June 02, 2011

Demolition and resistance

The protest march last Monday called by the urban poor alliance KADAMAY, to denounce a rash of violent demolitions of urban poor communities in Metro Manila, was quite daunting, what with the sweltering heat under the noonday sun. Nonetheless, my activist instincts impelled me to walk with the diminutive but fiery urban poor leader, Ka Mameng Deunida who, at 80-something, remains at the forefront of their uphill struggle.

What struck me immediately was that many of the rallyists were scrawny women who had even scrawnier babies, toddlers and pre-teens in tow. Even the leaders were mostly women, a testament not so much to women’s liberation it seems, but to the extent of desperation that had taken hold of their households and was forcing the mothers to take a stand.

The protesters’ placards showed that things hadn’t changed much since I began as an activist organizing in urban poor communities some 40 years ago, except that it had obviously gone from bad to worse. The demands remained to be “No to demolitions! Yes to jobs, decent wages, affordable housing, education and health care!” and a fairly new one “Stop urban militarization!”

President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III had signed a 10-Point Covenant with the Urban Poor as a presidential candidate and had promised an end to forced evictions. According to the pro-Aquino Urban Poor Advocates, Mr. Aquino was also committed to “decent relocation” that meant “relocation with quality housing, adequate basic services and sustainable livelihood support.”

The return to the practice of forced evictions under the Aquino watch jolted many urban poor communities back to the harsh reality that after elections, they were back to being “eyesores” and “hazards to public safety”.

Six months into his term, Mr. Aquino was forced to grant a four-month moratorium on demolitions after the valiant defense by residents of their sprawling urban poor settlement in North Triangle, Quezon City. Their homes were being wrecked by the National Housing Authority to give way to a public-private-partnership with a real property developer, Ayala Land, whose owners had supported Mr. Aquino’s presidential bid.

The urban poor have shown that pushed to the wall, they can and will fight back. Stopping the demolition teams by sheer street fighting is a valuable lesson that the urban poor have learned instinctively. As they learn about the roots of their poverty and insecure existence in the cities, their true empowerment begins.

Last April, DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo filed a report to Mr. Aquino on the problem of “informal settlers”, using the more politically-correct term in place of the pejorative one, “squatters”, that is still in use by government, mass media and private property owners.

To his credit, the report forthrightly acknowledges the extent of the problem – 556,526 families, whose total members comprise 25% of the projected 11.5 million population in the National Capital Region for 2010 (NSO).

It also candidly states that the “current and projected government shelter programs are inadequate to fully and effectively address the challenge”. The current shortfall is a whopping 523,765 units.

The Robredo report bats for making shelter a top priority of the national government with the requisite mobilization of financial resources from both the national government and LGUs. It highlights the fact that the average Philippine annual expenditure on housing from 2001-2007 was only .089% of GDP, far below what other southeast Asian countries were spending, from a high of 2.089 in Singapore to a low of .383 per cent in Malaysia.

It also calls for “socially inclusive urban redevelopment schemes” or those that provide poor, working people, whose labor is necessary to any society, a decent place to live.

This translates to a policy wherein “on-site housing solutions shall be exhausted first before considering in-city resettlement, then near-city resettlement and as a last resource, off-city resettlement.” And in order to accomplish on-site or in-city resettlement, the report advocates medium-rise or high-rise buildings to increase density of the population using a “vertical solution”.

A critical point is underscored: while initial capital outlay for such vertical housing is higher than current estimates of off-city relocation, most planners fail to take into account the latter’s attendant social and economic costs.

These include additional government costs in providing basic services (eg water systems, schools, hospitals); costs to the urban poor such as loss of livelihood or hiked transportation expense to commute to and from work or school; and separation of breadwinners from their families because livelihood opportunities are absent in relocation sites.

Of course, government has a habit of dislocating slum dwellers from their already difficult and precarious living conditions only to throw them out into the streets or cart them off to unlivable, far-away relocations sites, hidden from view. That way, they don’t have to bother about any added costs to the government. Moreover, who cares about how the urban poor fare.

The Robredo report, though a welcome departure from previous anti-people government approaches to the “challenge” posed by the urban poor, still fails to address the “push” and “pull” factors underlying the relentless mass migration of rural folk to the cities and the exacerbation of urban poverty and blight as a consequence.

In an earlier column, I tried to summarize these factors; to wit: “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.” (See “No titles”, Streetwise 30 September 2011.)

This month the Reciprocal Working Committees on Socio-economic Reforms (RWC-SER) of the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) meet again to thresh out the provisions of a bilateral agreement that, if inked, could lay the basis for a negotiated political settlement of the armed conflict that has been raging for more than four decades.

The plight of the urban poor is squarely addressed in a fundamental and thoroughgoing way by the NDFP in its proposals for a Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-economic Reforms (CASER).

The NDFP calls for abolishing land monopoly in the rural areas and redistributing land to the tillers for free; establishing rural industries and supporting agricultural production in order to squarely address the rural poverty that drives mass migration to urban centers.

National industrialization on the other hand is recognized as “the key to a modern and diversified industrial economy” that can ensure livelihoods for the people, guarantee the satisfaction of their basic needs, bring about rapid and sustained economic growth and achieve economic independence from unwanted foreign domination. In this way decent jobs and other livelihood sources are generated for a burgeoning population, greater social wealth is created and government resources are beefed up as well to be used for the common good.

The Robredo report has been sitting on Mr. Aquino’s table unacted upon for more than two months.

Meanwhile the heartless demolitions are back with a vengeance; so too, the people’s growing resistance. #

Published in Business World

3-4 June 2011


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