve the country’s annual $4.0 Billion food import bill. Yet in March 2014, the Food Production Minister, Senator Devant Maharaj, stated that the food import bill had been reduced by only 2% since 2010.

The significant reduction of our food import bill will require a flexible plan, with dedicated implementation and continuous monitoring. The one inescapable requirement is for farmers to have access to land of suitable quantity, quality and location. Without a good supply of land, no food security plan can succeed.

Land for the Landless

The proposed revisions to the State Lands Act 1998 were approved by the Lower House of Parliament on 3 June 2015 and withdrawn after the JCC raised certain objections. The proposed change in the ‘Land for the Landless’ policy were approved by Cabinet on 19 March 2015 with these main elements –

  • Occupation Date – Was moved from January 1998 to June 2014, which means many more persons would qualify.
  • Income Limits – Previously the maximum monthly family income was $8,000, this was now revised to $30,000.
  • Definition – the 1998 Act defined a landless person as one who was ‘disadvantaged’ according to the Ministry of Social Development, that word was deleted from the revised proposals.
  • Designated Areas – these were specified in an extensive list of over 400 areas covering the entire country.
  • The Numbers – The total number of persons identified was 250,000 and a commitment was given to regularise some 60,000 of those.

A policy which was originally intended to alleviate the plight of our poorest citizens has now effectively been extended to offer ‘Land for Everybody’. The existing commitment in respect of 60,000 lots will consume about 8,000 acres of land.

EMBD

https://vimeo.com/7987617
embd logoThe EMBD website states that it is responsible for the development of the former Caroni lands – some 7,500 residential lots are being prepared for ex-Caroni workers as part of their retrenchment package, with a further 8,400 agricultural leases of 2-acre parcels reportedly being processed. That means about 940 acres are to be used for the residential lots, with at further 18,500 additional acres for the agricultural plots. The total land area to be used would be about 19,420 acres, which is about a quarter (26%) of the estimated area of the Caroni lands.

Caroni Lands

caroni1975_logo_smallCaroni Lands were leased to ex–Caroni workers as part of their retrenchment compensation – they were entitled to one residential lot and a two-acre parcel for food-crop farming. The use of those lands for those purposes was intended to be controlled by the restrictive covenants in those leases. For instance, the residential lots were to be developed by a residential building within three years and the agricultural lots were to be held by the ex-workers for food-crop farming. In the 2015 budget, the restriction on sale of those agricultural lands was removed (pg 14). In addition, Cabinet Minute 3093 of 6 November 2014 approved the removal of the restrictive covenants in the leases to ex-Caroni workers – both agricultural and residential. No restriction on sale and no requirement to build on the lots.

This is tantamount to the State entirely gifting the development and transactional rights to these lessees, with no effective means of ensuring the originally desired results.

Housing Development Corporation (HDC)

hdc-logoThe HDC sells new homes at heavily-subsided rates to middle-income families, subject to restrictive covenants which prohibit open-market sale within the first ten years. Under the terms of that clause, the owner of one of these homes is required to offer the property to the HDC at the original price. It now seems that the HDC has relinquished those restrictive covenants. I have seen several letters signed by the HDC which authorise the open-market sale of those homes within the ten-year embargo period. I am not aware of any policy decision which supports that pattern of approvals and none of the vendors I have spoken with have paid any penalties of profit-share to the HDC.

This is yet another example of the State or its agents abandoning its fundamental duty to properly manage the public property rights within its remit.

Property Tax

The proposed Property Tax would require a live, open-access database which would allow anyone to examine the details of any property in the country. Those details would include land area, building area, number of bedrooms/bathrooms and other facilities, transaction history, ownership and assessed taxes. One of the strongest sources of opposition to the Property Tax is persons who would wish to keep the details of their property holdings and dealings as secret as possible.

The new Property Tax system and the modern database is in fact a key element in unearthing the facts of our country’s property ownership and occupation.

Property Tax must therefore be a priority in this arena.

The unrealistic policy of homes with gardens consumes too much land and will jeopardise our country’s sustainable future.

CL Financial Bailout – Studied Disdain

Sen the Hon. Larry Howai, Minister of Finance and the Economy

SIDEBAR: How much Public Money has been spent on this CL Financial bailout?

These are the official statements as to the actual cost of the bailout since 2012. It really resembles the ‘carefully cultivated confusion‘ which I deplored recently in relation to the Invader’s Bay fiasco.

  • 3 April 2012Affidavit of then Finance Minister, Winston Dookeran, which specifies the Public Money committed to this colossal bailout as –
    Para 21 (a) $5.0Bn already provided to CLICO;
             (b) $7.0Bn paid to holders of the EFPA and
    Para 22 $12.0Bn estimated as further funding to 
    be advanced.

    Dookeran is saying in April 2012 that $12 Billion had been paid and an estimated $12 Billion remained to be paid, which is a total of $24Bn in public money to be spent to satisfy the creditors of the CLF group.

  • 1 October 2012 – Senator Larry Howai, delivering his first Budget Statement, stated the cost of the CL Financial bailout at page six –
    …The cost to the national community has been substantial—an amount of $19.7 billion or 13.0 per cent of our current GDP; yet this expenditure was necessary and decisive for containing an economic and financial crisis…
    Howai is telling the Senate in October 2012, a mere six months after Dookeran’s Affidavit, that $19.7 Billion has been spent. If we follow this official account, which fixed the total spent in April 2012 at $12 Billion, an additional $7.7 Billion of Public Money was spent in six months. I continue to contest whether this bailout was at all necessary, but it was certainly an incredible rate of expenditure, that cannot be contested.
  • 4 May 2013 – In this newspaper, under the headline ‘$25b and counting – Cost to taxpayers of CLICO bailout and enquiry‘ –
    …However, Government’s intervention into the CLICO fiasco has cost taxpayers more than $25 billion
  • 17 May 2013 – UNCTT’s website contains a formal Press Release from the office of the then Attorney General, Anand Ramlogan SC –
    …It should be noted that efforts to stabilize and resuscitate CLICO have thus far cost taxpayers over $25 billion dollars…
  • 2 April 2014 – At the Senate sitting , Minister Howai stated at page 35 of Hansard
    …Mr. President, as you would perhaps be aware, the cost to the country of the CL Financial bailout—the actual cash that has been put out—is approximately $20.8 billion. This was done in an effort to preserve the stability of the economy of Trinidad and Tobago…
  • 7 August 2015 – I was therefore astonished to hear the Minister of Finance, Larry Howai, stating on CNMG TV, that the cost of this bailout is ‘not quite $20 Billion‘.

The first item, Dookeran’s April 2012 affidavit, is the one for which Howai is now being required by the Court to produce the details.

Some of my views on this, from last week

“…Well, this is the usual practice, in which the public right to know is subordinated to private, undisclosed interests…it seems to me at these moments that the job of the State’s attorneys is to shroud the entire indecent affair in ‘something resembling an important principle’, but ultimately the effort is intended to wear me down and let the issue fade from collective memory…I am continuing to fight this very hard…what we have here is the ultimate collapse of our Republic by Public Officials who are sworn to uphold the Public Interest without fear or favour, but end up exposed as serving the toxic interests of the financial robber barons…I am reminded of Simon Johnson’s ‘The Quiet Coup‘ published in The Atlantic of May 2009…in T&T, we too, had a quiet coup…”

As the Season of Reflection and the impending election flow together, there is a bitter brew now being offered in relation to the CL Financial bailout.

Disdain is an attitude which denotes someone or something as being unworthy of proper consideration. I think that in relation to our collective interests in the CL Financial matter, we are now being subjected to Larry Howai’s ‘studied disdain’ in relation to our collective interests in the CL Financial matter.

On Tuesday 10 August 2015, the State announced its decision to appeal the recent High Court ruling that the details of the CL Financial bailout must be published. That appeal was also filed that day and the State applied to have the stay of execution extended to the end of the appeal process – the latter issue will be heard on 19 October 2015.

The Minister of Finance & the Economy is the main public official with responsibility to account for how Public Money is spent. The Public Money being used to bailout the CL Financial creditors is our money. The Minister of Finance therefore has a fundamental duty to publicly account for how our money has been spent.

Our collective interests in this matter, of exactly how $25 Billion of our dollars were spent, far outweigh the undisclosed interests on whose behalf the Minister is now appealing.

This appeal is against every one of the orders made in the High Court judgment of 22 July 2015 and therefore represents an utter abdication of the fundamental duties of the Minister of Finance and the Economy.

Our collective interests could benefit from the unintended juxtaposition of national elections, the apparent halt of USD sales by the country’s leading bank and the hostility of the Minister of Finance to the truth. These are rare moments in which we might gain insight and regain fundamental rights, but we have to be aware of what is at stake.

The Ministry’s Press Release deserves stern scrutiny, so these are my points. Continue reading “CL Financial Bailout – Studied Disdain”

CL Financial Bailout – The Hidden Truth

We are now in what I call the Season of Reflection, which for me covers the period from Emancipation Day on 1 August to Independence Day on 31 August, right up to Republic Day on 24 September. Those celebrations appear in proper historical sequence in our calendar and every year I find this two-month ‘season’ to be a sobering period for deep reflection. This year, with this CL Financial judgment and the impending election seeming to converge, the reflections are piercing ones.

Sad to say, this CL Financial bailout is resembling a situation in which well-connected persons are getting what they can, anyway they can, but making sure not to get caught. Who were the beneficiaries of this lavish payout? What is this reluctance to release details?

That is the Code of Silence in effect.

Sen. Larry Howai, Min of Finance
Sen. Larry Howai, Min of Finance

I was not at all surprised at the reported statements of the Minister of Finance, Larry Howai, on the 22 July 2015 High Court judgment ordering him to provide the detailed information I had requested on the CL Financial bailout. The High Court granted a 28-day stay of execution and the Ministry is reportedly in consultation with its lawyers, claiming that “A decision will be made within the period of time allowed by the court,”. The article closed with this quote –

“…Finance Minister Larry Howai said in the statement it should be noted, none of the requests refer to “how over $25b was spent in the Clico bailout”…”

Given that the very request was for the detailed financial information which has been deliberately suppressed since 2009, it is of course impossible to say with any certainty just how much Public Money was actually spent on this CL Financial bailout. That is the inescapable fact at the centre of this scandal. The Minister’s tautology is really a powerful explanation of this point.
Continue reading “CL Financial Bailout – The Hidden Truth”

CL Financial Bailout – Impunity Insanity?

© 2015 Dion Jennings
© 2015 Dion Jennings. Used with permission.

The headline ‘Duprey wants back CLICO‘ in the Sunday Express of June 28th 2015, did not surprise me at all. That is exactly the threat against which I have been warning throughout my campaign against this appalling and unprecedented bailout.

To allow Lawrence Duprey to regain control of CLICO would do serious violence to the fundamental notions of the law not allowing persons to benefit from their wrongdoing.

Already, we can see various positions being taken – the Movement for Social Justice and Peter Permell of the CLICO Policyholders’ Group stating their objections, while Mariano Browne (former PNM Treasurer and Minister in the Ministry of Finance) and Mary King (economist and former Minister of Planning) setting out what seem to be supportive positions.

Continue reading “CL Financial Bailout – Impunity Insanity?”

Integrity Inquiry

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“…The question really is integrity, and if he or she does not have it he or she should not be a Commissioner in the first place. The simple fact is that try as we might, we cannot legislate for integrity…”

From Press Release of 21 June 2013 by then Integrity Commission Chairman, Ken Gordon, in response to strong criticisms of his meeting privately and alone with opposition Leader, Dr Keith Rowley.

Once again we are beset by what appears to be yet another fiasco at the Integrity Commission, so Ken Gordon’s fateful words echo in my mind.

Given the current political season, there is every temptation to discuss this crisis as being caused by the impending election, together with either the improper behaviour of the present Peoples Partnership government or the ‘PNM operatives’ who infest the public service. You can take your pick from those prevailing theories, but I think these recent and alarming events were preceded by earlier ones. So much so that when the entire situation is placed in context, we are facing a troubling scenario in terms of the extent to which we can trust high public officials.

The current crisis is serious enough grounds to require a full Commission of Enquiry into the conduct of the Integrity Commission since the 2000 revisions to the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA).

I do not agree with those who call for the abolition of the Integrity Commission, since it is critical that any progressive society establish what are its aspirations and work towards those. Despite the social, religious and legal restrictions on murder, robbery and rape, those acts occur all the time. That sobering truth is no reason at all to retreat from putting strong legal and social prohibitions in place. Society needs laws and institutions to promote its values, so I am not calling for any move towards abolition of the Integrity Commission at all.

Such a Commission of Enquiry is necessary to clear the air on strategic issues and its Terms of Reference would cover aspects such as –

General

  • What is the record of the Integrity Commission in deterring corrupt and improper behaviour by Public Officials?
  • To what extent would the amendments to the IPLA, as proposed by the Ken Gordon-led Commission in its 2012 Annual Report, be effective in improving the Commission’s performance?
  • Given their growing importance of Public Private Partnerships in large-scale projects and commercial enterprises, to what extent should the IPLA apply to those organisations.
  • Apart from the legal framework as outlined above, how can the limited resources of the Integrity Commission be best applied to promote ‘Integrity in Public Life’?

The specific issues

  • 19th October 2004 – The Integrity Commission wrote to then PM Patrick Manning seeking detailed instructions on how to handle Ganga Singh’s complaint against Dr Keith Rowley. According to the ruling in the case brought by Dr Rowley against the Commission – “…The Court does not accept the Integrity Commission’s explanation as to why it wrote to the Honourable Prime Minister on the 19th October, 2004, to ascertain whether an inquiry was to be undertaken and if so, the names of the persons to man the enquiry and their terms of reference…”. The public needs a full and proper explanation as to how and why the Integrity Commission took such an extraordinary decision.
    gordondeane-johnmartin
  • The TSTT exemption – In 2006 the Commission was alleged to have written to TSTT Directors to confirm that they were exempted from filing declarations as required by the IPLA. That letter was the subject of Freedom of Information litigation at both High Court and Appeal Court levels – Magdalene Samaroo vs TSTT CV 2006-0817 and CA 180 of 2010 – and it is fundamental that at no point was the existence of that letter denied. A simple denial would have readily defeated the request for that letter since the Court cannot order publication of a document which simply never existed. The matter was ‘compromised’ by agreement between the parties at an Appeal Court hearing on 28 October 2013, which means that both sides agreed to discontinue the lawsuit. There is obviously something substantial and improper at work here, so an Enquiry can force publication of that suppressed correspondence.
  • The TSTT litigation – Since 2005 TSTT has been in prolonged litigation to remove its Directors from Integrity Commission oversight. The High Court ruled in 2007 that TSTT’s Directors were required to file declarations under the IPLA. That judgment was reversed in the Appeal Court ruling of 27 June 2013 that TSTT was not a State Enterprise, with its Directors therefore not required to file declarations to the Integrity Commission. Upon careful reading of those judgments it seems clear that the Integrity Commission offered little, if any, resistance to the TSTT challenge. This sustained collaboration between the Executive, the supposedly-independent Integrity Commission and the Public Private Partnership also known as TSTT is nothing less than remarkable, given the challenges in getting agreement on important and beneficial matters. A proper account is also required for how and why the Commission agreed to this course of action.
  • The 2009 collapse – The newly-appointed Commission collapsed in early 2009 due to disastrous appointments by then President Max Richards. One of the several outstanding issues at that time was the strong complaint from Justice Zainool Hosein who claimed that President Richards had promised him the position of Deputy Chairmanship and then reneged on that commitment. President Richards proceeded on an extended leave before deigning to make a public statement on 29th May 2009 which amounted to a stunning ‘I don’t have to explain myself’. An important part of this Enquiry would be to establish just how this series of unfortunate appointments were made.
    max-and-martin
  • CL Financial group of companies – The Commission has never explained its failure or refusal to seek declarations from the Directors of the CL Financial group of companies, which have been under State control since June 2009. I have personally checked and those Directors do not submit declarations to the Commission. CL Financial is the largest by far of the ‘bodies under the control of the State’, yet the Commission has not exercised its lawful duties in respect of proper oversight, so a full and public examination is necessary.
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  • Emailgate Fiasco – The Commission’s role in this charged affair certainly needs a full, public Enquiry if trust is to be restored. Fixin’ T&T claimed, in its 7 May 2015 letter to the Commission, that the PM had claimed to have had possession of certain files ‘containing information which the IC had requested from Google’. The Commission was asked in that letter whether it was aware of any information being passed onto the PM or any other person. The Commission’s response on the same day was remarkable, in that there was neither confirmation or denial of any information being passed to anyone else. That reticence on such a critical point is even more remarkable when one examines the Commission’s letter of 19th May 2015, which confirmed the end of its ‘Emailgate’ investigation. The first part of that letter states that the provisions of S.35 (1) & (2) of the IPLA prohibits any release of information unless charges are to be recommended. On the one hand, the Commission declines to say if information was released to the PM or anyone else, yet, on the other hand, it stresses the legal rules against such a release. So what is really happening here? What is more, the resignation of two of the IC’s five Commissioners can only add to the sense of confusion in the air. The first resignation came from Dr Shelly Ann Lalchan, supposedly for personal reasons, but the clear statements from the second Commissioner to resign, former Deputy Chairman, Justice Sebastien Ventour, are worrying to say the least. Can it be true that the media was the first place the Commissioners were made aware of that important letter of the 19 May? If that is indeed so, it is clearly unacceptable for a public body to conduct itself in that fashion.

A final issue for an Enquiry to consider would be the role of whistleblowing within bodies such as the Integrity Commission. On the one hand the Commission could not perform its work without reports from people who are reporting suspected wrongdoing, probably in breach of their employers’ rules, yet the very officers within the Commission are prevented from reporting wrongdoing in its own operations. That is the true irony at work and a proper Enquiry will be able to take evidence and make recommendations to deal with this.

A full and urgent Commission of Enquiry into the Integrity Commission is now required.

Our Land – The Caroni case Part 2

The previous article outlined the size of the Caroni lands and some of the intended uses to which that land would be put. I contrasted the positions taken by UWI in 2003 and my own from 2004, with the current situation.

UWI’s July 2003 Position Paper – ‘A Framework for National Development: Caroni Transformation Process‘ – was developed by diverse contributions, mostly made at a special seminar on 27 April 2003. At that time there were strong rumours that the then PNM government, headed by Patrick Manning, intended to close Caroni (1975) Ltd. The expressed fears at the time were that PNM supporters, friends, family and financiers would all benefit from a ‘land grab’. Caroni was a State Enterprise which had made heavy losses in the virtually 30 years since it had been purchased from its British owners, sugar giant Tate & Lyle.

The UWI Seminar was most timely since their Position Paper was issued in July 2003 and presented to the then Minister of Agriculture, Land & Marine Resources, John Rahael, in September 2003. Caroni (1975) Ltd was closed on Emancipation Day 2003.

The UWI study took a long-range view of the Caroni issues and as such it is an important document which set a framework for these Caroni lands. The land area was determined, at Appendix 1, to be 74,780 acres. At page 30, ‘Consultation’ is specified as the first requirement for the development of these lands.

The UWI Position Paper sets out its Recommendations at Chapter Eight on pages 71 & 72 –

  1. Govt to prepare & publish a comprehensive plan for Caroni.
  2. Govt to convene an urgent National consultation on the Caroni resources and the published plan.
  3. Any departure from the National Physical Development Plan be done through the legally- stipulated process which includes bringing those proposals to Parliament.
  4. That all terms and conditions for the leasing and tenure of the Caroni lands be detailed to the public in a public document, to meet the requirements of transparency.
  5. That Govt establish a skills bank so that the Caroni workers would have choices as to how they would be integrated in future planned enterprises.
  6. That the State establish an independent Screening Committee to stringently screen potential investors who seek Caroni lands as their location of business.
  7. That the Ministry of Agriculture Land and Marine Resources establish an independent authority charged with the implementation of plans for agriculture and agriculture-related industries.
  8. That Govt establish a comprehensive system of water control on the Caroni lands, in order to facilitate irrigation, as an essential pre-condition for the establishment of agricultural enterprise on the Caroni lands.
  9. The the Govt establish a Lease Income Funding Enterprise System and embark upon a comprehensive joint funding venture with companies in the heavy industrial sector, in order to fund national platforms for development, such as the following ones proposed by this Position Paper:
    1. A Botanical Plan
    2. A Technological & Vocational Institute
    3. A Buffalo Reconstruction program
    4. A Model Program for Untenured Residents
    5. A Food Park Plan
    6. A Research and Development Mandate, for the University of the West Indies and other research institutes in order to support Agro-Industrial Development.

As far as I am aware, none of those sensible recommendations have been implemented.

Dr. the Honourable Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and Environment
Dr. the Honourable Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and Environment

After Caroni was closed, there was a serious debate in the Parliament – here is Dr Roodal Moonilal MP, speaking in the Agricultural Census Order debate on Friday, 14 May 2004

“…We want to challenge the Government yet again, as we did with the Member for Port of Spain North/St. Ann’s West to come to the House and bring the plan for Caroni (1975) Limited to the House. Let us debate their plan for Caroni (1975) Limited…” (pg 601)

Chandresh Sharma MP, speaking in the same debate (pg 637)

Chandresh Sharma MP
Chandresh Sharma MP

“…Mr. Speaker, I was talking about UWI ’s recommendations based on the Caroni (1975) Limited lands that say there should be no land grabbing. These qualified minds thought of the process and they have looked at what obtains in the Government. Some of the best agricultural lands in this country were taken by the PNM —Aranguez and Trincity—and some of the best sugar came from there, and also cocoa in the earlier days. They built houses to secure PNM votes. They must not forget that the East-West Corridor—stretching from Chaguanas to Arima—has 14 seats, which the PNM hopes to control all the time. The seats that they do not control are the ones involved in agriculture like Barataria/San Juan, St. Augustine, St. Joseph, and Tunapuna would return to us soon. So they took the best agricultural lands and built houses on them. The thinkers saw the PNM at work…”

Also –

“…I have just identified some of the thinking from the University Position Paper which is A Framework for National Development Caroni Transformation Process produced by UWI in July 2003. It is instructive to note that to date the Government has not responded to any of the proposals obtained in this document. This is another clear demonstration of how they intend to treat with agriculture and those who are involved in agriculture…” (pg 638)

So, the UNC’s key speakers were insisting, in 2004, that the UWI plan must be considered.

It is striking to consider the identity of some of the Contributors listed at page i of the UWI Position Paper –

  • Winston Dookeran (then an MP, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, after serving as Minister of Finance)
  • Dr Roodal Moonilal (then an MP, now Minister of Housing and Urban Development)
  • Rudranath Indarsingh (then President of the All Trinidad General Workers’ Trade Union Union, now Minister in the Ministry of Finance)
  • Professor Clement Sankat (then at the Engineering Faculty, but now UWI Principal)
  • Dr Asad Mohammed (then a UWI academic, now Chairman of the National Planning Task Force)

It seems clear to me that the Caroni lands were identified as critical national resources which needed an urgent, strategic intervention from our leading thinkers to preserve the Public Interest. That UWI Position Paper is extremely important for our long-term collective interests. Sad to say, but it seems to have been sidelined and forgotten, just like the 1992 Land Policy.

What is more, we do not have any clear account as to what happened to those Caroni lands in either the period between 2003 and the PP’s election victory in May 2010, or the period between May 2010 and now.

After one time, is really two times.

UWI must, as a matter of urgency, reconvene a seminar to examine what has happened to the Caroni lands. That is imperative.

Next, I will consider the role of EMBD and the LSA in developing our lands, particularly the Caroni area.

SIDEBAR : The SIS episode

Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources
Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources

One of the controversial episodes arising recently in relation to Caroni land is the occupation of 35 acres of land at Couva by SIS Ltd, the contractor company linked to many controversial State projects. There were claims by farmers who had been in occupation of the land that SIS had put them off the site before fencing it, with further statements by the Commissioner of State Lands (who has responsibility for management of State Lands) that SIS did not have a tenancy for that land and were in illegal occupation. To add to the brew, the Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, was reported in the Trinidad Express newspaper on 12 March 2015 as denying that there was no agreement for SIS to occupy that land. When asked what were the terms of that lease or tenancy, the Minister is reported to have said –

“…When you enter into an agreement the arrangement in the agreement itself is private, the State land is State land but when you enter into an agreement when the Commissioner enters into an agreement or anybody enters into an agreement with any person whatsoever then the process itself whatever documentation all these things inside of the agreement those become a private matter unless it is registered in the Ministry of Legal Affairs where one can go and do a search…”

A private agreement for Public Lands. I tell you.

To crown-off the entire episode, the Prime Minister told Parliament, on Friday 13 March 2015 –

“…I have spoken to the hon. Minister of Land and Marine Resources. He has indicated that at no time did he state that lease or other agreements with regard to state lands entered into between SIS and the Government is a private matter and therefore should not be disclosed…”

Complete denial. What is clear is that there is a serious hostility to the truth on display here. Simply appalling.

Riding the Dragon

las alturas
Las Alturas buildings cracked. Courtesy T&T Guardian.

This article is about the Las Alturas Enquiry into the collapse of two new Morvant apartment buildings erected by China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC) for the Housing Development Corporation (HDC). This Enquiry seems a politically-motivated one into a serious failure of professional practice which could have cost human lives. It is only in its opening stages, but it is already clear to me that this episode is one which contains serious lessons for our country in terms of the role of Enquiries; the role of the Chinese contractors; the culture of non-enforcement which we practice and of course, the impact of targets and political objectives on proper process. In the case of Las Alturas this is a large-scale multiple-housing project constructed on a former quarry-site on the Lady Young Road, just south of the lookout. Two apartment buildings which were completed in late 2010 were eventually declared uninhabitable due to severe cracking and the proposed demolition of those structures was announced at the end of May 2012. Each building comprised 24 three-bedroom/two-bathroom apartments, with the total cost of those buildings stated by HDC to be in the $29M range. The buildings were erected by CJIC on the design/build basis which usually places all responsibility for soil investigation, design and construction onto the contractor.

The role of Enquiries

The JCC offered to work with HDC in determining the causes of this serious failure and that offer was accepted, but our joint exercise did not last very long. The Commission of Enquiry was announced in September 2014 by the Prime Minister and despite the serious nature of the failure at this project, it seemed to suggest an attempt to discredit the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Keith Rowley, who was Minister of Housing between 2003-2007. I still feel that it was a poor choice of issue to investigate, given the burning questions at Invader’s Bay, the Beetham Water Recycling Project, UWI Debe and EFCL, to name just a few. The Terms of Reference of the Enquiry were published in the Gazette of 3 December 2014 and a five-month period was stipulated for its Report to be made to the President.The Enquiry, which is chaired by retired Justice of Appeal Mustapha Ibrahim, is to examine the causes of the structural failure of two blocks of apartments built in 2008-2010 for the HDC by CJIC. The other two Commissioners are eminent Structural Engineers, Dr. Myron Chin and Anthony Farrell. We have also seen reports of the contractor, CJIC, declining to appear at the Enquiry. I consider that refusal to be deplorable and a real sign that serious penalties need to be attached to that course of action. As it is, the fines for non-attendance are nominal, so people can refuse on a whim, since there are few prosecutions for that.

The role of the Chinese contractors

The really stunning revelation here is that the State was aware, since 2011, that these two buildings at Las Alturas had to be demolished. Despite this, CJIC was able, from early 2012 onwards, to compete for and secure the $500M+ contract for UWI’s Debe campus. The JCC protested at the poor process used in procuring that large-scale project. UWI Principal Professor Clement Sankat was advised that in view of the poor performance by CJIC in local State projects – including UTT Tamana, ETeck Wallerfield and various EFCL – no proper evaluation could proceed to recommend that further contracts be granted to that firm. Given that the normal pre-qualification process requires prospective bidders to identify claims, litigations or disputed matters, one can only wonder how CJIC was able to prevail in that project.

Culture of non-enforcement

One of the seldom-discussed findings of the Uff Enquiry was as to the lack of any culture of enforcement of contracts in the State construction sector, as set out in the sidebar. So, I was both thrilled and intrigued by the headline in this newspaper on Friday 6 March 2015 ‘HDC to sue Chinese contractor‘. The role and reputation of Chinese contractors in the local market have long been a bone of contention for the JCC. That statement was made in opening remarks by Vincent Nelson QC, who is the lead Counsel for HDC at this Enquiry –

“…The Housing Development Corporation (HDC) is moving to pursue legal action against China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC), the company contracted to construct the two towers at Las Alturas, Morvant, which subsequently had to be demolished because of structural damage resulting from land slippage. Attorney for the HDC, Vincent Nelson, was adamant about this as he delivered his opening statement at the Commission of Enquiry into the housing project yesterday at the Caribbean Court of Justice in Port of Spain…”

The culture of non-enforcement, considered with the chiefs at HDC (who transferred there after abruptly departing Caribbean Airlines), together with the special influence seemingly enjoyed by the Chinese contractors, all make me very sceptical as to whether a real and forceful lawsuit will ever emerge against CJIC.

The role of targets

Finally, one needs to consider the detrimental role of politically-motivated overambitious targets. The 2002 National Housing Policy set an unforgettable target of 100,000 new homes to be built in 10 years, which translates to an annual average of 10,000, which means a literally impossible 200 homes per week. Those are the facts behind the bizarre ‘numbers game’ which in turn likely had a decisive influence on the decision-makers at UDECOTT, HDC and of course the Housing Ministry. It would be useful, in this season of 100 houses a week and a billion dollars in land each year being promised, to reconsider the role of over-ambitious targets in distorting proper process.

SIDEBAR: The Outline Timeline

This is only an outline, but it is instructive –

  • December 2002 – UDECOTT acquires the Las Alturas site.
  • 2003 – Initial layout prepared for a total of 120 apartments, which was revised later that year to 292 units given the Town & Country Planning Division’s advice on the allowable number of units.
  • December 2003 – CJIC wins tender to design & build 297 apartments.
  • November 2004 – Start on Site.
  • 2005/2006 – Soil problems identified on part of the site.
  • July 2005 – UDECOTT rejects project redesigns for lower units numbers of 142 and 167 apartments. Those redesigns were intended to avoid the unsuitable soils.
  • July 2006 – the project is transferred from UDECOTT to HDC.
  • 2008-2010 – Blocks H & I are built onto the areas reported to be unsuitable.
  • 2011 – Blocks H & I are recommended to be demolished due to severe cracking.

We have also seen reports that both UDECOTT and the HDC were resistant to any reduction in unit numbers on the site.

SIDEBAR: Uff’s understanding

The 2010 Uff Report into the Public Sector Construction Industry contains remarkable findings which were not listed amongst the 91 formal recommendations. At page 269 –

“Holding to account 29.21. …A recurrent feature of practice in the construction industry in Trinidad & Tobago is the extent to which rights and obligations prescribed by the Contract are or are not enforced. A simple example, discussed above, is the apparently mutual ignoring of contract provisions…”

At page 271 –

“…29.26. Underlying all the foregoing, however, is the question of enforcement of contractual rights and duties. What has been observed by the Commissioners is a culture of non-enforcement of rights, which appears to operate mutually, for example, by contractors not pressing for payment of outstanding sums while the employer does not enforce payment of liquidated damages. Whatever the explanation, the non-enforcement of contractual rights available to Government is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of those charged with protecting public funds. Equally, the non-pursuit of sums properly owed to commercial companies is a dereliction on the part of the directors of that company…”

The key point disclosed here is that contractual rights are seldom enforced in State contracts. A move to such a regular practice would require a major shift in our country’s governance culture.