Myth: privileged Manileño (demystifying fare hikes)
The train never comes on time.
I stand squeezed between doors that close in 6.5 seconds. I hear the guard calling for patience and good manners while I surrender to a mass of exploited humanity that comes rushing in like a herd of cattle, transporting me, without my burning a single calorie, into the belly of the beast, where I stand again, squeezed between people too tall for their own good. I think of all the places I’d rather be. Hey, this is better than walking two kilometers to school from some unnamed barrio with no electricity.
Apparently, for some, such complaints smack of my privileged Manileño background, which denies me, an NGO worker, the right to lobby for decent public service as a state-guaranteed right. Never mind the fact that the majority of LRT/MRT riders are low-paid, minimum-wage earners, as opposed to middle-class commuters like myself.
Cursory observation reveals that the MRT is busiest on rush hours that correspond to the start of work hours or school hours (around 8 a.m.); that most people get on board in Cubao, on Taft and North Avenues, and other major thoroughfares for workers commuting from Cavite or Novaliches; that they alight in the office areas of Buendia or Ayala; and that, when the day ends, northbound trains are more likely to be stuffed than southbound ones, due to the simple fact that more MRT riders live in Fairview than in the exclusive subdivisions of Makati, Alabang and Parañaque.
In other words, urban transport systems benefit social classes differentially. One need only look at the billions of pesos spent on highways and skyways, benefiting members of wealthier households in the suburbs who drive to Manila more than they ever ride the trains. In that context, public transit is, as others have argued, indeed a factor of production, crucial to moving laborers to their places of work, and critical to meeting a capitalist economy’s own needs for efficiency.
Yet a number of misconceptions mask what the masters of our cities choose to spend our taxes on, and myths abound to justify the MRT/LRT fare increases.
Most pernicious of these is the myth of there-is-no-money. It is also the easiest to respond to: It’s difficult to imagine how both transit systems, raking fares from hundreds of thousands of passengers daily, on top of the revenues they gain from advertisements painted all over the LRT coaches, could possibly not afford bigger and better trains, or, at the very least, repair the air-conditioning. A 90-100-percent increase in fares, on the other hand, is a huge loss to train riders, because real wages have not risen at all to match the soaring prices of so many other goods and services.
Then there is the narrative of “Imperial Manila,” an old tune now cleverly coupled with the discourse on inequality. Why, it is argued, should the government burden itself with subsidizing an inefficient public transit system in the capital when roads and schools are so wanting in Zamboanga?
The fallacy here is to assume that skimping on public services in Manila will necessarily result in better public services in far-flung barrios. Decades of state neglect of the rural sector is proof that balancing rural and urban development will depend on far more than a benevolent reallocation of the national budget by the central government—away from Manila and toward investment in other regions—in a country that resembles more an ensemble of fiefdoms than a modern nation-state.
One also wonders why we have yet to invest in similar public transit systems in the rest of the country, or even the rest of Luzon.
Going deeper still, the urban-rural divide and the undue concentration of wealth in cities are due, not to overinvestment in the public sector, but to tendencies inherent in private accumulation, business speculation, the sharp divide between rural and urban incomes, and the general anarchy of a “free” market economy. Geographer David Harvey notes the parallel growth of cities and economic inequality as an expression of capitalist urbanism in the 21st century.
Thus, slashing state subsidies to public transit and other public services in Manila isn’t about to improve healthcare for the poor in Cotabato. It’s going to set a horrible precedent for the rest of the country.
There is, finally, the myth of private-sector efficiency.
Laying aside the fact that what passes for industry here is an unholy trinity of political cronyism, profiteering elites, and state-backed dispossession of the poor, we must do away with the assumption that private sector management = good.
A country with the highest electricity, water, healthcare and telecommunications charges in Southeast Asia, courtesy of the rabid sell-off of state assets to favored companies and the privatization of social services, surely isn’t the best example of private-sector efficiency. Internet connection rates are the slowest in the region. Price-fixing of petrol by the oil
cartel is an open secret. Public hospitals are being stripped of their charity wards to give way to medical tourism. Slum-dwellers on what used to be government-owned property have the land they squat on leased to private investors, resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of families. Recently, we heard of Maynilad and Manila Water again passing on their income tax obligations to consumers through the latest rate increases.
In each case, privatization and related fare increases are justified on grounds of efficiency. But 11 times out of 10, people—Manileños and probinsyanos alike—are on the losing end of the bargain.
What we need is a better system of government, managing public services in the public interest, not companies run by CEOs accountable only to their shareholders, who none of us elect.
CJ Chanco is a graduate student at the Department of Geography, University of the Philippines Diliman, and a policy researcher at Ibon International.