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P-Noy did not mention a spreading scourge

/ 09:22 PM July 24, 2012

I agree with most of what President Aquino said in his State of the Nation Address but he forgot (or deliberately avoided mentioning) an important problem: squatting.

Squatting is like a pestilence spreading all over the country. It is causing the decay of many cities and contributes to the poor image of the Philippines. While tall, sparkling buildings are rising in some areas like the Global City in Taguig and other select places, the decay caused by squatters is spreading in many other areas, especially in Quezon City, now dubbed the Squatter Capital of the Philippines.

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While the Department of Tourism is trying to attract more tourists (and the President mentioned the very modest increase in tourist arrivals in his Sona), we are turning them away with the sight of many squatter colonies in the country. Even before their plane lands, tourists can see through the windows squatter colonies surrounding the airport. On the way to their hotels, they see more squatter shacks lining the roads. The government tries to hide them from the eyes of arriving foreigners during important international conferences by building walls around them or painting them to hide the dirt, but that does not stop the spread, like a malignant cancer, of the pestilence.

The government can and should do something about this scourge, but it does not and pretends that the problem does not exist.

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The primary reason for squatting is of course the grinding poverty in the country. Many people do not have the means to buy residential lots and build their homes there. Condominiums are mushrooming all over the country but their unit prices are way above the reach of those who need them most. The result is squatting, the unlawful taking of somebody else’s private property. All the bright claims of the President in his Sona are worthless if he does not solve the squatting problem.

The primary reason for poverty and squatting is the lack of job opportunities. A large segment of the nation’s skilled labor force is forced to leave their families to work abroad, risking life and limb in strife-torn countries in the Middle East. The government is happy that the OFWs are sending home their earnings to boost the economy. Indeed, it is mostly the OFW remittances that is keeping the Philippine economy afloat. That is like a band-aid covering a deep festering wound. What will happen to the immigrant workers in the Middle East if the violence spreads? What do we have in store for the returning OFWs? Joblessness and poverty.

What is the government doing to reduce unemployment and poverty? Giving them doleouts in the Conditional Cash Transfer Program without the beneficiaries having to do anything in return. Yet what the poor want and need are not beggar’s alms but jobs. The country needs the work force to keep the waterways clean and garbage-free.

It is the garbage carelessly thrown in the streets and waterways that clog the drainage systems and cause the frequent floods that we have to endure.

Can’t we oblige those who receive cash doleouts to police their communities to prevent their neighbors from throwing their trash in the streets and waterways? Can’t they help clean these waterways to help prevent flooding in exchange for the cash? Can’t they help in planting tree seedlings on bald mountainsides to prevent landslides that can kill them? Won’t the poor be proud of themselves that they are doing something for their communities and the country instead of feeling like beggars receiving the doleouts?

Can’t the government construct medium-rise buildings for the squatters that can be sold or rented to them for modest prices? The government’s relocation efforts have been largely unsuccessful because the squatters are thrown in out-of-the way places far from their sources of livelihood. So they sell the lots that were assigned to them and go back to squatting in the city. The program does not solve the problem but exacerbates it.

Another reason for the spread of squatting is opportunism. Not all squatters are poor. A large segment of them are plain opportunists who build shacks on somebody else’s property and rent them out to the genuine poor. Some of them steal electricity and water and sell them to their neighbors at exorbitant prices. Note that many of them have stores and shops earning profits for them. Yet they pay no business and real estate taxes to the government and no rent to the owner of the property squatted on. This is clearly plain opportunism and illegal, yet the national and local governments do nothing and tolerate them, and the tolerance encourages others to do the same thing and the pestilence spreads.

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A major reason for the tolerance is politics. Politicians tolerate and even encourage squatting because of the votes it brings. Some local politicians, including barangay officials, even bring in the squatters themselves to add to their votes during elections.

When law enforcement authorities try to eject squatters from an area, you can be sure that some tinhorn politician, maybe a congressman, a mayor, or a barangay captain, will quickly arrive to stop the demolition, putting up a great show for the benefit of the squatters and the television cameras, which of course will earn him more votes when he runs for reelection.

The administration of President Aquino, if it wants to be true to his Sona promises, has to do something about the squatting problem. We can’t expect the local governments to do it because of politics. The administration is going to create a Department of Housing. The elimination of squatting should be one of its primary responsibilities.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, featured column, Poverty, Sona, squatting, Unemployment
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