Last week’s violent demolition of shanties in a sprawling urban poor community in Quezon City highlighted once more the intractable problems of homelessness and urban blight and government’s generally myopic, piecemeal and anti-poor approach to solving these. It reminded us as well how the urban poor – their travails and struggles -- have contributed immeasurably to the political awakening and continuing education of the urban youth, notably the students, about what ails this society and what it will take for far-reaching, radical reforms to take place.
It is thus disconcerting that the news reportage on the demolition, the consequent resistance mounted by the residents and the aftermath was generally quite superficial and unsympathetic. The preeminent line was this: Since the residents of Baranggay San Roque do not have titles to the land, they have no legal right to be there. Ergo they - being “squatters” on government property - have neither just nor reasonable grounds whatsoever to fight for their homes against the demolition teams.
The fact is the phenomenon of poor people in cities and towns building their make-shift homes in empty private lots or in unused government land and the consequent growth of huge slum settlements is a long-standing social problem. It is not just the result of the lack of urban planning and law enforcement.
Studies of migration trends in the country over the past decades show that the movement of people from rural to urban areas has been unremitting. Metro Manila's annual population growth rate from the seventies to the eighties was 3.6 per cent, far higher than the national average of 2.5 per cent. Within Metro Manila, Quezon City and Caloocan were booming at 4 per cent and 3.5 per cent, respectively.
While government figures for 2005-2010 show that the national population growth rate slowed to 1.9%, the rate of urban population growth still remained at a hefty 3%.
The underlying causes of this ever increasing rural to urban exodus are deeply rooted in landlessness (farmers dispossessed, evicted from land they till by land grabbers, land conversion, etc.); entrenched rural poverty and agricultural backwardness (aggravated by neoliberal policies of import liberalization and deregulation, e.g. the removal of agricultural subsidies); landlord and state suppression of peasant struggles against feudal oppression and exploitation; and the continuously deteriorating and overall stultifying living conditions in the countryside.
Peasants streaming into urban areas seeking jobs and a better life merely add up to the mounting urban unemployed and underemployed with local industries going bankrupt and no government programs to build, strengthen and protect the industrial sector, especially manufacturing.
That is why the approach of government to the teeming numbers of urban poor – of resettling them back to the provinces or relocating them to far-flung areas outside Metro Manila and far from jobs, opportunities for making a living, schools and other social amenities and services – cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered solutions, not even short-term ones.
It is obvious that violent demolitions and literally throwing out the displaced families into the streets to survive willy-nilly without any kind of government assistance is condemnable and breeds even more problems.
What is not so obvious is that drawing up grand development plans to beautify, commercialize and make profitable what was once considered an eyesore while not making any provisions for the urban poor -- the working class and underclass -- in this development plan is inhumane, unjust, unsustainable and bound to meet with resistance from those who would be most adversely affected.
The Quezon City-Central Business District (QC-CBD) project is the over-arching plan in which the joint project of the National Housing Authority and the Ayala Corporation (currently already established in one corner of the disputed North Triangle with their Trinoma Mall) is included. Essentially, government undertakes to consolidate and develop 340 hectares of government land currently occupied by government agencies, hospitals and schools, public parks and urban poor settlements for “mixed-use”.
In other words, like other so-called CBDs, we will see the establishment of more shopping malls, upscale office and residential buildings, recreational facilities, manicured gardens and parking buildings with connections to mass transit systems that will ferry shoppers and other consumers in droves.
All this in the name of “modernization” and “urban development” but development for whom?
The more than a hundred thousand residents of the five major informal settlements to be demolished to give way to the QC-CBD have reason to ask: will this project bring jobs and a better life not only for them but for others like them? Or will they be sacrificed so that foreign investors and their local partners have more business opportunities and hefty profits while government bureaucrats can collect more taxes and earnings from lease arrangements/joint ventures that they can then plunder and dissipate in more anti-people projects?
It is the easiest thing to condemn the residents’ violent resistance especially when viewed from the purely legalistic standpoint that these people are "squatters" and have no legal claim to these lands, that their "relocation" (read: eviction) is necessary to give way to "development" (read: business opportunities).
However, the grim reality of the urban poor cannot be swept under the rug by throwing them far away in uninhabitable places to die the slow death of poverty and neglect. This approach not only fails to solve the problem, it aggravates it and fuels even more social unrest and more resistance that the government and the ruling elite have never and can never put a lid on. #
Published in Business World
30 September - 1 October 2010