In the blink of an eye, 15 families were left homeless by the fire at Sea Lots on Tuesday. It took just minutes to dismantle what residents took for granted for 25 years: home. It could have been far worse.
The nature of the unregulated construction at Sea Lots was quite literally a tinder box. Despite a relatively high population density, the squatting district has not attracted a commensurate degree of scrutiny from planning agencies or public utility entities.
The State’s dilemma: how to deal with human beings who, as squatters, have accrued rights of adverse possession, even at their own peril? The dilemma has crippled effective service delivery.
Sea Lots is not the ideal location for a residential district. It is surrounded by swamp, traffic and sea waters in which shipping waste is regularly dumped. The structures that have been erected may withstand daily wear and tear, but are unlikely to perform well in a serious storm. And, as events last Tuesday proved flagrantly, they are highly flammable.
The time has come for the State to acknowledge that allowing families to live in such a space poses more peril in the long-run than removal. Can the State devise a way to regulate Sea Lots for safety reasons or to relocate residents to areas where they would be better served?
The sad thing is that Sea Lots is emblematic of a larger problem in Trinidad and Tobago. That problem is the failure of the State to devise a workable method to deal with unauthorised settlements. Whenever these settlements pop up, politicians fear removal will be seen as harsh and oppressive, even if removal is in the interest of the community affected.
A good example is the Bangladesh settlement at Farm Road, St Joseph, which houses about 1,200 people. Long-standing plans to value assets and relocate residents have not been implemented. Programmes such as the axed Land for the Landless programme did not get to the meat of the issue. Issuing certificates of comfort to assure current occupants that they will have some degree of security may well serve both political and humanitarian goals, but it does little to make the communities in which those occupants reside safer or fit for purpose.
In contrast, the Aided Self Help Housing Programme announced by Housing Minister Randall Mitchell during the budget debate in October strikes a better balance. The details of this programme suggest there will be a consideration of not only the land, but also what is put on it. Successful applicants will be guided in the selection of housing designs, pre-approved plans, and technical assistance in obtaining regulatory approvals.
It is not only fire and storm damage that pose threats to unregulated settlements. All sorts of other dangers are left unaddressed, from readiness for earthquakes to flooding and public health issues.
The initial response to the Sea Lots fire also tells a tale about the inability of the State to be responsive to the immediate plight of fire victims.
The State should conduct an appraisal of unregulated settlements with the aim of either bringing them in line with better standards or compassionate relocation. While the State cannot afford to house every family that decides to squat, there are vulnerable members of our society who need help.
Perhaps the deeper issue is the deep inequality that exists in our society, inequality that sees families living in tinder boxes not far from big houses on hillsides with spectacular views. This is a difficult problem, but turning a blind eye is not the solution.