Thursday, September 9, 2004

Bantay riles

So what is everybody waiting for, the President wanted to know.

There’s no stopping the North Rail project, we are told, and I couldn’t help thinking of ``The Runaway Train’’, the 1988 bone-rattling movie that left viewers breathless and all shook up.

Ten hours after she returned from her state visit to China, Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo expressed impatience over the slowness of the North Rail project that would span the Manila-Clark (Pampanga) distance. Actual work on the ground has yet to start. China had already released the $400 million for the first phase that would connect Manila to Malolos, Bulacan.

Ms. Arroyo’s trip to China had a lot to do with this project. The Chinese Eximbank has also approved the second phase. During her pulong bayan held at the Cubao LRT station, the President, reports said, was impatience personified. She even called for North Rail president Jose Cortez Jr. who was having coffee in another LRT platform. Start now, she ordered. There were no reports about Cortez spilling his coffee and getting scalded.

The Strong Republic Transit System is one of the President’s flagship infrastructure projects meant to boost economic growth and employment. Who does not want to have a modernized railway system that would get people and products faster to their destinations and minus the hassle of road travel? Who does not want a clean, well lighted train speeding with a humming sound, minus garbage bags piling on its roof?

But wait. How do you uproot the tens of thousands of families living along the railroad tracks? Most motorists see them only on the periphery of their vision as they cross the tracks. If you are on a helicopter you’d have a better view of the colonies clustered on both sides of the tracks.

Many would probably ask—how in heaven’s name did homes proliferate in these dangerous areas? Dangerous is an understatement. Many homes are a foot away from the tracks. A few months ago I did a two-part series on the dangers of living along the riles. I’ve interviewed some survivors of train hits and I couldn’t help thinking that it seems a miracle that the number of casualties is not bigger than what is listed.

Riles denizens are a death-defying breed indeed. Why, they’ve even invented the foot-propelled trolley that runs on the tracks and ferries passengers from point to point.

But the question now is not how communities grew along the tracks. The question now is how to uproot them from there, how to relocate them in a manner that is humane. Some 35,000 families are going to be affected by the North Rail project alone. The south is another story. From the north to the south there are about 70,000 riles families.

Relocation does not mean dislocation in the physical sense only. There are psychological, socio-cultural and emotional factors that have to be considered. A whole way of life is going to vanish, hopefully to be replaced by a better one. But what if life gets worse before it gets better? Must the poorest go through a worst phase?

This is the issue that Representatives Mario Aguja, Ana Theresia Hontiveros-Baraquel and Loretta Ann Rosales of Akbayan Party want to address.

They recently filed House Resolution 165 directing the committees on Housing and Urban Development and on Civil, Political and Human Rights ``to investigate the North Rail and South Manila Commuter Rail rehabilitation projects and its effects on the residents living in areas adjacent to the railway tracks.’’ Fourteen other representatives co-authored the resolution, among them, Alan Peter Cayetano, Roilo Golez, Reylina Nicolas, Miles Roces, Luis Asistio and Eduardo Zialcita.

They cited article XIII of the Constitution that says that ``urban or rural poor dwellers shall not be evicted nor their dwellings demolished, except in accordance with law and in a just and humane manner.’’ The Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 also prescribes for a ``just and humane eviction.’’

Because of the great number to be affected by the railway rehab projects, Aguja, Hontiveros-Baraquel and Rosales are calling on government agencies concerned in the North Rail and South Manila Commuter Rail Projects to present to Congress and to the public their concrete resettlement plans.

These agencies are the Philippine National Railways, NEDA, Department of Transportation and Communication, Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, National Housing Authority, project proponent North Luzon Railways Corporation. The local governments too.

Where are the resettlement sites for the families to be affected? What are the social preparations being made? Have public consultations been conducted? What are the timetables?

What is the budget, what are the sources of funds for this massive resettlement operation? What are the lead implementing agencies that will assure that the process complies with laws and respects human rights?

Aguja has recommended that lawmakers from districts to be affected set aside portions of their pork barrel for the riles dwellers’ resettlement. He has also commended the efforts of Bantay Riles, a new coalition of organizations monitoring the railway projects.

The north’s first phase will be 32.2 kms. The total project cost is US$503 million. It will have four stations located in Caloocan, Valenzuela, Marilao, Bocaue, Guiguinto and Malolos.

Phase 2 will be a branch line to Subic. Phase 3 will connect Caloocan to Fort Bonifacio Global City. Phase 4 goes all the way to San Fernando, La Union. Partial Operation is in 2006, project completion in 2007.

Bantay Riles is watching. I hope church groups would do the same. Yes, the bulldozers are sure to come.