3-way battle for Debe South, residents hope for better service

Debe South residents protest outside the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation on January 19. - Marvin Hamilton
Debe South residents protest outside the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation on January 19. - Marvin Hamilton

RESIDENTS of Debe South see the February 7 by-election in their district as an opportunity to finally get some representation at the local government level. They also see the by-election as an opportunity to highlight many challenges which they face and hope that whoever is elected councillor early next month, will meaningfully address those challenges and maybe even find solutions to them.

The Prime Minister advised President Paula-Mae Weekes of the February 7 by-election date in a statement issued by his office (OPM) on January 3. The seat became vacant after the death of UNC councillor Purushottam Singh on February 14, 2021. The district falls under the jurisdiction of the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation (PDRC). There are 12 polling stations in the district.

Nomination Day was January 17. Dr Rowley asked for the election writ for the by-election to be issued in accordance with Section 29 of the Municipal Corporations Act.

The PDRC is one of seven local government corporations in Trinidad which is controlled by the Opposition UNC. In the 2019 local government elections, the PNM and UNC each won seven of the 14 local government corporations in Trinidad. In addition to the PDRC, the UNC also holds the Chaguanas borough, Siparia, Princes Town, Sangre Grande, Mayaro/Rio Claro and Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo regional corporations. The PNM controls the cities of Port of Spain and San Fernando; Arima and Point Fortin boroughs; and San/Juan Laventille and Diego Martin regional corporations.

The PDRC has ten electoral districts, which includes Debe South. In the December 2019 local government elections, the UNC won all ten districts in the PDRC. The party also has four aldermen at the corporation. In those elections, Singh convincingly defeated PNM candidate Jagessar Deodath by 2,859 to 103 votes.

Cuchawan Trace residents Gunness Ramdeen, centre, and Inshan Dupray, left, during an interview with Newsday's Clint Chan Tack. - Marvin Hamilton

On this occasion, it is a three-way race between the UNC, PNM and Progressive Empowerment Party (PEP) to win Debe South. On January 17, the UNC's Khemrah Sunil Seecharan, the PNM's Judy Sookdeo and the PEP's Lorenzo Sammy filed their nomination papers at the Elections and Boundaries Commission returning office at the Shoppes of Debe compound in Debe.

Sitting on an old wooden swing of a neighbour's house in Cuchawan Trace where he's lived all his life, 67-year-old Inshan Dupray feels relieved that the by-election is finally happening.

"We expect to have proper representation (after the by-election.)"

Dupray lamented that Singh was unable to do much for burgesses in his short tenure.

"We are crying out for help because we had a heavy rainy season where there will be mosquitoes throughout the country."

Dupray said this problem will be particularly severe within Debe South because of the vacancy left after Singh's death.

"We did not have a councillor. We did not have a voice."

While other UNC councillors at the PDRC did what they could have done to assist the burgesses of Debe South, Dupray lamented there was only so much they could do. He was upset that it took the Government almost a year to call this by-election.

Were it not for protests by burgesses, UNC councillors and even Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Dupray believes, no by-election would be taking place next month. With Debe South and the other nine electoral districts under the PDRC all being traditional UNC strongholds, he believes the level of representation provided by the UNC has satisfied the majority of the people of Debe South. Recalling the tenure of Singh and his predecessor UNC councillors, Dupray said, "We had good representation."

Gunness Ramdeen, left, and Inshan Dupray said some residents of Cuchawan Trace, Debe are in need of social assistance. - Marvin Hamilton

But he added that as an opposition-controlled corporation, the PDRC often found itself challenged in terms of sourcing funds from the Rural Development and Local Government Ministry to provide goods and services to Debe South and other districts under its purview.

Dupray said infrastructure is one of the main problems facing the people of Debe South.

"You may recall between 2010 and 2015, you could have driven throughout TT. You could have closed your eyes and drove because 99 per cent of the roads were smooth."

He added this was so in Debe South at that time.

"Today what do we have? Today we have more potholes than roads." Dupray on some roads in Debe South, the pitch is hardly distinguishable because it is covered by mud. "You don't know which pothole to go in. He said burgesses have been appealing to the PDRC for the longest time to fix the roads in Debe South.

"Drainage is another problem." While he and his neighbours do not suffer flooding experienced in other parts of Debe South during periods of heavy rain, Dupray said they encounter flooding when they try to access other parts of Debe South during the rainy season.

"Right to the back of my house caved in."

Dupray attributed this to a drain behind his house which was being built in 2015 but stopped in 2016. The drain was full of stagnant water and overgrown with bushes and swarms of mosquitoes were visible at several points along the unfinished drain.

"Of late, we are having a challenge to get pipe-borne water."

Dupray turned the tap on a nearby standpipe and only a few drops of water came out.

Employment is another challenge in Debe South. Dupray said many people in the district sell doubles for a living and many of them cannot afford to pay their mortgage.

"Younger guys looking for any little thing."

A young man recently asked him for a $20 fee to climb and clean his coconut tree.

"I said, 'No, boy, I'm not doing anything right now."

Dupray said this shows the level of poverty in Debe South, which falls within the Oropouche East constituency, which is represented in Parliament by Dr Roodal Moonilal.

Inshan Dupray, a resident of Cuchawan Trace, Debe, says drainage is a major problem which needs to be resolved by local government authorities. - Marvin Hamilton

"Our MP comes out and assists people with hampers. If it were not for him, I do not know what would have happened (to poor people in Debe South)."

Dupray said the covid19 pandemic has affected the ability of people in Debe South to find sustainable employment. But he added, "Prior to that the jobs were also scarce."

Recalling that in better times the same young man who offered to clean his coconut tree for $20 would have done it for $50, Dupray said he and other people can't afford to hire people to clean the roofs of their houses.

In terms of jobs done by people in Debe South, Dupray listed agriculture and food service as the main ones. Some people build furniture and offer small repair services as well.

"All of that has fallen off."

He was confident that Seecharan would retain Debe South for the UNC. Dupray described Seecharan as an intelligent young man from the community who listens to the people.

"He is always trying to help people if he can. We have a good idea what to expect (from Seecharan as a councillor).

Asked whether he believed the fact that Debe South as a UNC stronghold meant the UNC was guaranteed to win it, Dupray said, "In Trinidad, you could predict an election before it is called."

He attributed this to the fact that these elections are predominantly a fight between two parties – the PNM and UNC.

He had dim predictions for Sookdeo and Sammy's fortunes.

"I don't think the other parties have a chance. We don't know the other candidates (Sookdeo and Sammy)."

Dupray opined that had either Sookdeo or Sammy come on the ground in Debe South before the by-election was called, maybe burgesses could get an understanding of what they were offering.

He did not know who Sookdeo and Sammy are on a personal level, if they were residents of Debe South or what their professional reputations were. In contrast, Dupray said Seecharan is well known in Debe South and has been on the ground in the community for a long time.

Focusing on Sookdeo, Dupray was glad the PNM called the by-election.

"I am sure they have some money to spend behind their candidate."

His reasoning was Sookdeo is an unknown in Debe South and the PNM would have to spend money to promote her candidacy.

"We hope that source (of funding) benefits the people who are really in need of it."

He reiterated that if Sookdeo and Sammy sell themselves to the community, they could get some votes, but added it would not be enough to defeat Seecharan.

"They need to come and put their case forward."

Another Cuchawan Trace resident, Gunness Ramdeen, was concerned about youth development. Ramdeen, 49, has also lived in Debe South all his life. He also welcomed the chance for the district to finally have an elected councillor again.

"We should get some relief."

Ramdeen said Debe South has been a longstanding sporting community, cricket, football, cards and billiards being the main types of recreation enjoyed by residents.

"For the youths, the sports development will be a little more in our area."

Ramdeen lamented a lot of sporting activities in Debe South are not taking place right now. He attributed this to a combination of covid19 restrictions and challenges faced by the PDRC to maintain the recreation grounds.

"A lot of the young people inside Cuchawan Trace are more sports people and if we don't have a recreation for them, they will find a recreate and they will go astray."

Ramdeen did not know anything about Sookdeeo or Sammy. But he knew about Seecharan through his involvement in youth groups in Debe South in the past.

"He has the potential to do a lot for the community."

Ramdeen did not think Seecharan would be one of the politicians whom people see only at election time, if he is elected.

He also saw the by-election as an opportunity to raise awareness of national issues, as well as those specific to Debe South.

"The whole country is in a cry right now. Everybody has a different problem. Right now in Trinidad, nothing is being solved. Everything is going down."

Whether it's rising food prices or workers' salaries not increasing, Ramdeen said, "Everybody wants a change. They want somebody to help. But right now, we have nothing in place."

Ramdeen said the PDP's 14-1 victory in the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election on December 6 was an example of what can happen when people genuinely want change.

"So we are looking at Trinidad now."

Dupray and Ramdeen were both aware that local government elections are constitutionally due this year. They were confident the UNC would retain the PDRC and have a good showing whenever those elections are held. Both men were uncertain if any semblance of local government reform, as advocated by the PNM since 2015, would materialise in 2022.

A Debe South resident from Tulsa Trace, speaking on condition of anonymity, felt not much improvement had taken place in the district under the UNC. This resident said, "I'd be willing to give someone else a chance. But given the way politics go in this place, it's hard to see a change happening.

Another resident from Boodoo Trace, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Debe South is a beautiful place and has beautiful people. This resident agreed with other comments about flooding, infrastructure and lack of resources being some of the problems being faced by Debe South.

"This is why on February 7, the electorate must come out and cast their vote.

After he filed his nomination papers on January 17, Seecharan did not see the by-election result as a foregone conclusion.

"This election is not just about UNC and Debe South. The people in the country want to send a message."

Seecharan said people who are not registered to vote in Debe South "want to vote in this election because they want to show they are fed up and they want to send a strong message to the Government."

He identified flooding, water and infrastructure among the issues he wants to address as councillor. Seecharan viewed his campaign as a platform for local government elections later this year.

Sookdeo said, "The PNM's chance of winning this election is as good as any (other party). Nothing is impossible." She added the PNM has contested every election in TT since its inception in 1956.

"I have always liked politics, and the people of Debe South need proper representation."

Sookdeo listed infrastructure, flooding and funding as some of her priorities should she become councillor.

Sookdeo promised to ensure that the PDRC "identify and pay attention to the roads that are within its jurisdiction." She planned to foster greater community development through partnerships with religious, youth and other groups.

Sammy identified improved health care, employment and education among his priorities. PEP chairman Felicia Holder told reporters on January 17 that no one should rule out a PEP victory.

"I have to ask the residents of Debe now, for all of the years that this has been a UNC constituency, what does Debe have to show for it."

Facts about Debe South

THE community of Debe South spans communities in bordered by the SS Erin Road and the San Francique Main Road. It has an electorate of approximately 7,000 people.

Some of the more well known communities in Debe South are Boodoo Trace, Suchit Trace, Gopie Trace, Batchyia Village and Tulsa Trace.

Boodoo Trace is the hometown of Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and the home of UNC candidate Khemraj Sunil Seecharan.

Suchit Trace over the last decade has served as a major connector road to the extension of the Solomon Hochoy extended highway. The community is also known for the popular Cindy's Bakery and a plethora of vegetable vendors. Gopie Trace is known for its century-old Ganesh Utsav celebrations.

Batchyia Village is known for AMCOL Gym, Jill's Bar and the Dayanand Memorial Vedic Primary School, which topped the island in the 2016 SEA. Tulsa Trace was developed as a tourism site, with a picnic site and other recreation facilities.

The land use in these communities was predominantly sugar cane and rice cultivation. It is now a mix of suburban development, including residential and commercial properties.


"3-way battle for Debe South, residents hope for better service"

More in this section