Gov’t must not ignore questions of grassroots | Inquirer Opinion
Analysis

Gov’t must not ignore questions of grassroots

DAVAO CITY—On Friday, President Benigno Aquino III came down to Mindanao, which is plagued by rolling brownouts, all but aimed a shotgun on the head of the people of the island, and announced that the era of cheap electricity was over for them.

He told an energy summit convened to find solutions to the power shortage that has threatened to paralyze the economy of the resource-rich island that the region would have to pay a higher price for a stable energy supply.

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“Everything has its price,” the President told the assembled political and sectoral leaders of Mindanao. “You have to pay a real price for real public service. There are only two choices: Pay a little more for energy or live with rotating brownouts.” This is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Take it at your own risk.

The summit participants took the hard-line speech as an ultimatum from the barrel of the gun—not as a solution to the first economic emergency that has gripped Mindanao in the first two years of the Aquino administration. Higher electricity cost was the government’s brusque response to the package of recommendations drawn by the plenary all of Friday morning and presented to the President upon his arrival.

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No one in the conference took the government’s solution as a quid pro quo for “a real public service.” No one applauded the speech, and the silence was thunderous.

The package contained emphatic recommendations that were widely shared across local governments, regional business groups and civil society leaders. Their manifestation opposed government plans to privatize Mindanao’s hydroelectric power plants, which generate more than 50 percent of the island’s energy needs, and the revision of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira). The recommendations said the privatization of the state’s hydroelectric power plants would lead to higher electricity costs for industries and for the people of the island.

The Mindanao groups argued that the power shortage is not just a supply problem but is also a cost problem, and that cheap hydro power remains the key to the Mindanao’s development strategy.

These arguments clashed with the government’s philosophy that “this is not just about energy, this is about attracting investments and creating jobs and securing the future of the region.”

The President said only private sector investment can guarantee a sustainable power supply for Mindanao. He said Mindanao’s reliance on hydroelectric power was no longer sustainable. The argument runs counter to the position papers of two sectoral groups, one exposing the impact of rising electricity costs on the lives of ordinary people and the other, the damage inflicted on businesses by the rolling brownouts.

Women’s commission

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Speaking on behalf of the Mindanao Commission on Women, Dr. Menchie Ambalong presented a paper summarized as follows:

In Mindanao, the women are responsible for the household budget. For the past years, they have been trying to balance the household budget, but this has been upset several times because of the drastic rise in their electricity bill, which is 15 percent of the budget. Mindanao women have to cut back on milk, fruits and eggs, and their children are unable to do their homework at night. They search for cheap alternative maintenance medicine for the elderly, and for bags, “sapatos at damit, ukay-ukay lang.”

Then comes the brownout. The women worry about food spoiling in the fridge, which is defrosted by the brownouts. Daily brownouts are a problem. Rising electricity costs are a bigger problem.

“We want to show how the electricity rates have risen through the years in Iligan City. We want an immediate end to the brownouts. We want a permanent solution to the problem.

Gov’t solutions

“We worry that the solutions put forward by the government might only increase the 15-percent allocation of our monthly electricity bill. I met other women and other groups with similar concerns.  We came together as the Lanao Power Consumers Federation and the Mindanao Commission on Women, and we have been engaged in this issue for the past 11 years.  How do we understand this problem? It is a supply issue. It is a cost-of-power issue. The government’s answer has been privatization.” The privatization of all sources of power, like the power plants and barges.

“If the Agus-Pulangi Hydro Power Complex is privatized, it is 100-percent definite that once it is in  private hands, our electricity bills will increase because the private owners need  to recover their capital outlay, rehabilitation or upgrading costs, interest on loans, and make a reasonable profit.

“We are told that the increase in the electric bill is a necessary sacrifice we have to bear so that the brownouts will end. But this is not 100-percent definite.

“Question is: Is privatization a surefire solution to the brownouts? Like Epira, it has not achieved its vision of affordable electricity rate and adequate power supply.

“Mindanao’s greatest competitive advantage is the low cost of power it presently enjoys because of the hydroelectric power plants.

“On power barges, definitely, if all these power barges are located in Mindanao, these will help solve the brownouts.  Definitely also there will be an increase in electricity bill. But the difference between the government owning these is markedly less than if a private firm owns it and brings it to Mindanao. Why? If in government hands we need to pay only the towing price and the use of bunker fuel.”

The above arguments represent the voice and experience of the grassroots of Mindanao. How can the government answer the questions of this constituency? Can it even ignore these points?

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TAGS: Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), Mindanao energy summit, Mindanao power crisis, Mindanao’s hydroelectric power plants, President Benigno Aquino III
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