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Opinion

The river runs deep with vested interests

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

Less than a day after San Miguel Corporation rolled out their newest project, PAREX or Pasig River Expressway, a multitude of critics came crawling out of the woodwork like termites disrupted from their hidden way of life. Even before most of us got sufficient information or details about the 19-kilometer elevated expressway, the critics were already rolling out “science” – “history” – and economic projections about the viability or lack of it. Truth be told, many of the “critics” were just waiting for the actual day when SMC president Ramon Ang and DOTr Secretary Art Tugade officially made the announcement. In other words, the critics were ready to ambush PAREX.

History will show us that every time SMC or other major corporations launch an infrastructure program, howls abound or obstructions appear.  Based on what many CEOs as well as politicians have shown me, what happens is local politicians often try to buy up land around or along the major project and in order to get more, they delay the project or assign obstructionists and experts on demolition PR. Whether it’s an international airport, a major sea port, or an industrial park, all the properties in the vicinity have been bought up for land banking by local politicians. Then there are politicians who want to be service providers, contractors, manpower suppliers, haulers, as well as negotiators for a fee or a commitment for political contribution. Some PR as well as a few members of media have even gotten into the act of soliciting ads, recognition and “utang na loob” from investors and developers, ultimately resulting in “consultancy contracts.”

Unfortunately for companies such as SMC, project implementations are all based on timelines in order to achieve targets but their timeline is inauspicious because we have entered into the political season and unofficial campaign period. Politicians will certainly see the Pasig River Expressway as the river from where their political life can flow one way or another. In another version, some oppose the PAREX because the project will require a full scale dredging of the Pasig River. Most of us who have spent many a day walking through knee deep waters going to school or to work, or seasonally rinsing our homes after every flood, would surely welcome the dredging of the Pasig River so that it can take in and flush out more rain water into Manila Bay.

But we forget that there are hundreds of billions that have been spent on Flood Management projects. This year, the DPWH proposed Flood Management budget is P84 billion. On top of that, every town, city and barangay in Metro Manila probably spends a billion plus on local flood response measures. All that money “creates” jobs, supports businesses and develops political support. If the SMC PAREX project delivers on dredging, deepening and widening the average measurements of the Pasig River, the need for flood control and funds will be drastically reduced.

If there is money in “basura,” there is money generated by floods. We need to open our eyes that vested interests in the hands of influential people or people in positions high and low will prioritize their income or their interest first. In the words of “Heneral Luna,” the choice is either family or country. He forgot about vested interests. We had numerous opportunities to build up an independent power program, alternative energy resource facilities long before it became popular, but a lobbyist for the petroleum industry convinced someone to drop the plan because it was politically tainted. Time and again numerous companies and global experts on flood management from the Netherlands and Belgium tried to set up dredging projects to deepen and widen the Pasig River, but lobbyists said it was a waste of money or would be a security risk for Malacanang.

As far as life and business on the Pasig River is concerned, what many people are unaware of is the profile of people and companies who are heavily invested in or dependent on their continued presence along the banks of the Pasig River. Many presidents and administrations have passed, many experts have all dreamed of green and open spaces and of reviving the Pasig River, but none of them succeeded because many corporations and businessmen own warehouses along the Pasig River, a very convenient and cheap set-up especially if you have to transport large volumes or quantities of products.

The Pasig river also serves as “free” parking for barges, tug boats and the like and if not, it is surely cheaper there in comparison. People always talk about the Pasig River but no one so far has ever asked much less investigated who controls lease agreements for riverside properties. How many warehouses are directly operated along the Pasig river? These business establishments and their CEOs do not like disruptors like Ramon Ang and they don’t like the possibility of their business model becoming complicated or impacted by the PAREX. So better for them to block it now than to “wait and see” or trust the word of RSA.

Time and again God and great projects have been blocked for all sorts of excuses. The SBMA plan to become the Philippine version of Hong Kong was torpedoed because some people did not want it to become Dick Gordon’s stepping stone to the presidency. The various SMC projects such as the NAIA-Expressway, the 3-stage Skyway and the SMC-Bulacan International Airport were all opposed and now the critics are nowhere to be found.

While the debate focuses on history, scenery and intangibles, the most important benefits that can come from the PAREX is buried in the debate. Travel time for many commuters from east to west will be cut down by at least an hour, the river can benefit and operate as a full-fledged water highway for cargo and the many attempts at having a legitimate river ferry can come true.  Yes, the “River Runs Deep” – with vested interests.

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E-mail: utalk2ctalk@gmail.com

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