We are living like the blind


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Category: Reflections 09 Feb 14

In the drive from Piarco airport, straight into the pall of smoke hanging over the city, I felt my heart sink. There was news of murder—almost 50 in the first month of 2014; of oil spills; and now, of pollution that kept children from school.  So this is what it was like— truth wept like a wound, like the sutured boil, seeping out like poison, in slicks of oil hanging in the bruised clouds like an ugly reality—outward manifestation of inner rot that we’ve been writing about and writing about and writing about.

I’ve seen enough slums juxtaposed with obscene wealth—diamonds with slush across India—to last a lifetime. In this latest trip to India, in my eagerness to capture the development—the seven-lane highways that make you think of LA, the new metros, the marblefloored malls, the palace hotels, the exquisite architecture—I’ve averted my eyes from the fact that one third of the world’s poor live here still: 400 million (the 2010 World Bank figure) living in the shadows of cities: Delhi, Hyderabad, Bombay, Bangalore, Bhopal, living below the poverty line of US$1.25 a day, in slums.

I’ve turned away from them, preferring to look at the middle class in the world. But at least the Indians are looking.  I was shocked at my own mixed response on my arrival back here in Trinidad. Yes, the skies were bruised, but they had a weeping beauty...this country, my adopted home, with its unrivalled complexity that hooks people. The streets looked clean, the mountains freshly washed, the strains of steelpan, a kind of ethereal magic.

We have all collectively averted our eyes. It’s been easy, with our endless feasting. But while the shadowy slums are being addressed with poverty rates predicted to fall drastically across India, like a nation in post-traumatic stress disorder, we are living like the blind—unable to look any more.

The red lights were flashing hard for a long time.  In this space in February 2010 I reported on it. For the past three years I have been editing a Guardian Media Environmental series and saw week after week that the beverage bill promised when the People’s Partnership came into power wasn’t going to happen. The larger business interests would take over.

We tried everything. I went into the Beetham dump on a rainy day and walked around with a cameraman with rats around us.  I came out of there and after speaking to dozens of environmentalists, wrote: “T&T is among the most polluted small-island states in the world. We dump more than 50 million plastic bottles in our dumps and one million glass bottles every month. Plastic, when exposed to heat, creates among the deadliest toxins known to man. This is what we are breathing every day. When these bottles are exposed to heat, they produce among the most toxic substances that exist. Doctors suspect it is related to rising rates of cancer.  “We do not recycle e-waste—computers when damaged or dismantled produce hazardous toxins.

A tiny island state like Barbados recycles over 70 per cent of its waste, while we recycle next to nothing.  “Two of our dumps are overflowing and need to be shut down as they are polluting our water table and contributing to serious illnesses.”  The smoke was a long time coming. It happened when we were not looking. Instead of dealing with the Beverage Containers Bill, with recycling, with toxic waste, police shot a scavenger (who is more civilised than the rest of us because he recycles) in the leg, triggering protest and fires in the dump (not a landfill), bringing forth this vague platitude from Minister Bhoe Tewarie as if from a parent to an uncomprehending child: “There are ways of dealing with garbage that would also take into account those who are now making a livelihood or eking out a living from it. We could manage this in a more civilised way.”

Yes: like finally dealing with the Beverage Containers Bill. Like not being afraid of big business interests.  In this space, too, I wrote of the lack of enforcement and the opacity with which oil and gas companies in Point Lisas were “allowed” to operate by the Environmental Management Authority.  I suspect the companies were doing the dictating. Big money talks like nothing else.  We reported on claims that street people living around the state were getting cancer, that fish around the waters where toxic waste is regularly dumped were deformed.

It happened again when we were not looking.  So there was an oil spill, not one but 11 between December 17 and 19, polluting miles of beaches along Trinidad’s south-western peninsula.  Jamaludin Khan, vice president of exploration and production for Petrotrin, was, amazingly, also platitudinous; he spoke like one would about a blind faith in a God about whom one is unsure: “Hopefully this will never happen in our industry again. In our industry one spill is one too many.”

There was supposed to be a payout to “fisherfolk” and area residents of about $5 million: a drop in the bucket compared to the money we know is at stake.  Monitoring Point Lisas would cost far more in the short term, too. A few choice people and corporations would lose too much. We have no faith that it will be monitored. There will be more spills. You read it here.  The cloud hung over us like a battered reminder that this time we have to look.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur