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The poor deserve better

12:08 AM April 07, 2015

AFTER MASS at the back of our church in Project 4 last month, an old man told me: “We have too many cars, too many poor people, and too many mayors in Metro Manila.” I laughed, and we started talking there with the young couples and children going in and out.

I told him I wanted to invite the officials of the National Economic and Development Authority, before they approve any more multibillion-peso infrastructure projects, to walk through Tondo, from fire-ravaged Parola all the way to Smokey Mountain. They would then wonder if they have forgotten that we have very many poor people, that we have millions of malnourished children and old men and women living in filth. Our poor need food, jobs that will support a family, and better schools and clinics, much more than we need tunnels and superhighways for our cars.

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The old man reminded me that old people, too, had very hard lives. I told him that I had visited Parola, where close to 20,000 men, women and children (mostly women and children) were crowded into evacuation centers, and that thousands of poor families were living in shanties more miserable and degrading than anything I saw in the past year, even in “Yolanda”-battered Tacloban. I went to see the 57 women of Gate 1 in Parola with whom we worked last year to upgrade their homes after another fire.

That’s what we talked about after the Mass, not the priest’s sermon. We went outside the church where we could talk more freely. I asked my new friend: Can we as a people, in good conscience, spend P1 billion for a traffic tunnel in Makati and P200 billion for a subway that would link Makati, SM Mall of Asia and Global City, while people including thousands of children live in housing that cripples the human heart?

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Only 10 of the women I visited were affected by the fire, but all were unnerved: The fire had come close. We sat at the line where the fire stopped. Around us stood the singed hollow-block walls. Furniture, doors, window frames, clothes, dishes and toys were incinerated and mashed into a black smudge at our feet. I felt that there was an equivalent of the black smudge in the women’s hearts.

Maritess Kongcalen, one of the women leaders there, had told me: “We used to have a fire every five years, then it was every three years, and now it is every year. We work so hard, so hard, to make something decent, and now it’s torn away, as if it didn’t matter to anyone.”

Meanwhile, the beautiful little children run back and forth in the alleys. I hope the victims see their children as God’s pledge of a better world, as He put the rainbow in the sky after the Great Flood as a promise that He would never again destroy the world with water (Genesis 9:11).

There are different reports about Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada’s visit. On March 7 this newspaper said the mayor told the people they could rebuild in Parola and he would help them find financing. The women said he told them they could rebuild there, but that they would be relocated later and he didn’t mention money. In the matter of the fire’s origins, there are also different stories. Some people think the government set the fire to drive them out. Even if this is not true, it should worry a government that some of its people believe it could set fire to their homes. Other people think the fire was an accident.

Most of Parola is proclaimed land—all of it was once proclaimed—and therefore people cannot be forcibly evicted without a supergood reason; otherwise, the essential purpose of land proclamations and land tenure security would be shattered.

All along the R-10 road that runs in front of the interisland piers is what looks like a five-foot-high wall of rubbish. On closer view, it isn’t rubbish but the homes of poor people living in 6-square-meter shacks with hardly room for people to squeeze by one another to get in or out. Smokey Mountain is still there, looking like a wild, overgrown graveyard where Dracula might be buried.

My new friend asked me to take him with me the next time I went to Parola. I said I would, and then his daughter came and they went away.

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I don’t believe the government is justified in taking advantage of the fire, while the affected families are still in evacuation centers, to enforce a law of dubious validity. This law requires that there will be a 10-meter vacant space between rivers and people’s houses. If this is enforced in Parola, some 1,000 families will be evicted. This “law” is from the Metro Manila Development Authority, but lawyers of the Urban Poor Associates claim that the MMDA has no right to legislate on this matter. It also seems mean-spirited to enforce such a law—if there is really such a valid law—while families are trying to pull themselves together after the fire. The government is already marking off the 10-meter open area.

We see the limitations of our barangay system in times of evictions. The Urban Poor Associates has been to nearly 500 eviction sites since 1993. In all these areas, only a handful of barangay captains have attempted to shield their people from the evictions that are backed by the mayor. The barangay captains are the mayor’s ward leaders and political henchmen much more than they are the representatives of the people who voted for them. No group that we know is protesting the evictions taking place. I was told people are cowed into silence out of fear of the barangay officials.

The poor deserve better.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).

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TAGS: Commentary, MANILA, MMDA, NEDA, opinion, Parola, Philippines, Poor, Smokey Mountain, tondo
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