Informal Settlements, Human Rights and Politics
At the last meeting of the House of Assembly, during Question Time, a matter was raised by a member of the Opposition pertaining to the provision of electricity to residents of the squatter community bordering the compound of the former ET Joshua airport.
In response, the Minister with responsibility for Informal Human Settlements informed that the provision of such a service is not planned since government plans to relocate the residents and hence it is “impractical to give electricity to this settlement at the time”. He further said that “when these families are relocated, they will have the benefit of all the necessary amenities”.
While the matter in question relates to a specific settlement, it has in fact raised a number of broader social issues which have implications for the entire society. Firstly, it again highlights the continued rapid growth of such informal settlements in our society. A young population like ours requires the provision of basic services, of which housing and ancillary necessities like water, electricity, and garbage disposal are indispensable. These are critical for families of limited economic means. It has driven the process of squatting over the years with communities springing up and increasing in size.
Naturally, for those with no access to land, state-owned land is a prime target since the owners of private property do not have to take political considerations in mind in defending their right to private property. However, in the case of state lands, politicians have historically placed narrow political and electoral interests above national ones or longer-term implications for the society.
Squatters have either been encouraged to do so, or at least conveniently ignored. In the process, we have ended up with unregulated settlements, the basic human needs of which must be met. The result is an accumulation of all kinds of social, environmental and health challenges with political consequences. For some reason, best known to our politicians, little attempt has been made over the years to nip these problems in their early stages. They are allowed to become festering political sores which no one wants to address.
The long-standing political divide in our country, which has worsened considerably over the past quarter of a century, means that if one side wants to tackle the problem, the other is going to come out in defence of “poor people”. There seems to be always one eye or both eyes rather, on the ballot.
Our reality is that it has now gone far beyond the pale. In addition to the problems raised earlier, there is also the security aspect, since some of these informal settlements have become virtual breeding grounds for criminal elements. In addition, capital Kingstown is itself now inundated with informal and unregulated numbers of persons hustling for a living.
What do we do? A Ministry of Informal Human Settlements has been established, but is there the political will to act decisively, yet humanely, bearing the longer-term interests of both the society itself, and those affected in particular?
It is unfortunate that the residents of Poleyard should be caught in such a situation. They and their children have as much a right to basic facilities such as water and electricity as any other person. But a lasting, sustainable solution is needed, one which addresses the whole range of issues and steers clear of politicking.