October 17, 2017

“Modernization” for whom?

When once Philippine jeepneys were iconic testaments to Filipino ingenuity, resourcefulness and folk art, the erstwhile “King of the Road” is now derided by government as a backward and inefficient mode of mass transport, polluting and unsafe, their drivers an undisciplined lot commonly viewed as perennial violators of traffic rules and regulations.

Thus the need for a modernization program to phase-out old, smoke-belching, unroadworthy jeeps to make way for new versions with safer design and up-to-standard engines that emit less air pollutants. In tandem with the replacement of the old public utility vehicles (PUVs) will be a “fleet management system” wherein a minimum of 10 PUV units and operators will be consolidated under a single franchise to make operations more efficient.

Sounds rational and laudable.  Why then the stiff opposition from a majority of jeepney drivers and operators?

For one, the threat of economic dislocation is real for hundreds of thousands of jeepney drivers and operators nationwide who have depended on this mode of transport for decades to earn their livelihood and support their families. 

Very few operators will be able to raise the PHP 1.2 to PHP 1.6 million-peso investment in the new PUV units required under the modernization program. With the added requirement of 10 units per new franchise, all the more the cost will be prohibitive for existing small-time operators, many of whom are driver-operators of single units. On top of all this, the new PUVs are required to use beep cards and install a Global Positioning System or GPS, CCTV, Wi-Fi, dashboard camera and speed limiter – gadgets that many private vehicles do not have.

Jeepneys are actually a legacy of the post-WWII recovery period when mechanics like Leonardo Sarao thought of retrofitting US Army jeeps into passenger jeepneys. They are a vestige of the backward preindustrial economy that exists to the present. 

While private cars have always been for the use of the well-off, jeepneys and tricycles are not primarily for personal use but as an income-generating venture. Diesel engines can be maintained indefinitely so long as properly done. The jeepney is a hardy vehicle that can withstand the rigors of unpaved or potholed roads, extremely hot weather or typhoons, perennial flooding and overloading.

In an economy that cannot generate sufficient jobs with decent earnings that can support a family, driving a jeepney has become an attractive and viable option for many of the unemployed or underemployed.  For those with some savings such as overseas Filipino workers, operating one or two jeepneys as PUVs, has been an affordable micro enterprise.
If the LTFRB could sympathize with the plight of driver-operators of Uber when it imposed an order on the company to temporarily cease operations because of violations of government regulations, why can’t it sympathize with the plight of hundreds of thousands of driver-operators of jeepneys who have it even worse since most live hand-to-mouth.

Any attempt to improve and upgrade the jeepney as a mode of transport can not be premised on destroying the livelihood of drivers and operators then leaving them and their families to somehow fend for themselves.  But there’s the rub. The modernization progam is actually a plan to junk jeepneys and to render their drivers and operators extinct. 

The program is matched to government’s Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy (CARS) Program started during the last months of Benigno Aquino and continued by  Duterte. CARS aims to revitalize local car manufacturing by giving PHP 27 billion in tax credits to 3 selected foreign car manufacturers who will invest in assembly plants in the country. The tax incentives will be indexed on how much of the car components are sourced locally and on the volume of cars to be produced. Two Japanese multinational firms have already been chosen, Toyota and Mitsubishi. The CARS program is expected to roll out 600,000 cars over a six-year period. 

So it appears that government is actually creating a market in the public transport sector for multinational corporations and their domestic partners engaged in the local assembly of foreign-branded cars and the marketing of assorted electronic gadgets.

At the same time the “fleet management system” lends itself to the take over by companies with big capitalization of what used to be a viable enterprise for small entrepreneurs such as driver-operators.  Of course, cooperatives can also be formed by the latter but it appears that government is not making this option attractive nor easy for them.

Thus the oft-repeated complaint that mass transport in the Philippines is rapidly being “corporatized”, i.e. gobbled up by private corporations and run for profit, in line with government policy of privatizing what should be state-run and subsidized public services. The thing is, our experience with the badly-run train systems in Metro Manila – the MRT and LRT – gives the lie to unwarranted claims that the privatization cum corporatization thrust will give the commuting public a safe, reliable, affordable and comfortable ride. 

If the forced displacement of transport workers is not a socially just solution to the problem of mass transport, what is?  We opine that the answer is a public transport system set up and run by government to provide an essential social service and not as a profit-making venture of private companies. 

The transition to this system should absorb those adversely affected by reforms in the transport sector such as jeepney drivers and operators.  It will create a market for locally manufactured vehicles, particularly those intended for mass transport, as part of a genuine national industrialization program that envisions forward and backward integration, not just the assembly or reassembly of knocked down vehicle parts imported from abroad. And last but not the least, it includes the rationalization, if not regulation, of the sale of private motor vehicles that are increasingly clogging the streets of Metro Manila and other major urban centers.

The traffic congestion and anarchy in our streets can not be blamed solely on jeepneys. Car sales have been boosted by easy financing for use in Uber and Grab and private car owners trying to get around the color coding system. Meanwhile there is still no well-thought out and efficiently-run public transport system using modern and affordable technology what with the current short-sightedness, corruption and for-profit orientation of government.

The 2-day jeepney strike being led by PISTON and its affiliates nationwide this Monday and Tuesday is a legitimate form of protest for a legitimate grievance. It may be disruptive and a bane to commuters but it can also serve as wake-up call for policy makers and managers of the transport sector, traffic management, and even economic managers to come up with socially just solutions to real problems. #

Published in Business World
18 October 2017


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