Monday, June 13, 2011

Out with the car

Commentary
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
June 13, 2011

Older people in Manila can remember the acacia trees that lined Taft Avenue before the cars and elevated train took over. They can remember, if they are somewhat older, the trolleys that ran through Sta. Ana, with bells tinkling gently like those of ice cream vendors. Jesuits, including Bishop Federico Escaler, remember the Pasig River when you could see clear to the sandy bottom and could swim with schools of colored fish. Behn Cervantes, writing in BusinessWorld, recalls the beauty of Quiapo. He remembers “the stately homes beside the streams that connected to the Pasig.” Now these streams are called esteros and no one wants to live near them. “Quiapo was a verdant area described in vintage poems,” Cervantes tells us. Most Asian cities had similar areas.

Such were Asian cities before they committed themselves uncritically to the automobile and to the flyovers, underpasses, tunnels, superhighways and parking lots the automobile demands. There were problems back then, but there were also quiet, gracious places people would remember all their lives. Who will remember Taft Avenue as it is now or Quiapo? Our passion for the car may in the end prove to have been a huge and costly mistake.

Asian cities, after having spent billions of baht, won, pesos and rupees on transportation infrastructure, are still clogged with traffic. In addition to traffic jams, the automobile has proven to be the No. 1 cause of pollution in Manila and other Asian cities.

Bangkok has done everything possible to accommodate the car. It has denied resources to its impoverished Northeast region in order to care for the needs of the car. In Bangkok drivers can go from one end of the city non-stop to the other in great comfort on elevated roads, but when they come down to ground level, as they must, they run into the same old traffic jams.

People in the Philippines should ask themselves: Would we be better off today if the government had improved irrigation and developed first-class health and education systems over the past years instead of building all those flyovers, etc.? Food would be cheaper surely, with enough for everyone. Our children would be among Asia’s wisest and healthiest.

Is there an alternative to cars? People who can go to the moon and Mars should be able to find one. The following suggestion may not be exactly what we are looking for, but it is only a start. Thomas Edison experimented with hundreds of materials before he found the proper filament for his electric light. It is important to start discussing solutions. If we discuss and search diligently, a realistic alternative will be found. Remember the movie “Field of Dreams” with Kevin Costner, and the heavenly voice that said, “Build the field and they [the old players] will come.” If we search for a good alternative, we have a very good chance of finding it.

This alternative begins by limiting the number of car owners to 25,000, instead of the hundreds of thousands who now have cars. This relatively small number will include our business, political and cultural elite. It is unfair, perhaps, but if we insist on the elite giving up their cars, there will be no progress. These 25,000 persons are able to block any effort to limit car use, if they are adversely affected, like they have limited wages, land reform legislation, urban poor housing and other social justice matters. On the other hand, if the 25,000 are not affected, but are able to keep their cars and have near-traffic-free streets to zip back and forth to work and recreation, they will support the alternative.

There will be special cars set aside for the emergency needs of ordinary people.

For car owners who are not part of the 25,000, we can offer a package of benefits. They can keep their cars for use out of town or in their own neighborhoods. They will not be allowed on Edsa or on major roads. Instead they will be given free rides for five years in a new fleet of air-conditioned buses that will take the workers home from Makati to Cubao, Marikina and Alabang in less than 20 minutes. They can nap or read the papers on the way.

Car owners on average can save up to P150,000 a year on gas and maintenance. In 10 years or less without the use of cars they will be millionaires.

The country can save the money designated for flyovers and highways and put it to much better use. Do we need C-6 or C-10 if there are only 25,000 cars? The money can be used for investments that benefit all of the people. We need irrigation, inexpensive energy, better and affordable medical services and better salaried teachers. We must give our poor a better chance in life. Just think of the money that will be saved on gasoline alone and the improved services such money can provide.

With fewer cars on the streets, it will be attractive to use bicycles. For those who want to mix their travel and exercise this alternative will be attractive. They can have their own lane. We’ll be the healthiest people in Asia.

We must keep looking for alternatives. Someone among us has the answer.

Finally, every person in the Metro Manila area will breathe clean and healthy air once again if we can limit the number of cars.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

God is not doing His job

Commentary
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
June 5, 2011


Sayra has lived all her life on a small patch of sidewalk in downtown Calcutta, now called Kolkata. I interviewed her 23 years ago for a book on Asia’s urban poor. I looked for her in the intervening years, but I could never find her until just last April. She still lives on that patch of sidewalk, as her mother and father had before her. She was born there and had her first child there. We had a long conversation, while her neighbors joined in, and at the end of it I asked, if she believed in God despite all her problems.

“I believe in God,” she said, “but He’s not doing His job now. He is supposed to take care of us, but look around and you’ll see He is not doing that.” She swept her arm in a gesture over the people’s sleeping mats and the dirty street.

About 30 families live on the sidewalk with Sayra. All are from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, and most are from the same village. They have come to Calcutta for work. The main work the men find is as rickshaw pullers. This corner of Calcutta is one of the few places in the world where one person sits at comfort in a carriage and another person, like a beast of burden, pulls him through the streets. The rickshaw pullers run and walk on the boiling hot asphalt, in the middle of some of the world’s most chaotic traffic. Their faces are expressionless and they never look anyone in the eye. The pressures of those streets drive dogs racing madly through the traffic barking insanely.

The people are Muslim. They help each other like the poor do everywhere to survive, but they are at the bottom of Indian society. A year ago the police came, beat the people, abused the women and set their household things on fire, in order to drive them out. A hotel owner on the same street thought they were bad for his business. But they are determined to stay there until some better place for living and raising their families is offered them.

The rickshaw pullers earn 50-100 rupees a day. (The rupee has the same value more or less as the peso.) Sayra’s son, a rickshaw puller, stood beside while she talked. He was lean as a leather belt and laughed good naturedly at his mother’s comments.

The people have water pumps from the government, but little less. As in Manila they can bring their sick to public hospitals, but have to pay for any medicine they use. The education arrangements weren’t clear. The women seemed to say most children didn’t go to school, but some were adopted by foreign foundations and raised in boarding schools outside the city. The women earn about 1,200-1,500 rupees per month making blankets for the government. They also earn from talking to tourists about their lives. They are not complaining: in fact there is much laughter and good feeling. They are happy to be together. Sayra is chubby, but the other women are thin as women can be.

The pavement dwellers live across the street from two very old Protestant churches dating back to the 1860s, the American Civil War and the glory days of the British Empire. The museum is almost as old. If it were possible to remove the cars, we could have been back in 19th-century London. The red brick museum with its barred windows could be part of a movie set for a retelling of the Jack the Ripper serial killings.

After our talk with Sayra, I came in the mornings to sit by the churches and watch the people rise and get ready for the day. They do it slowly giving each person their chance at the facilities. It’s ballet-like in a way, very peaceful.

The Communist Party ruled Calcutta and all of West Bengal for 32 years, before losing the recent statewide election. A veteran communist leader A.B. Bardham said in the May 16 issue of the Times of India that the defeat was due to the arrogance of the party leaders who lost touch with the poor people.

There are, as is obvious, many similarities with life in Metro Manila. Tens of thousands of our poor brothers and sisters curl up at night on mats or newspaper along our streets or in the parks. At six in the evening you see them cooking their rice and by seven or eight, they are in bed. Government treatment of these poor people is pretty much the same as it is in India. It is an open question whether the government here will also lose touch with its people.

* * *

The British Broadcasting Company spent a whole day filming along Estero de San Miguel, which flows near MalacaƱang. Paul Mason who headed the team was fascinated by the cohesive organization of the estero people and their determination to join with Palafox Associates to build permanent houses on the esteros. He told the people, “I am honored to be here with you.”

We admire the ordinary people of Egypt, Libya and Syria who hunger for freedom and a dignified life to the extent they risk their lives in revolt. Our poor possess the same God-given instincts. They want freedom, dignity and justice just as deeply.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

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