Hero hopes to rein in anarchy

By Mylene Corpuz, Manila, Bangkok Post, Thursday 26 September 2002

It is either a brave man or a fool who claims to be able to solve the problems of a city the size of Manila or Bangkok. Which will the Philippines capital's Bayani Fernando prove to be as he tries to bring order to his city?

A nasty street battle is under way in Manila's perennially choked arteries, the outcome of which could determine the fate of the Philippine capital's first serious stab at urban renewal.

On one side is Bayani Fernando, a taciturn engineer clad in a classic hard hat and clutching a litre of kerosene. Ranged against him are angry street vendors, who have colonised many of the capital's pavements and are resisting the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA)'s attempts to reclaim them.

Mr Fernando, whose first name means hero in Tagalog, has cast his three months-old campaign as a government attempt to rein in anarchy on the streets.

The illegal vendors, backed by certain Roman Catholic priests and politicians, accuse him of being anti-poor and of employing Nazi tactics. They have waged street protests and threatened to sue him.

Previous government officials have made similar beautification campaigns in the past, but what set Mr Fernando apart was his threat to use unconventional methods, including the scorched earth tactic of pouring kerosene on the merchandise of the street hawkers.

If you stop at dismantling their illegal stalls, they will just return the following day, he said last month. Kerosene would spoil their merchandise and put them out of business.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who faces an election just 20 months away, is standing by the 55 year-old MMDA administrator she appointed just three months ago. Ms Arroyo wants it known that Mr Fernando should be allowed to do his job, her spokesman Ignacio Bunye said last week.

Analysts see the street fight in the larger context of a battle for urban renewal in the flood-prone 420-year-old Southeast Asian metropolis of 11 million that is grappling with urban decay and a serious squatter problem.

It is also being seen here as an important test of Ms Arroyo's pledge, made at her annual State of the Nation Address before congress in July, to get tough against crime and corruption and to make the Philippines more investor-friendly.

Pollster Felipe Miranda of Pulse Asia Inc said there are not enough leaders in the country who would attempt what he [Fernando] has so far dared to do.

Faced with the city's mountain of garbage, traffic and squatter problems, most politicking authorities adopt a policy of extreme tolerance and irresponsible compassion, he said.

Poverty is made to be an ultimate defence for criminal behaviour, effectively justifying reckless traffic, health-threatening garbage, life-threatening pollution, anarchic initiatives like sidewalk-vending and many other forms of severe social dysfunction.

Mr Fernando has no illusions about the enormity of the task.

I cannot run [for office] in 2004 if I intend to do well in this office, he told the Sunday Inquirer magazine earlier this month. I have to put my political career at stake, so I cannot leave this office without having done something good.

He has set tough deadlines for himself.

I would say, give us six months and we can probably feel some change. In two years, I'd say it would all be in progressive mode. Our drive doesn't end in removing the sidewalk vendors. Basically, the sidewalk programme aims to solve two problems: traffic and garbage.

Mr Fernando contends the disappearing pavements are forcing pedestrians to jostle with vehicles on the streets despite the danger, further constricting the roads.

Half the country's registered motor vehicles of just over three million ply the metropolis every day. Under-investment in the sector means Manila lacks a network of tollways of the sort that helped Bangkok partially solve a similar problem. The Philippine capital has the beginnings of a metro rail system, but coverage is limited to two lines. Traffic is so bad in some areas that trucks and other heavy vehicles are barred from most city streets between 5am and 9pm.

The metropolis accounts for about 30% of the Philippines gross domestic product.

Once the street and pavement obstructions are cleared, Mr Fernando intends to mount a campaign against illegal parking. He has already made some headway on the traffic front, banning left turns on key arteries.

Since August, the president has also transferred to the MMDA the responsibility of Manila flood control, once the province of the public works department. Certain northern and eastern sections of the metropolis go under water under any serious rain, leading to school holidays, traffic gridlocks and business standstill.

Alex Magno, president of the Manila think-tank Foundation for Economic Freedom, said part of metropolitan Manila's problems is that it is not organised administratively to deal with the daily problems of mega-cities.

The MMDA provides only a semblance of an integrated response. The reality is that the NCR [national capital region] is politically as chaotic as it is physically.

With the population swelling to 15 million on weekdays, the metropolis is governed by a loose confederation of little fiefdoms made up of the mayors of the 17 towns and cities that make up Metropolitan Manila. Each town and city in this loose confederacy exhibits different levels of governance, diverse ordinances and a common reluctance to cooperate, he said.

The latter has already shown itself in the defiance of some Manila mayors to cooperate with Mr Fernando's campaign to tear down illegal vendor stalls. One mayor wants some streets declared free zones for street hawkers, while a Manila legislator, Magtanggol Guinigundo, said the transfer of flood control from the public works department to the MMDA could be unconstitutional.

Mr Magno said many officials actively encourage street vendors as well as squatters, many of whom are blamed for the flood problems because they set up shacks on top of open sewers and under bridges and throw their garbage into the water.

Some estimates place the number of squatters in Manila at up to a third of the population, making them a formidable voting bloc.

Mr Magno said removing the political fiction of towns and cities of the metropolis and replacing them with a single professional manager would help solve its problems, though this would require several acts of congress.

MMDA administers territory and population many times that of Singapore. We might as well run this as a sovereign city-state with its own Lee Kuan Yew.