Disrupt the status quo …

On an early morning run or walk through Port of Spain, you are greeted by homelessness, filth and a strong smell of human faeces. That’s not very different from some other developing countries, but after 60 years of dominance by one political party, our capital city is still in this sorry state.

Photo: Downtown Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Where is the public transportation system to easily get to any destination? Where are the clearly identified public facilities if you need a restroom? Where is the information kiosk to tell the wandering tourist about his or her options? These things just do not exist. Unfortunately, we can easily replace ‘Port of Spain’ with ‘San Fernando’, ‘Arima’, ‘Sangre Grande’, etc, and the questions will attract exactly the same response.

The issues of city transportation, the availability of public restrooms and information kiosks are local government issues, which are absent from the current discussion in the lead-up to the local government elections 2019 (LGE 2019). Maybe the current tone of LGE 2019 is because the parties understand that the results can be an indication of the likely results of the 2020 general election.

It is evident that our boroughs, towns and cities are slowly decaying, regardless of the dominance of reds/yellows/whatever. What is needed is a transformation of the mind to provide some hope to the millennials and, indeed, to the 60/70 per cent of the eligible voters who choose to stay away from voting in the local government elections.

Imagine if we were able to break the dominance of our regional corporations and provide opportunities for minority voices to be heard. It would start a trend of changing the way we do business and redound to the benefit of our towns and cities. Different voices in the chambers would ensure an improvement in the level of accountability.

It would demonstrate to us citizens that, in collaboration, we better serve the greater good and allow for a greater level of transparency. As a country, we continue to attract a failing grade in accountability, collaboration and transparency (ACT).

LGE 2019 provides an opportunity for Trinidad to remove the stranglehold that the reds and yellows have had on our country for the past 60 years. Most of us have had the experience of living in a space for so long that we no longer see the cracks in the paint. Similarly, the reds and the yellows have occupied the space of leadership for so long that they no longer see their own inefficiencies. LGE 2019 provides an opportunity for disruption.

December 2 reflects our moment of freedom; we must use it wisely to send a message of inclusion.

Vasant Vindicated (2005)

The Trinidad Guardian ran this story by Yvonne Teelucksingh on Sunday 1st May 2005 under the headline “Vasant vindicated”. At that time Colm Imbert was The Minister of Works and Transport under a PNM administration.

In February 1998, 41-year-old Vasant Bharath was fired as CEO of National Flour Mills. Among the allegations made by the company was that he had taken a unilateral decision to import rice from India at what he claimed were preferential rates, and this had caused the company to suffer losses of some TT$30 million.
Even worse was that the rice that had been purchased was “dog rice,” and unfit for human consumption.
In what Trevor Roberts, former branch president for NFM of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers’ Trade Union described, at the time, as a dismissal that had been “well put together, well orchestrated,” Bharath was vilified and hounded in the national press, his name besmirched, a promising career aborted, his family embarrassed and humiliated in what to this day is referred to as the “dog rice scandal.”
In the end, Bharath was forced to sell his home and his possessions, uproot his family and seek employment in England where, in the ensuing years, he held several high-profile positions, including European general manager and head of foreign exchange operations with Thomas Cook PLC and head of global marketing with Gulf Oil.
Throughout it all—and this Roberts considers to be his greatest mistake—Bharath said nothing.
But Bharath’s silence had been enforced by not only his line minister but also others in authority at that time.
The scandal over NFM’s supposed loss of TT$30 million under Bharath’s watch continues to be the topic of gossip, innuendo and open hatefulness.
The issue of “dog rice” from India, which he is purported to have authorised, has been immortalised in calypso, virulent talk shows and on political platforms.
Vasant Bharath is now back in Trinidad as the CEO of Nutrimix Flour Mills, a direct competitor of NFM whose shares in the years since his dismissal have fallen from a bullish $4.50 to a bearish $2.85 at a time when the Stock Market has more than quadrupled in value.
So, what has changed since 1998 that enabled Bharath to return home?
The short answer is that Claim No1999 Folio No 61 made at the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, Commercial Court, Royal Courts of Justice, London, by National Flour Mills against Huntsville Navigation Co Ltd completely absolves Bharath of any wrongdoing in the matter for which he was terminated by the claimants.
According to the claim, served in 1999, NFM had, “by a contract contained in or evidenced by an agreement dated 15 April 1997, purchased from G Gangadas Shah & Sons of India about 12,000 metric tonnes of Indian semi-milled, parboiled rice (non-basmati) in bulk for US$395 per mt C& F Port-of-Spain, free out.”
The first shipment was to consist of about 6,000 metric tonnes.
One of the allegations made against Bharath was that there was no contract.
NFM further claimed that the purchased rice was shipped on the vessel Ruby Islands for carriage to and delivery at Port-of-Spain, West Indies, “in the same good order and condition as had prevailed upon shipment.”
This description of the cargo is repeated in six different instances in the particulars of claim, variously as “in good order and condition”; “good order and condition as had prevailed upon shipment,” “apparent good order and condition…”
NFM’s claim against Huntsville Navigation Co Ltd was that the rice which was shipped “in good order and condition” had deteriorated, the cause being “the negligence of the defendants, their servants or agents,” and the failure of the vessel “to proceed from Kandla to Port-of-Spain with all reasonable despatch…by a usual and reasonable route and had delayed and deviated.”
“Huntsville Navigation Co Ltd are the owners of the vessel, Ruby Islands, which left the port of Kandla, India, “between about 22 and 29 July 1997,” carrying a shipment “in good order and condition 6,350 mt of Indian semi-milled parboiled rice (non-basmati) in bulk…for carriage to and delivery at Port-of-Spain, West Indies.”
No mention was made in the claim of the 35-day delay— after Bharath’s removal from handling the matter—in offloading the rice when the vessel arrived at Port-of-Spain.
The claim by NFM against Huntsville Navigation was settled out of court for an amount that was much less than the TT$30 million loss which, in 1998, NFM claimed to have suffered as a direct result of Bharath’s alleged wrongdoing.
Which begs the question—why was the claim made for less than the amount of the loss?
In fact, NFM employees confirmed that “some of the rice was sold on the open market, and the rest was sold to Colombia for $7 million.”
The processed rice, which could not be sold to consumers, was down-graded to feed grade.
Additionally, it was confirmed by the then Prime Minister that all transactions of this nature “are well-insured.”
Moreover, members of the SWWTU who are employed at NFM confirmed that even after the inordinate delay of 35 days before the relevant bill of lading was released by NFM’s new attorney, “there was a big pelau cook-up at NFM using the ‘dog rice’.”
There was no report of anyone who ate the dog rice pelau having suffered any discomfort.
On balance then, it would appear that NFM did not suffer a TT$30 million loss under Bharath’s watch, and that the rice purchased and shipped from India was “in good order and condition.”
In his statement submitted at the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, London, Colin Mahabir, who in 1997, was general manager, marketing at NFM, stated that although it “was not part of my normal function to get involved in contractual negotiations with suppliers,” he was, in early 1997, requested to travel with Bharath to India “to investigate whether we could find cheaper sources of rice than the sources in the United States which we traditionally used” and that he “had been recommended for this role by the chairman of the company at the time, Mr Robert Clarke.”
As a member of NFM’s grain purchasing committee, Mahabir was “involved in decisions about when we should buy and at what price.”
Also, it was “in 1997, and still is, normal practice at NFM that when a new shipment of rice comes from overseas, I am sent samples of the milled product for evaluation in terms of its appearance and smell… and these are subjective matters in which I am very experienced, knowing as I do the market which we serve.”
After stringent checks and balances which included inspection of the mill, water quality reports and verification of proper sampling and quality control procedures at G Gangadas Shah & Sons, Mahabir reported to the tenders committee at NFM along with Bharath, and “the committee decided to place an order with GGS in view of the price and their ability to supply a consistently good quality—a yield of 92 per cent when NFM’s standard yield was 86 per cent.”
Mahabir said he returned to India when the rice was shipped and brought back samples of what had been laded.
He confirmed that there was no sign of infestation.
“I did not see any black kernels. The rice looked to be in very good condition. It was definitely semi-milled parboiled rice,” Mahabir said.
He said he took photographs of the product being loaded and also brought back samples to NFM for testing.
Mahabir said the main problem with the rice which was eventually offloaded from the Ruby Islands was its appearance.
“It had been heat-damaged. Heat causes rice to be discoloured,” he said.
In fact, three separate analyses of the rice, including one done by Cariri and another by the Food and Drug Administration confirmed that the discolouration of the rice had not affected its quality.
In assessing their claim against the shippers, NFM sought expert and technical advice from expert rice broker M Jean-Paul Schepens, then chairman of the London Rice Brokers’ Association and Mr J A Conway, MSc, CBIOL, MIBIOL, who was then principal technical adviser at the food security department of the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich, Chatham, UK, who has had “some 35 years of experience of post-harvest technology in the handling and storage of durable agricultural commodities both in temperate and tropical countries.”
Both determined that the protracted duration of the voyage was the primary cause of the deterioration.
Bharath’s dismissal was based on 13 allegations.
One allegation was that “no formal contract was entered into between parties” and that the order for rice from India had not been sanctioned by the then acting chairman of NFM and chairman of the Tenders Committee.
Yet, the letter of credit established by Citibank T&T Ltd on April 16, 1997 bears the acting chairman’s signature, as do subsequent amendments.
This letter of credit and its amendments formed the basis of the contract and clearly set out the relevant terms and conditions.
Contacted for a comment, union representatives at NFM said they were not surprised that NFM’s court claim against the shippers had exonerated Bharath.
They said that as far back as 1998, they had taken the evidence that would have cleared Bharath’s name to the Prime Minister and nothing was ever done.
“But”, says their spokesman, “I am happy that my friend can come back here and get the respect he deserves. I am happy to see him vindicated.”
After a seven-year exile in London, Vasant Bharath is glad to be back home.
“Trinidad is my home and it is always nice to be home among your friends and family,” he said last week.
Bharath packed up and left T&T after he was fired as CEO by National Flour Mills in 1998 amidst allegations that he had acted unilaterally in deciding to import some $30 million worth of rice from India.
He is now back as CEO of Nutrimix Flour Mills, NFM’s competitor on the local market.
Asked whether he was aware that NFM knew that its allegations against him were baseless, Bharath said, “I had copies of several documents that clearly showed that there was no wrongdoing on my part at NFM which were never disclosed by the company.”
He said he never made the documents public then because he was advised by his line minister that “I was not to respond to any of these frivolous allegations.”
“Of course, during this time of silence, the country was left to come to its own conclusions,” Bharath said.
“And six months later, when I did disclose the said information in a wide-ranging television interview, the public’s mind had already been made up.”
Commenting on information that completely exonerates him from any wrongdoing in the $30 million rice deal, Bharath said he was tremendously relieved, “not just for myself but for my family and friends who’ve suppported me throughout this matter and who on many occasions, have been the subject of ridicule as a result of their support.”
He said he was initially bitter and angry at what he saw was a well-orchestrated plot to remove him.
“Time is a great healer, and with maturity, I’ve come to realise there have been far greater wrongs perpetrated in the world,” Bharath said.
“As a good friend of mine always says, ‘God wears pyjamas but He never goes to sleep.’”

Mr. Mayor – praise in public, criticize in private …

When a mayor resorts to angrily scolding a roomful of more than 80 adults (all of whom can vote), it tells me that he has forgotten the road travelled to the office he holds. It tells me that he should not be the mayor of anything; he should really return to the ‘block’ from whence he came.

Photo: San Fernando Mayor Junia Regrello (via newsday.co.tt)

There is a long-standing human relations principle, which is also practised in bringing up children: praise in public, criticize in private. San Fernando Mayor Junia Regrello’s recent outburst indicates the extent to which the party he represents disregards the people they should be serving and feel empowered to not think twice about verbally abusing us.

There was a time when the standard practice was that the organisers and the mayor’s office would have met and worked out the details prior to the function, therefore ensuring seamless execution. If the master of ceremonies made a faux pas, a quiet word would have been sufficient. If there was chatter from the audience while the mayor was speaking, a simple pause could have been enough to quiet the audience. But maybe the mayor was so boring that the crowd was totally disengaged. Maybe he lacks credibility to such an extent that the audience felt no compulsion to even listen to what he had to say.

Such verbal expression of anger is aggressive, violent, abusive and lacks the grace and dignity we expect from the holders of high office. I am not surprised because Mayor Regrello represents a party that perpetuates such hatred toward the population that the leader had no difficulty likening women to golf courses that needed to be groomed; the minister of finance had no difficulty jeering at the population when he boasted that there was no riot despite frequent increases in the price of gasoline; the attorney general suggested that a victim of sexual harassment said: “ah want money.” I can go on ad nauseam with the examples of abuse being perpetrated upon the very people who continue to vote them into office.

The mayor should have heeded his own advice that ‘the children are looking on’ and found the grace and dignity to de-escalate the situation so that what happened would have been publicly unnoticed, but privately dealt with. Instead, he chose to mar the celebration of the accreditation of a laboratory.

I long for the day when officials exercise their duties so that we all feel inspired and hold our heads proudly because they are representing us well. For now, many of us sit and cringe as mediocrity, bacchanal and disquiet prevail at all levels of our society. I keep asking, when did we get to this level of incompetence? But I live in hope that a new normal will be established based on mutual respect, grace and dignity.

Atone for your intemperance with sexual harassment legislation, Mr PM

Twenty-six years ago, Radhica Saith published a book titled Why Not a Woman? It paid tribute to more than 100 women in Trinidad who had been making a difference in various spheres of life.

One of the women featured at the time was former government minister and mother of our current AG, Faris Al Rawi. For most of her public life, former Minister Diane Seukeran has been at the forefront of the women’s movement. She has stood solidly in defence of women’s rights, and it is unfortunate that her son is now a leader in an administration that is being accused of covering up sexual harassment.

Almost three decades later, the government has relegated sexual harassment to the status of a policy initiative and not a ‘peep’ from the women’s movement. Why are we complicit in this injustice? Our daughters and granddaughters will not forgive us. Were it not for the man Kirk Waithe, Rolph Balgobin may still be at Angostura and the current investigation into the Darryl Smith affair may have had a more muted response, with the minister of labour happily shunting off complainants to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Well, this is not good enough.

Photo: Former Minister of Sport Darryl Smith and PM Dr Keith Rowley at Brian Lara Stadium opening in 2017. (via trinidadexpress.com)

Nothing less than sexual harassment legislation will provide the women of this country with the systems and structures that are required for their safety in the workplace. I hasten to add that sexual harassment is not a gender issue but, for the moment, the women are falling short in their advocacy for this issue. Where are we? Why are we quiet on this issue? My late mother would have asked: “Cat got yuh tongue?”

Where are the more than 100 organizations who march every year for women’s rights? What is their view about sexual harassment legislation? The landscape is overflowing with commentary about Daryl Smith and who attempted to cover up what, while the substantive issue is being ignored. This sordid issue will play out as it will in the public domain, but what will happen to the persons who continue to be victims? Without legislation, this issue will recur again and again.

The only solution is the implementation of sexual harassment legislation. Governments past and present have demonstrated that whenever they wish to fast track any legislation, they can. Sexual harassment legislation in this country requires urgent and immediate attention, and women must step forward and make our voices heard. If the current prime minister wishes to recover from his analogy of women being like golf courses and, therefore, needed daily grooming, here’s an opportunity for him to get into emergency mode and pilot sexual harassment legislation in parliament. Only a foolish opposition would not support such legislation.

My optimistic interpretation of the resounding silence by women is that this is the calm before the storm. My optimistic view is that the women’s movement is at a breaking point and that this injustice will not continue. Women will rise and demand that the prime minister atones for his intemperance by making sexual harassment legislation part of the successes of the 11th Parliament of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.