By Peter Balroop
Government is moving to hand over residential lots to ex-Caroni (1975) Ltd workers, the Senate was told on Friday.
About 7,000 of them were already b allotted two-acre plots of land for farming during the past few weeks.
The Senate was also told on Friday that a powerful food import lobby was intent on throttling all farming efforts in this country.
Senator Christine Sahadeo, Minister in the Ministry of Finance, gave the Senate a breakdown of the timelines for distribution of 7,235 residential lots.
She also said new farmers would get back-up in terms of vegetable crop selection and marketing help, as well as have access to a food- processing facility.
Government was bringing in Ministry of Agriculture farming experts to help the farmers, she added.
Sahadeo, however, was severely criticised by Senate Opposition leader Wade Mark, who described the PNM's "premeditated" treatment of Caroni workers as the amputating of their legs, giving them motorised wheelchairs, and then leaning back to bask in their gratitude.
Mark called on the Government to account for every plot of land that had been distributed, even before the Parliament had completed legislation for divestment of Caroni's 76,000 acres of land, and the use to which it would be put.
He also mocked the Government's agricultural policy, contending that the PNM was intent on fooling people because the reality was T&T was being held to ransom by "a very powerful food import lobby."
In her contribution to the debate on the report by the special select committee of the Senate that considered the Caroni (1975) Ltd Vesting Bill, Sahadeo said it was disconcerting to see the level of criticism that was being heaped on the Government for the retraining programme for the Caroni ex-workers.
She said she had been with the workers every step of the way, and they were happy with the new skills they had learnt, but it seemed certain elements in T&T society, including the Opposition UNC, were insisting that they (the ex-workers) remain bogged down in agriculture, when there were whole new worlds out there for them to conquer.
In terms of the agricultural land distribution, Sahadeo said the two-acre plots were capable of generating sustainable farming, and that the distribution of the plots was transparent.
Vowing that new farmers would be given help every step of the way, Sahadeo declared:
"We want to make Caroni workers' dreams come true."
A surplus in the monthly workers’ pension plan would soon be distributed, and Cabinet had agreed to rectify a $350-million deficiency in the daily-paid workers' pension plan.
Sahadeo said the Government was intent on honouring all of its commitments to the ex-Caroni workers, and she had pledged personally to ensure that this took place.
The same transparent process would be used for the residential lots distribution, as in the farming land, she said.
A total of 7,235 lots on 22 locations had been identified, but infrastructure had to be put in place before they were distributed.
The Government estimated that 1,100 lots would be distributed in 2005, 3,200 in 2006, and the remaining 2,400 in 2007.
Sahadeo said farmers would get 30-year leases, with the option to renew, with the codicil that the land would revert to the State if productive farming was not carried out.
"I'm comfortable and confident that everyone will benefit, and we will see a reduction in food prices," Sahadeo said.
In his contribution, Mark zeroed in on Gilbert Park as one area of Caroni lands that were distributed even before Parliament had completed its deliberations on the vesting of the state enterprise's 76,000 acres.
He asked Sahadeo to explain how the W Connection club was able to put up a steel structure there and who gave the organisation the authority to take over Gilbert Park in California.
Sahadeo said there was an informal arrangement between the State and the club, without leases or remuneration, in which the club would occupy and maintain the park so the public could continue to enjoy the facilities.
Sahadeo said before the shutdown of Caroni, 50-odd land lease deals had been entered into, and deposits accepted, so the Government had to honour them.
Since the shutdown, however, no new deals had been made, she declared.
Mark called for a listing of all of the land transactions the State had entered into since the UNC demitted office in December, 2001, with respect to Caroni lands.
Until that was produced, he said, he would say no more on the subject.
Mark said he heard Sahadeo talking "glibly and loosely" about setting up an agro-processing plant for the Caroni farmers.
He said that was "like a pipe dream, whistling in the dark" since in his view the Government had absolutely no plans in place for T&T’s agricultural future.
Prime Minister Manning might produce some plans in the 2006 Budget presentation, said Mark, but no PNM 2020 Vision document had so far documented a comprehensive agricultural plan for the country.
"The reality is there is a very powerful food import lobby in this society," said Mark, who explained that this lobby’s philosophy was that, in these times of globalisation and trade liberalisation, it was cheaper to import than to grow food.
Warning that in the last three years, 700 million new consumers from India and China had come on the world market, Mark said there was a supply and demand crisis brewing, and that it was incumbent on all countries to take their food security seriously.
T&T imported more than $3 billion worth of food and food products annually, and the bill was rising, Mark declared. He said to speak of an agro-processing facility being set up was "almost laughable," since the PNM had done nothing in the last four years to address food production.
The PNM had "slaughtered" food production when it took the premeditated decision to close down Caroni.
Mark said the UNC had recognised Caroni needed restructuring, but not in the way the PNM did it.
This was like blowing off the legs of the workers, providing them with motorised wheelchairs, then asking them for their gratitude.
"That is what this regime did to Caroni workers and their families." ,
Mark said he believed there was a loophole in the legislation which would allow Cabinet the ability to increase the proportion of Caroni's 76,000 acres for commercial and industrial development to some 42 per cent, when the UNC was adamant that 90 per cent of the land must be devoted to agriculture.
He said he supported the minority report of the special select committee submitted by the UNC members, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan and Jennifer Jones-Kernahan, which is diametrically opposed to the majority report of the committee chaired by Senator Joan Yuille-Williams.
After a heated debate on Friday, however, the report was passed by the Senate, with little—if any—of the reservations expressed by the Independent and Opposition benches being taken into consideration.