Special powers
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 18, 2019 - 12:00am

The list reads like something being implemented in China or Vietnam:

Rules on obtaining business permits, licenses and other requirements set by local government units and homeowners’ associations can be overruled or amended by a national authority.

Private property can be taken for public use, with reasonable compensation as allowed by law, paid by the government to the owner. The national authority can also take over private transportation facilities and infrastructure.

Communities can be relocated to make way for vital public works infrastructure, with only the Supreme Court allowed to intervene.

I know certain prominent, respected Filipinos who are no fans of authoritarian rule, but who think our brand of democracy borders on anarchy, and who wouldn’t object to such powers given to the national government.

Realistically, however, I think the proposal to give such special powers to President Duterte or his designated official to push his flagship projects, with just two and a half years left in his term, has a snowball’s chance in hell of approval.

Even in the off chance that Congress grants the powers, each measure is likely to be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court for constitutionality and adherence to human rights principles.

The proponent, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, concedes that he faces an uphill battle, with Duterte’s allies saying the proposed special powers – requested by the administration at the start of his presidency – come too late at this point.

“I’ll give it my best shot… I’ll push really very hard,” Salceda told “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News channel last week.

*      *      *

Salceda understands that his proposals may not be well received in a country that still remembers the abuses and repression during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

But he believes democracy should not be a hindrance to development when public interest and the common good are at stake.

The country is in dire need of an infrastructure upgrade, Salceda stresses. Among the concerns in the Philippines cited by investors and other quarters, the inadequacy of infrastructure is ranked way ahead of corruption, he points out.

He noted that several provisions in the post-EDSA Constitution “deliberately slowed down the national processes to avoid any excesses,” but also restricted progress.

Democracy, Salceda argues, “should be an instrument for development… it provides for its own correction.”

He asked: do we want new water sources for Metro Manila, more airports across the country, more roads?

The simple answer is, of course we do.

“Democracy should prompt positive impact on the lives of ordinary people,” Salceda told us.

*      *      *

His sentiments might actually resonate among those affected by the inadequate infrastructure – including millions in Metro Manila who are facing water shortages, crummy mass transportation and intractable traffic gridlocks.

Even the new roads aren’t providing the envisioned relief, because they are mainly toll roads. Just look at the NAIA Expressway from Macapagal Boulevard to the NAIA terminals. The ground level traffic is just as congested as ever. Ordinary motorists, who are already paying 12 percent VAT on fuel, prefer to endure the ground level traffic and save on the P35 one-way toll. Why can’t the government build a 12-kilometer road that taxpayers can use toll-free? Where do our taxes go?

It’s the same situation at the Cavitex stretch from Las Piñas to Kawit in Cavite. Even with the fabulous scenery, few motorists are willing to pay the P64 one-way toll that cuts travel time from over an hour along the traffic-choked old highway to just under 10 minutes on the expressway.

That’s P128 a day for two-way toll, P640 per five-day workweek, or P14,080 for 22 working days a month. This is in addition to gasoline expenses. Even with a basic monthly salary of P30,000 – the entry level pay for cops, for example – that will be a considerable amount eaten up by transportation costs. So motorists would rather endure traffic jams along the old road.

All these toll roads also discourage people from relocating outside Metro Manila, away from their offices and schools.

*      *      *

Salceda presented his proposal to the House of Representatives amid criticism that Duterte’s promised “golden age of infrastructure” through Build Build Build has been a “dismal failure.”

The administration considered the comment harsh, even as it has acknowledged, in words and deeds, that Build Build Build needs speeding up and a rethinking of priorities.

Vince Dizon has been appointed to the long-dormant post of presidential adviser on flagship projects. As he previously told The Chiefs, he would serve as BBB whip or bastonero because the projects aren’t moving fast enough.

Good luck on that.

The problems that have bedeviled the BBB aren’t just ordinary red tape and the nearly five-month delay in the approval of this year’s national budget.

Right-of-way issues alone are formidable. There are indigenous communities, environmental groups, the communist New People’s Army and litigious homeowners’ associations to contend with.

Consider one of the BBB projects, the Kaliwa Dam in Rizal and Quezon. It’s a viable alternative water source for Metro Manila. The Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, under an agreement with the two water concessionaires, was tasked to develop the water sources. To this day the Kaliwa Dam is in construction limbo, with indigenous groups and environmental advocates opposing the project, and at least one local executive reportedly demanding an unreasonably fat commission.

As of 2015, the population of Metro Manila stood at 12.8 million. These are the people served by the two water concessionaires, which have resorted to rotational water interruptions due to the inadequate rainfall this year and the low water level in Angat dam, the principal source of water for the mega city.

At this point, even if all the hurdles are overcome, it will take at least three years, we are told, before Kaliwa Dam can come onstream.

Both the de facto presidential spokesman and the House speaker say the proposal for special powers comes too late.

With only two and a half years left in the term of President Duterte, it does seem too late to grant him special powers to speed up the implementation of his flagship projects.

“I’ve lost very few battles,” Salceda told us. And then he added with a grin, “This may be one of the few.”

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