BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Friday, June 6, 2014

My Piece for Germany-based Tea After Twelve is Out

Tea After Twelve: Megacities

It is three p.m. in Manila on a sizzling Monday afternoon. The thermometer reads 30 degrees Celsius and the traffic is at a standstill.  I have been driving for almost three hours already from the airport back to my house in Quezon City, a drive that could take only 20 minutes if only the roads were empty. But these days, Metro Manila's roads are never empty anymore. Traffic is a mess of epic proportions, a nightmare, an apocalypse of sorts.

The route from the airport to Roxas Boulevard for instance is at a gridlock almost the whole day and past office hours because of ongoing construction and road works.

The road is lined on one side by buildings surrounded by giant cranes and construction workers in their bright orange workers' vest and hard hats who are busy building giant casinos and hotels -- all part of a glittering 100-hectare Las Vegas-style casino complex targeted for completion in four years.

Indeed, Metro Manila, a region of 16 cities and home to 11 million of the Philippines' 94-million population is indeed changing and it is changing fast.

Traffic is one such indicator of rapid change, caused as much by daily road and construction work brought about by cheap condominium boom as it is by the rise in business process outsourcing (BPO) offices.

Blue-collared workers now have to leave their homes double the time that they used to. If one has a meeting in Makati, the country’s financial business district for instance, and one is coming from Quezon City – just an hour’s drive five years ago, one would have to leave more than two hours ahead because of heavy traffic. It’s worst to take any of the public buses that ply EDSA, Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare that stretches 23 kilometers through six cities, because their drivers, paid on commission per passenger, won’t move until their buses are filled to the brim.

The elevated commuter train that passes the same route takes only thirty minutes but one will have to fall in line for an hour to get inside and two hours during the morning and evening rush hours.

Once in a while, I become part of the chaos, when I am too tired to brave the monstrous road jam and would rather sit or stand on the crowded train than to do the driving myself. Or when gasoline prices are skyrocketing as they do when the oil-producing Middle Eastern region is in a crisis.

The chaos actually begins long before the ride starts as I experienced one damp October morning, at the foot of the train’s Quezon Avenue station, the one nearest my house, on pools of mud and water from the previous night's rain, where the line to the morning's ride started.

There are mostly office workers in the long, snaking line of commuters, some in high-heeled shoes or crisp uniform. Many are used to the kind of hell but it’s still as inconvenient as it is any given day.

The crowd is always as thick as the Red Sea's waves.

Welcome to Metro Manila, the Philippines' national capital region. Welcome to mayhem. The City of Manila itself, the Philippine capital, is indeed experiencing rapid change. Even the once treasured national landmark, the monument of the late Dr. Jose Rizal, our national hero who was shot by a firing squad of the Spanish Army, is now surrounded on one side by high-rise condominiums.

Indeed, there is without doubt a housing boom in the Philippines, with record low interest rates, irresistible down payment requirements, many Filipinos are finding themselves able to afford their own homes.

Developers say they are helping Filipinos have their own homes.

Januario Jesus "J.J." Gregorio Atencio III, co-owner of local property developer 8990 Holdings said having one’s own home is empowering.

“It’s more than a business. We do it to change lives,” he said in an interview.

According to real estate consultancy Colliers International Philippines, more than
4,400 high-rise residential units were completed in 2013 in the five major central business districts in Metro Manila that Colliers monitor.

It expects 19,700 units to be turned over in the next three years, the company said in its outlook on the Philippine market released in February 2014.

The monstrous traffic is the price to pay for the prevailing construction boom in the country. Traffic is such a nightmare that fiction writer Dan Brown has dubbed the Manila the gates of hell, citing the six-hour traffic jams. Indeed, it is here where fiction meets the truth.

All these development should be good. A construction boom means job opportunities. Some Filipinos are now able to have their own homes. But a closer look in Metro Manila’s nooks and crannies reveals that a huge part of the population is still being left behind. Many are still homeless and without jobs.

Shantytowns are expanding as fast as new condominiums are rising. Philippine economic growth rose to 7.2 percent in 2013 from 6.8 percent the previous. Yet, 25 million Filipinos still live below the poverty line.

The country’s wealth and resources are shared by just a few billionaires and they are the same people who are behind the booming condominium industry.

One look at any of the labyrinthine slum areas all over Metro Manila, one will find teeming poverty and impossibly difficult living conditions. The fetid smell of human sweat, garbage and trash pervade in these communities as two to three families of six are cramped in make-shift dwellings like sardines in cans.

Jobs are still difficult to find, forcing Filipinos to leave their loved ones in Manila to work mostly in the United States, Hong Kong and the Middle East as domestic helpers, entertainers, caregivers or seafarers. Some 5,000 Filipinos leave Manila everyday to work abroad.

Indeed, Metro Manila is changing and it is changing fast. The worsening traffic situation and the construction boom are just few of the signs of changes in this metropolis.

Some are adjusting and feeling the change, now able to buy their own homes and drive their own cars. But at the same time, Metro Manila’s poor stay desperately poor.

Whether or not development will eventually trickle down to the poor is still anybody’s guess but for sure, it is the change that many of them have been fervently waiting for.