Bayani Fernando and the urban poor

If there is one public official in our country today who does his work seemingly without regard for the political consequences, that person has to be Bayani Fernando, the current chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA).  In a just society, he would be a model public servant.  But in our kind of society, he can only be the blind uncaring agent of the powerful.

BF, as he is popularly known, is ironically, for the same reason, the modern Metro Manilan’s folk hero.  For the city’s most persistent problems – illegal encroachment on public space, traffic gridlocks, rampant criminality, flooding, urban blight, etc – he finds solutions that are, at one and the same time, capricious and ingenious, impulsive and experimental, outlandish and generally effective.  The upper and middle classes hail him as modernity’s champion, and think of him as the kind of president we need.  But I doubt that he will ever win an election outside of Marikina, where he was mayor for many years.

For BF is also possibly the Filipino poor’s most hated figure.  This is understandable.  To him belongs the unenviable job of dealing with all the illegal improvisations that make up the typical life of those who are forced to spend the greater part of their time trying to survive.  BF is right in the frontline of the class conflict that rages daily in our divided society.  And he is staunchly on the side of power.

While his political bosses may pay lip service to the needs of the poor even as their policies systematically oppress them, BF has no choice but to face them as if they were a perpetual nuisance, in accordance with his assigned role as the hatchet man of an unjust property system.

In this capacity, he must remain blind to the larger societal context of the problems he is assigned to fix.  He cannot propose long-term solutions that touch on the structural inequalities from which flow all the problematic outcomes of mass poverty.  He is effective precisely because he treats the symptoms, and remains unmindful of the profound social illness that produces them.  In countless media appearances, BF speaks of the problems of the city in such folksy commonsensical terms that he leaves you wondering how someone like him can be so insensitive in his dealings with the poor.  You expect this lack of empathy to come from a disengaged technocrat who cannot see beyond his theory.  It is shocking to find it in a practical man like BF who has lived among the masses.  Is it possible that he thinks he knows the poor so well that he actually believes there is no way of dealing with them except by acts of toughness?

A few years ago, he stopped illegal vendors from plying their trade on sidewalks by ordering his men to spray kerosene on the goods they were selling.  In this manner, he reasoned, there is no way they can recover their investments. He confiscated their carts, and detained those who persisted in occupying the sidewalks.

The other day, I heard him on radio talking about the demolition of shanties along esteros and under bridges that impede the flow of rain water and cause flash floods.  Asked if there were relocation sites to which the affected families could be transferred, BF had a ready reply: “We cannot reward these law-breakers by giving them homes.” He wants to send them back to the provinces where they came from. One might wonder where such attitude is coming from. But in fact it is a sentiment that is silently held by many Filipinos who do not have to live dangerously along river banks or pitch their shanties inside cemeteries.

It is difficult not to appreciate Bayani Fernando’s stubborn ideas about how to make the city livable.  To him it is all a matter of teaching people how to live in a modern society.  There is a lot of truth in this, but it is not the whole story.  It omits the one crucial element that determines the character of most of our social problems as a nation – mass poverty.

You cannot have a well-ordered city if nearly one-half of your residents have no regular jobs, no decent homes, and no bright future to look forward to no matter how hard they try.  Law-abiding citizens will not thrive in a society in which the very structure of opportunity has collapsed for the many.  They will be forced to improvise in order to survive.  They will put up their homes wherever they can so they can be close to schools, hospitals, and places of work.

You cannot tell people constantly on the verge of starvation to stay away from garbage heaps. You cannot tell them that scavenging is an unworthy way to earn a living.  You have to show them that a better way is within their reach.  BF knows this.  He was irked by the sight of grown men stopping in the middle of the streets to urinate behind the doors of their taxis or on the tires of their jeepneys.  He tried shaming them for acting like stray animals, but to no avail.  What finally put a stop to this uncivilized habit were the pink urinals he put up on Metro Manila’s sidewalks.  If you build public toilets, people will relieve themselves decently. If you build them proper homes, they will voluntarily leave the esteros.

People in general are not unreasonable.  They may stall, negotiate, and try to assert the primacy of their interest – but such behavior is pretty much distributed across social classes.  Poverty is certainly no excuse for recalcitrance.  But even under a rule of law, the MMDA’s forcible demolition of poor people’s shanties, leaving them without a roof over their heads, constitutes an unspeakable atrocity.


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