Modernization and trust
Social scientists are sometimes asked to make fearless forecasts about the future, which is what happened to me as 2017 came to a close. I’m always tempted, when asked to become a fortune-teller, to lower my voice and go, “I see clouds, many dark clouds …”
I didn’t do that of course, given that my friends are already generally pessimistic about the political situation. But I did tell people to anticipate turbulence with the jeepney modernization program.
By sheer size alone, the number of jeepney owners and drivers makes them a potent political force. Add in the number of people who depend on jeepneys and the potential for trouble is amplified many times over.
I had a taste of that last Thursday at UP Diliman when I was bombarded with texts and calls from faculty, students, staff and media about a sudden drop in the number of jeepneys.
It turned out the Department of Transportation (DOTr) began, that morning, to launch their “Tanggal Bulok, Tanggal Usok” campaign meaning a crackdown on old jeepneys to cut down on pollution.
The DOTr had not informed us beforehand about the crackdown and we learned only later this was based on previous experiences where an announcement of inspections led jeepney drivers to avoid the streets, but that would have meant the same outcome of stranded passengers, except that the government could not apprehend the drivers and collect fines.
It was irritating, to say the least. UP Diliman has, rounding off figures, 25,000 students, 2,000 faculty and 2,000 staff who are dependent on jeepneys that ply several routes (Ikot, Toki) within the 494-hectare campus, and between the campus and the main transportation routes outside.
We had to conscript vehicles from various UP Diliman offices and our security guard agencies to take up the slack, with the DOTr eventually sending four electric jeepneys.
That one-day crisis got my administrative team thinking about what we would do if we had other emergencies, huge typhoons or an earthquake for example, where we needed mass transport.
UP Diliman does not have its own shuttle service right now but in 2016 we did have a short-lived e-kot, where an electric tricycle manufacturer, Beemac, loaned us 10 of their vehicles.
We fielded the e-trikes, avoiding the Ikot and Toki routes and servicing new areas such as the National Science Complex that did not have jeepneys. We also began a night shuttle especially for the dorms and our main library, which is open until midnight.
The e-kot was a huge success and even the jeepney drivers, initially hostile, expressed interest. In a way, e-kot was a showcase on the possibilities of a jeepney modernization program.
Alas, the UP Diliman e-kot came crashing down when we decided to purchase the vehicles. Our finance people reminded me that a 2013 request to purchase new vehicles, the “old” nonelectric type, had languished. That request was finally approved late last year, after almost five years. Beemac eventually withdrew their e-vehicles from UP Diliman. I approached some alumni if they were willing to donate but was turned down. People just couldn’t see how important the green vehicles were, long- and short-term, and that the cost per vehicle was so small compared to the benefits. (It was slightly less than P400,000 at that time.)
All of what’s transpired is a case study in the problems around modernization, a topic that’s been the subject of many social science studies and books. Much of the literature connects modernization to mass media and literacy with the premise that rapid dissemination of information about the benefits of modernization programs, from agriculture to public health, would lead to mass support.
There are many case studies around these information campaigns. In agriculture, for example, we still see demonstration farms in rural areas, showing fast-growing healthy plants supposedly coming from the use of particular brands of fertilizers and pesticides.
But we’ve also seen how a little misinformation can produce disastrous results. In 1996, antifamily planning groups in the Philippines began claiming there was a global conspiracy to spike tetanus vaccines with abortifacients. The rumor mills were effective, even in that prefake news era, and led to a drop in immunization coverage not only for tetanus, which was intended for pregnant women, but for childhood vaccines. The Department of Health had to launch a massive information campaign and in the end, what probably made a difference was that no one could come out with hard evidence that the vaccine had caused abortions.
The problem of misinformation has become even more acute today, in our age of social media, fueling panic and protest quickly.
Modernization, it turns out, depends on a very old-fashioned value: trust. Social media’s fake news spreads more quickly when there’s little trust among people.
The jeepney modernization program is a good program when you think of the objective of cleaner air by withdrawing old jeepneys and replacing them with green electric vehicles. But jeepney owners and drivers, despite their fiery protest speeches, are a conservative lot, arguing that jeepneys have been around more than 70 years and never mind that drivers devote much of their time on fixing the vehicles, often on the road while plying their routes, or that their lungs and brains are shot through and through by the jeepney emissions.
Not enough has been done to promote e-vehicles and it doesn’t help that initiatives like the e-kot we had in UP died prematurely. The government needs to have more programs where people get to use the e-vehicles, and where jeepney drivers themselves are involved, and get to share their experiences to the public. There are showcase programs in places like the Intramuros shuttle, and the city of Santiago, Isabela, but we don’t hear about them on radio and TV, which still reach more people and with more credibility than social media.
It didn’t help either that government had to insult jeepney owners and drivers by calling their vehicles “bulok” or rotten. You don’t go around insulting people you need to court.
Who does not want cleaner air? Who does not want more efficient transport? Tell that to the jeepney drivers, who can only see risks to their livelihood, and to commuters, who see only inefficiency. Let’s face it, government has very little credibility on matters of transport because of the mismanagement of public transport.
Our railways are dying. Our MRT and LRT? In one recent protest, a speaker cracked a joke about entering the MRT as a worker and emerging from it a warrior. Manggagawa pagpasok; mandirigma paglabas.
The mention of commuters turning into warriors is not a metaphor.
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