Wednesday, May 31, 2006

FROM URBAN SETTLER TO VICTIM A relocation story by Magi D. Nicolas


Annie* and husband Lino had good plans for when they would be relocated to the relocation site in Cabuyao from their home along the tracks in Pio del Pilar, Makati. He works for a group that delivers to a food stall offering lunch meals and snacks to people in Makati. Before the relocation, Lino had planned to teach his young wife how to cook; they would run a carinderia, a small eatery, in Cabuyao to augment their income.

But after the move, the couple stays in Cabuyao only on weekends. Lino and Ana have decided to stay in Makati the rest of the week to earn a living while their infant child is cared for by Ana’s mother in Cabuyao. The wife helps her husband sell food and gets P100 (less than two dollars) for a day’s work, but she says that is better than staying in Cabuyao and earning nothing. Putting up a small eatery in the relocation site would have been perfect: people there are in need of food, but their neighbors do not have the means to buy food -- many have lost their jobs. Ana’s dream of a small business has vanished.

In another block, Regina, also from Pio del Pilar, is being consoled by a group of neighbors, all women. Trying vainly to stifle her sobs, Regina is extremely distressed and is considering giving up the three youngest of her five children for adoption to a religious foundation. Her family has been starving from the time they relocated to Cabuyao in March. Her husband, who was staying in Makati on weekdays to search for income, seems to have given up. One day in May when he left, he simply told her to fend for the family. He has not been heard from since. Just a month after giving birth to her fifth child, Regina is thinking of going back to Makati and working as a cashier for P100 a day, to support herself and the two children who would remain with her.

The Southrail project promises efficient transportation through Metro Manila and south to Calamba, a distance of 70 kilometers. The construction requires that 48,000 families be removed. It is a segment of the North-South Rail Project that will cover 700 kilometers and evict 130,000 to 150,000 families, the largest planned eviction in Philippine history.

Death of “Diskarte”

The relocation has aggravated the pains of the poor. In the Cabuyao housing project (about 48 kms. from where the Makati relocatees originated), those who volunteered to be resettled are now complaining of economic dislocation and hunger. Relocatees report that conditions in Cabuyao kill the opportunity for “diskarte”, Filipino slang for resourcefulness, creativity and street smarts (the Third World nuance is lost in the translation).

The irony is that for decades, except for the small piece of land on which they had their shacks and raised their families, informal settlers did not depend on the government to survive. People living on the tracks are among the most “ma-diskarte” of the poor – they clean taxicabs, operate railway trolleys, wash clothes, sell fruits and snacks, make doormats and do a hundred other things to earn a living. Today, despite finally having homes to call their own, they are stuck in limbo, waiting for the “incremental improvements” that the government promised.

Mang Fred, a furniture upholsterer in San Antonio, Makati before the relocation in Cabuyao, recalls with hurt how a government official, hearing of their jobless plight, derided them with a plain and simple, “Maghanap kayo ng trabaho!” (“Look for a job!”), as if they are bums.

In a speech delivered in May before the Cardinal and representatives of People’s Organizations, sociologist Mary Racelis talked of degrees of vulnerabilities. Problems arise when government administrators and planners with technocratic orientation regard the urban poor as more or less the same. They pay little attention to varying levels of risks and shocks that displacement brings, preferring to look at baselines and averages and apply very standard planning concepts to a very diverse urban poor. She points out that something is very wrong when policies are crafted by people, highly educated here and abroad, based on assumptions inherited from Western societies that have very different government systems, very different institutions, and very different poverty. This perpetuates the facelessness of the urban poor, which is perhaps one reason why many in the middle and upper classes refer to the national law ensuring the proper and humane relocation of informal dwellers as “that stupid law”.

The lack of study and preparation, plus a one-size fits all approach to the issue of informal settlement has led to dismal results: preliminary findings show that in the six relocation sites in Bulacan in the North, livelihood training has been offered in most but only 5% of the 200 families interviewed report attending the training, according to a study made by the Diocese of Malolos and the NGO Urban Poor Associates. Of those who attended, only three of the five now apply the newly learned skills.

Transit To The End Of The World

One relocatee, a mother of three, ponders living in the “Promised Land” of Northville in Bancal, Malolos where there is an acute lack of basic services: “Para kaming itinapon sa dulo ng mundo (It seems like we were thrown at the end of the world).” They feel forsaken and forgotten.

Hundreds of families still live in tents in Northville, a year after eviction took place. Tent families await money to build their homes; others are losing hope of ever receiving housing allotment because of census problems and missing documents. Working heads of households have lost their jobs; remembering the trauma of a problematic census and fearing that they will get passed over if they went back to work or searched for jobs outside, they stay near their tents and earn a few pesos from construction work within the area.

As of early June the six relocation sites in the North lacked light. Some of the families in the sites have been there a year. Developers have stopped paying for the light. There is an argument over who is to blame. Some say Vice President Noli de Castro is to blame since he promised free light until permanent fixtures were in place. Others say this is not so, that it was always understood the people would pay some of the light bill. Meanwhile all agree there is no light.

In Cabuyao, relocatees from Makati are offered a free 5:30am train ride to Manila (travel to the city regularly costs about P100). But according to Mang Fred, husbands who crowd the train station early mornings are sometimes left behind by the train because, he speculates, the operators do not want to give them a free ride. He says the free-ride badges good for three years offer little consolation because no one else in the family can use the train pass aside from the signee.

Government administrators have argued that with or without the railways project, people along the tracks would still be relocated to keep them from a hazardous, subhuman environment. But in Cabuyao, the situation literally stinks. If Mount Makiling, when viewed from the tracks in Cabuyao, forms a lovely backdrop to a farmland vista, at the relocation site, walking distance from some housing blocks, there stands a stinking mountain of trash that leaks dirty floodwater whenever it rains.

At the relocation site in Bocaue in the North, a thin wall separates the relocation site from a factory that emits dark, nauseating fumes. People complain of dry throats, of mysterious sicknesses that they say result from ingesting noxious vapors. A father and his family sleep with a damp towel covering their faces so they will not suffocate in the night. People feel helpless because the factory has been there long before they were relocated in the area. Out of desperation, angry relocatees throw bottles and stones at the factory’s fence.

Since the relocation sites are far from schools, hospitals, marketplaces, and places of work, leaving home to earn a living means using up cash that could have been appropriated for food. The expanded, expensive transportation costs represent a big cut in income that very poor families can ill afford.

People are said to move “voluntarily” to these sites. Actually, they volunteer to move into unprepared sites because they are threatened by government officials: “If you don’t move now, you will get nothing.” Government describes this as a voluntary act. His Eminence Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales of Manila says the practice is “illegal.” Threats are used to get people to give up their constitution rights to a just and humane relocation. The law interpreting the constitutional requirement calls for prepared sites with light, water, etc.

Suffer The Children

Children are not spared the cruelty of eviction. Along with grown-ups, they, too, bear the burden of rushed, ill-planned evictions.

Another magical solution akin to “voluntary demolition” is seen in the handling of the school children. School was on when most evictions took place. The solution was for every pupil to receive a passing mark to the next grade level, even if their lessons were not completed, and there were months left in the school year.

Lemo, at a ripe old age of 12, knows the pain that his parents have been experiencing since the relocation. Heads of households are mentally anguished because their unemployment imperils their children’s education and chance for a better life. “Mas maganda po sa Makati. May trabaho. (It is better in Makati; there are jobs there.)” Lemo says he does not know if his friends will be able to attend school this year. He quickly changes his mind and says there is a big chance some of them will not be able to go to school. When asked if he is happy in Cabuyao, he says “No, life is tough here.”

The money that a schoolchild used to receive for food now goes to pay for costly transportation, which is why many have stopped going to school. This is indeed very painful because Filipinos, no matter the economic class, dearly value education. Schools in relocation sites in the North and South are far from ready and school started June 5. Government expects a serious shortage of classrooms and teachers. In one case, twelve barangays are supposed to fit in one school along with children along with children already living nearby.

This, then, is the situation from a child’s point of view: no electricity means enduring heat and mosquito bites, day and night. When Lemo and some friends went wandering after a summer storm, they noticed that some houses in the site have crumbled. His father explains that people, in a desperate attempt to keep construction costs down, contract cheap labor. Young ones like Lemo have simple wants: that drinking water be made available because water sourced from the pipes is not fit for consumption. As a result the poor are forced to buy distilled water.

Children have to be kept healthy and, most importantly, alive. But in the resettlement areas, no clinics and doctors are available; children are rushed to hospitals far from the relocation sites for minor and major injuries, incurring transportation costs that add insult to injury.

One-Way Ticket To Hunger?

Threats and/or impossible promises are being made to people on the tracks to get them to leave, as was mentioned above. Now many volunteer relocates tell of stories of uncertainties and regret. Even the people have grown weary of their own misery: “Puro daing ang tao dito (People here are filled with grief)”.

The informal settlers have found an ally in the Archbishop of Manila Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales. The Cardinal has communicated to the Vice President, who is also housing czar, his request for a moratorium on relocations so that the government can “complete the unfinished tasks in the Cabuyao relocation site and to look more closely for in-city relocation sites.”

Construction of the railroad has been delayed for months. Informal settlers are regarded as the cause of delay but the people are not the principal cause. The tracks from Caloocan to Malolos in the North have been free of urban poor for six months. No construction has been started.

It is imperative to ask: at what cost are they building the railways? Will the modern train that brings the Philippines into to the next century be built on the sufferings of the poor?

Next Stop: In-City Relocation

Many would wonder why relocatees feel that they are better off living in shanties, so dangerously close to speeding trains and without security of tenure, rather than in their own lots and homes in resettlement sites. Perhaps it is because the old, rundown homes provided a true sense of shelter as people chased their hopes in the city. Today, relocatees live in unfinished, low quality concrete structures, deprived of the dignity of being productive human beings.

The government promised “incremental development” is another magical situation. This is how the phrase translates in real life: a child goes without food for days; a distraught mother decides to give up her children for adoption so they will be kept alive; and families are broken up because the spouse who works in the city and comes home only on weekends sometimes finds reasons not to go back to his family and their life of despair.

Globalization creates high-speed trains that bring people to their destinations, but if unchecked, also tramples on the rights of the very poor. Urbanization means developers make retail and structural investments that ensure comfort and convenience to people who can afford them, while the have-nots are pushed further and further out.

Socialized housing must be incorporated in city planning. A percentage of urban land must be shared with the country’s homeless instead of allocating practically all city spaces to wealthy investors. Business and urban development must ultimately redound to benefit members of society who need help the most.

We recognize that rapid urbanization is truly a challenge for the government. Given this, we urge government administrators and planners to take a step back and carefully and compassionately review existing policies. Making the most vulnerable members of society an important part in crafting policies will truly make the railroad project a social service FOR ALL.

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Magi D. Nicolas conducted North-Southrail Case Study for Urban Poor Associates until June 2006. A freelance writer, Magi is an AB Philosophy graduate of Ateneo de Manila University and is now taking a Masters degree in Anthropology at the University of the Philippines.

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