AGRICULTURE Minister Clarence Rambharat really put his foot in it last week. In a speech he probably thought entirely innocuous and even didactic, the minister exploded a channa bomb by blaspheming against one of this country's most revered institutions. You could bad talk meh religion, you could bad talk meh drapes, but if you bad talk meh doubles bottle will pelt.
Rambharat got into hot oil when he spoke at a function to promote local food production. "Do we need doubles to be the national dish of this country?" It was at that point people in the crowd probably started squirming in their seats and the fire marshals started checking exits for safe egress in the event of a riotous stampede.
He continued, "...to see people dressed for work in all their fineries, 5 am and 6 am standing up by a doubles man and then coming back lunchtime by a next doubles man." It only got worse from there: "...doubles is almost totally imported content. Why should we be aiming for that? And why have we made that the national snack and the national food?" That was it – cue the dancing Ghanaian pallbearers.
Now many people are mistaking reactions among members of the public as some primitive, emotional response. There are, though, fundamental flaws in what the minister said that extend well beyond our love of bara.
Noticing this grease fire he ignited, Rambharat doubled back and doubled down, explaining his words were taken out of context. Rambharat made several missteps in his presentation. A cardinal rule of communications says you should never make a statement that can't stand independently of a general theme or withstand scrutiny on its own.
Minister Rambharat's over-seasoned his speech by incorrectly pairing concerns about the high food import bill with remonstrations about unhealthy eating habits. It's a pity, because there were valid points about the health implications of our fast food culture. Trinidadians could definitely benefit from making better choices about what we put into your mouths. Still, Rambharat's remarks are a case study in political detachment and arrogance.
The historical significance of doubles and its storied evolution as fuel for the working class who built this country is well documented. As is the case with popular street foods everywhere, doubles was born of scarcity and thrift among low-paid labourers. It evolved into something beloved by people of all classes and backgrounds – a shimmering thread in the fabric of our national identity. Its popularity endures because it is delicious (mostly) and is still the cheapest food there is. Let's be real – no one touches down at the airport and declares, "Take me to your nearest dasheen stall!"
Rambharat failed to see the irony in chiding people for eating imported food when different incarnations of his ministry have done little to change the status quo. Handing out leases and seedlings doesn't constitute an agricultural policy. It's easier to demonise our food culture than do the tough work of creating a robust food production sector. Pretending that his remarks were only spoken in the interest of our health is disingenuous at best.
By the way, doubles is a value-added product. The bara and channa are nothing without the smorgasbord of condiments that make the street food what it is. Imported ingredients are merely a small part in a vast ecosystem that supports pepper, chadon beni, coconut, mango, cucumber cultivation and processing.
Additionally, the minister made a fleeting reference to fast food without the equivalent evisceration of multitudinous franchises. This is likely because he knows where the Government's biscuit is buttered. Yet these franchises directly import many inputs and must remit franchise fees in US dollars. They spend US currency coming and going, but fail to attract the same scrutiny and derision as the doubles industry and us enablers in our "fineries."
The Minister of Agriculture also seems unaware of factors driving the rise of fast food consumption, many of which are also well known – oil and gas revenues (formerly), demanding work schedules, adoption of foreign culture, etc.
In his sixth year as Minister of Agriculture, the country would be better served by a progress report on how the ministry has transformed the sector to boost food production and support farmers. That would be preferable to hearing a politician hectoring us about forex consumption.
Is eating doubles every day healthy? Of course not! But, like the man said, everything in moderation...everything except intelligent thought and creative ingenuity – the only ingredients which are in desperately short supply and for which, it seems, there is little demand.