By Gemma Handy
At first glance, the brochure advertising the special economic zone near Jennings reads like a catalogue of modern urban infrastructure ahead of the creation of a new metropolis.
With pledges of a ‘mega-scale’ casino; seven-star resort; luxury villas; medical, technical and vocational universities; a ‘super-speciality’ hospital; theme parks; financial, manufacturing and retail districts; pharma complex and cannabis farm, it’s ambitious to say the least.
The photos of 12-storey office buildings and neon-lit nightlife are not architectural renderings and may well be intended purely as illustration.
Still, they make for an attention-grabbing depiction of a development destined for what is currently a tranquil expanse of Antiguan countryside.
Many residents have been vociferous in their opposition to the 549-acre project due to its potential impact on the environment, along with cherished Seaforth Beach and the country’s largest wetland which fall within its confines.
The main investor behind it has been rather more reticent. Until now.
For our interview, Vijender Singh is meticulously punctual, radiating affability – and determined to correct what he claims is misinformation surrounding developers’ plans for the Western Imperial Special Economic Zone (WISEZ).
Asked for the single most important thing he wants people to know about his development, he’s resolute.
“The project doesn’t belong to me, the project belongs to the country,” he says. “Everyone will benefit from it, otherwise there’s no point. Everyone wants development and they will benefit from the growth.”
The 67-page PDF dated September 2021 outlining the developers’ vision bears the tagline ‘let’s grow, work, heal, chill and create social capital for all’.
Pithy no, but it does appear to encapsulate the utilitarian ethos Singh claims is at the zone’s core.
Last month, developers came under fire from Cabinet for what Information Minister Melford Nicholas dubbed an “inadvertent” flouting of planning rules.
Land clearing was undertaken to enable roads to be created before environmental impact assessments had been carried out.
“From my side, we did not do anything illegal,” Singh says. “We just created a road and have been doing farming. For digging a road, you don’t need permission.”
Government insiders say in fact, “any earth movement” requires permission from the Development Control Authority (DCA). Nicholas previously said it would be a matter for the DCA to decide if there were any significant breaches requiring restitution or penalties.
Nonetheless, Singh insists that the new road now affords direct access to Seaforth Beach enabling more local residents to enjoy its beauty. Some might question how that’s in developers’ interests, a query he appears to perceive as preposterous.
“There was no access to the beach before,” he says. “Now everyone can visit it, so we did a good job. This is a benefit.”
Seaforth and its pristine surrounds have long been a favoured spot for local hiking groups, birdwatchers, fishers, crabbers and campers.
And that will not change, Singh pledges.
Asked what assurance he wants to give those for whom the area has immense cultural significance, he responds, “We will not stop anyone using the area. Seaforth Beach does not belong to me or anyone. It is public property and we will respect the law.”
Singh hails originally from Delhi in India and has, among other things, a background in journalism and academia.
The purchase of the land was not a recent sale, he says, but an acquisition that took place a decade ago.
He tells Observer investors were attracted to that particular locale because it’s “very beautiful, has a very nice beach, is a very good area, has good connectivity to the city and is close to Jolly Harbour”.
He’s tight-lipped on giving details about the development’s other investors, save to say they comprise “four or five people from different parts of the world”.
But one thing he is committed to, he says, is employing local labour both when construction begins and when the WISEZ’s amenities are up and running.
In addition to its sheer scale, much of the controversy surrounding the zone is out of concern for the area’s abundant mangroves.
To date, more than 2,300 people have signed an online petition entitled ‘Save Seaforth Beach and mangroves before they are damaged and spoiled forever’.
“The petition gives the wrong information to the public,” Singh claims. “It says we will destroy the mangroves.
“We did not touch any single mangrove and no one can give proof that we did. We are environmentally friendly people and we have respect for the environment.”
Critics aside – and many have also shown their opposition by joining a protest last December and a walkthrough of the area organised by protestors earlier this month – Singh says the WISEZ is endorsed by many other residents.
“Our project has a lot of support,” he says.
He also denies its size is inappropriate for the location.
“It’s not ambitious; when we have the consultation people will see,” Singh says.
“Let’s give an example – for the financial centre you only need one building.”
That statement appears to be at odds with the project’s brochure which shows over a dozen structures highlighted on the section entitled ‘international financial services district”.
Singh “can’t recall” how many private homes developers plan to construct. The brochure indicates a significant portion of the WISEZ will be for residential use, with several of the villas fringing Seaforth Beach itself.
But much more will become clear when residents see the masterplan which will be unveiled for public consumption shortly, he promises.
Last month, amid mounting opposition to the project, Environment Minister Sir Molwyn Joseph revealed that the DCA had ordered work at the site to be halted, with developers asked to provide further information about their plans for the area.
Joseph also pledged a public consultation would be held imminently to help strike a balance between developing the country and the interests of the community.
Critics were quick to question why a consultation was not held before work began, given the size of the project. The minister said the zone would be built sustainably and create much-needed employment.
Yesterday, local residents confirmed work had not restarted at the site, with the heavy machinery previously seen there still absent.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” said one.
Neither has there yet been any date publicly announced for the consultation. Sir Molwyn, who is also the area’s MP, told Observer yesterday the event was being coordinated by the DCA. DCA officials did not respond to requests for further details up to news time.
The WISEZ is certainly not the first large-scale development tipped to be created in Antigua and Barbuda – and many residents have grown jaded by lofty promises of such that later fail to materialise.
Work on the country’s first special economic zone, being undertaken by Yida Zhang in Antigua’s north-east, has failed to secure the requisite capital for construction to take place full-tilt.
“I can’t say about what other people did or did not do,” Singh says when asked how the WISEZ will be financed. “Our group don’t have any problem financing anything. All the financing is in place.”
Another bone of contention among some is the fact that businesses operating within the zone will be exempt from local taxes.
Singh concedes that the tax concessions came about upon developers’ request but says levies will be paid indirectly instead.
“The businesses will contribute to the economy by bringing people here, and boosting the economy that way,” he says.
Some questions have also been raised over the relationship between Singh and Prime Minister Gaston Browne, given that Singh is renting PM Browne’s luxurious Jolly Harbour beachfront property.
Both Browne and Singh have been quick to hit back at claims of impropriety.
“Anyone can rent the property,” Singh says. “If someone has a property, they can rent it or not? It’s not illegal.
“I did not approach him. The real estate company just showed it to me; they showed me many houses. I liked it, said OK, give me this one, and I paid my money.”
Meanwhile, work continues by government departments to scrutinise developers’ plans for the WISEZ and its impact on the area’s fragile ecosystem, a haven for rare and endemic wildlife.
Arry Simon, of the Department of Environment, told Observer the body had received the developers’ application around three weeks ago.
“We have completed the screening and scoping exercise which is part of the process. This week it should be back in the hands of the DCA with our recommendations,” he added.