A hunger strike in a hungry nation

By Gabrielle Hosein

Gabrielle Jamela Hosein is a feminist, activist, poet and Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, and also writes a column in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian

Diaspora Column Editor’s Note:

Today marks Day 19 since Trinidadian Wayne Kublalsingh, a 53 year old environmental activist and member of the Highway Re-route Movement in Trinidad and Tobago, went on hunger strike to demand an independent technical review of a portion of a planned highway that will connect San Fernando and Point Fortin in the southwestern part of the island. There has also been at least one report that about twenty women began a daily fast (from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) one day after Kublalsingh went on hunger strike. For the past week the proposed highway has been a daily staple in the Trinidadian newspapers. It has also received attention in the international media. There continues to be some misrepresentation or misunderstanding of the Re-route Movement’s position, including perhaps from some who should know better – last week for instance, Clement Sankat, Guyanese Principal of the University of the West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine Campus, reportedly announced that while sympathetic of Kublalsingh, he was in support of the construction of the Point Fortin Highway, a statement that mistakenly implied that Re-route was therefore against it. This is notwithstanding unequivocal statements from Re-route members that they have always been in support of the highway and are opposed only to one segment which they fear will have devastating social and ecological costs (in a recent statement, Kublalsingh explains that it is best to think of the proposed highway as a system of roads with three components).

In an interview posted on Youtube, Wayne Kublalsingh states this plainly: “We’re not saying don’t build the highway. We’re saying take Mon Desir to Debe and reroute it.  The name of the movement is the Highway Re-route Movement, we’re saying reroute a segment of the highway and save costs and save catastrophic damage to the people, lands and communities. So that is why we want a review of this part of the highway, this part only and I am saying, and I have said it since last week Thursday when I sat on the land, I’ve told the Prime Minister, we’ve sent her a letter and we’re stating she promised us to review and she has not done a substantive review. She’s not really done the review, there’s been a rehash and the rehash has been taken to Cabinet. We’re saying until she undertakes to do a review, including the social impact assessment, the hydrological study and the cost-benefit analysis, I will not stop this hunger strike, meaning I will not put any food or water into my mouth…I want her to give a verbal undertaking to the public that she will do a scientific, rational, clear, sensitive review of this part of the highway, Mon Desir to Debe, and when that is done, the hunger strike will come to an end.”

Regrettably, but perhaps not surprisingly for anyone familiar with the degradation of political life across the Caribbean these days (Guyanese should find much here that resonates), much of the official response to Kublalsingh has come in the form of ad hominem attacks on his family and attempts at character assassination. One Trinidad and Tobago Guardian columnist has singled out what he calls the“vulgarity” of some of the political responses to Kublalsingh’s calls for transparency and accountability. Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal dismissed Kublalsingh’s protest as the behaviour of a spoilt child. At a party meeting of the United National Congress (one of the coalition members of the People’s Partnership Government), Minister of National Security Jack Warner reportedly described Kublalsingh as a conman who was “eating more hearty than you,” and went on to claim that “They say the Prime Minister is killing Wayne Kublalsingh, but he is killing himself and he better do it quickly! Don’t feel sorry for him. Kublalsingh is trying to blackmail the country and blackmail the Prime Minister.”

Meanwhile, there have been several developments since last week’s column. The Highway Reroute Movement has requested early trial of a constitutional motion it filed four months ago on the controversial segment of the highway, and which the state has yet to submit a response to. Last Wednesday, a twelve point proposal calling for the establishment of an independent technical review committee headed by an independent Senator (and mandated to report within a period not exceeding three months) was presented to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Wayne Kublalsingh. According to the Trinidad Express, the proposal was signed by “the Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and Non-governmental Organisations, Women Working for Social Progress and the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute, and was endorsed by representatives of the Association of Professional Engineers, the Institute of Surveyors of Trinidad and Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago Contractors Association and the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Architects.” But it is not clear that the grandstanding is over. On Friday, Works Minister Emanuel George replied offering to meet today (leading some to express concern that the urgency of the matter was not being recognized); but over the weekend, at yet another UNC meeting, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar reportedly reiterated that “nothing will stop the highway and that the project “must” continue.”

As with last week, we share with you a column by Gabrielle Hosein that appeared in the Trinidad Guardian last Thursday. Hosein teaches at the University of the West Indies, where Kublalsingh is a part-time lecturer, and which last week held a Campus Community Gathering in recognition of his efforts to restore decency, trust, transparency and accountability to public life in Trinidad (and, we would argue, setting a wider example for the Caribbean).

What happens when you fill ordinary people’s heads with the idea of being good citizens is that they become hungry for responsible government.

What happens when you emphasise the importance of civics to children is that they become hungry for the kind of participation that is accountable to their voice, their views and their needs. What happens when citizens start to believe in putting country first is that they become hungry for transparency and accountability from our national institutions.

What happens when we erect statues to Gandhi and Cipriani in our most populous cities is that we become hungry for people of conscience to move amongst us, ordinary mortals drawn from our ranks but answering to a more transcendent sense of justice.

Dr Wayne Kublalsingh’s hunger strike shares the belly pain of those of us hungry for an end to illegitimate authority, the kind that tells us what to do but will not tell us why so that we can decide for ourselves.

His act of conscience draws on no moral authority beyond his own body or beyond his own belonging as Trini and Tobagonian to the bone. We are distrustful of this as a society and yet we know it so well. Office, patronage funds, legislation, fancy suits and big words have always exercised control, but they have never fully consumed our hearts, and our sense of what is fair, reasonable and right. We make peace with power but remain hungry, and quick to anger and rebellion, because the promises we believed continually leave us empty.

Writing this, my gut hurts because no citizen should have to starve just to show how hungry we all are for government that knows a way beyond division, corruption, secrecy and domination. No good citizen should have to risk death so that those of us alive today do not gorge on the sustenance of future generations: ecosystems; agriculture; community; family; local businesses and a non-violent state.

In the public debate, most don’t know that Wayne is fasting simply for the public release of the impact assessments, the hydrology reports, the cost-benefit analyses and the technical reviews of the highway section planned from Debe to Mon Desir. He is not fasting to stop the highway, he is hungry for information, for answers which should be out there but which he must beg for like crumbs, like a vagrant lying on the street outside an all-inclusive party. What is frightening is that he is not alone. His hunger for answers, his simple request to be given some room at the table, is heard every day in citizens’ grumblings.

As a new generation, my daughter Ziya’s generation, begins to realise that we are fast consuming all and leaving only our debris behind, they too will feel the pangs of hunger for some other way ahead that can only be found together, without insult and injury between each other.

Wayne, know that your hunger shows ours as stark, unnecessary and untenable. Prime Minister, know that our hunger has been centuries in the making, but that you can help us as we struggle to find a different way to survive and thrive.

People of this Republic, know that beyond all the polarising politics, is a citizen like us filled with love for his nation and nourishing our hunger with his care. Let us not feed this moment with division and hate when we are hungry for common ground and consensus across our communities.

To see a video of Wayne Kublalsingh explaining the reasons for his hunger strike, go to: