Friday, May 29, 2009

Backward Barrios, Flyover States, and HUC

Fresh from a stay in a remote barangay in Alang-alang, Leyte for the recent six-day Community Immersion, I could not avoid making a comparison between the simple life of Brgy. Dapdap residents and the fast-paced life in a constantly growing city like Tacloban. While one might loathe the feeling of obscurity (at least from a city dweller's point of view) living in towns far from urban jungles, one could also wonder if the comforts of a mall or other big establishments necessarily spell a better life.

This reminded me of a certain Urban Planning class I once attended, when the topic veered on urban and rural settlements, and I first encountered the term "flyover states". Apparently, when one travels in the US to and from mega cities like Los Angeles and New York, the airplane flies over less urbanized (and less popular) places such as Wyoming and Nebraska. Whoever coined the term must have thought that apart from the populous centers of the East and West Coast, other cities were considered obscure. But a certain phenomenon, with the very same forces that became catalyst to the creation of mega cities, promises an eventual transformation of their lesser counterparts- and that event is called urbanization.

Whether the reason is to reduce time and cost of transportation, or look for job opportunities or education, or even seek modern health services, more and more people flock to the ever-expanding urban centers. Growth is therefore inevitable in these financial hubs, where more specialized goods and services are available.

Urbanization is nothing new even to developing countries such as the Philippines. Locally, there exists a classification of cities which tells more or less how urbanized or populous it is: Component Cities (which basically do not meet the requirements for a Highly Urbanized City, and remain a component of a specific province), Independent Component Cities (which are independent of the province), and Highly Urbanized Cities (per Republic Act 7160, it must have at least 200,000 inhabitants with the latest income of at least 50 million pesos annually). As of December 18, 2008, the results were in for the plebiscite and Tacloban officially joined the ranks of Highly Urbanized Cities in the Philippines- but only after much debate and clamor between pro and anti-HUC.

While much of the uproar about the HUC conversion of Tacloban has died down, a question still remains as to whether or not the change was beneficial for ordinary Taclobanons. Looking at it closer, and from a pragmatic perspective, we need to see how the conversion affected the city's constituents- and by that I mean not only the affluent business people or politicians, but more importantly the local folk including street vendors,tricycle and jeepney drivers, and squatters.

The pros of the HUC reclassification certainly looked good on paper: the new status will boost the confidence of investors- which will mean more businesses in Tacloban, employment generation, a share of funds for development, independence of leadership from Leyte Province, and as how politicians such as Mayor Romualdez and Makati Mayor Binay puts it- a more competitive city in general. Five months after the status change may be a little premature to judge if the majority was right on their vote, but a quick interview among the locals pretty much gave a picture as to how the change affected some of them so far.

Mrs.Reyes, a 34 year old fruit vendor from Brgy. Nula-Tula says she was opposed to the status change of Tacloban from the beginning. Now, she complains, her income is limited now that there are certain areas where vendors are prohibited. The city office also required her to secure a permit, and with it, she paid a certain fee. Another thing was that she used to be able to go home with only one jeepney ride, but because of the re-routing, going home now consists of two rides: one going to the terminal, and finally from the terminal to her home. She says that on a daily basis, this takes its toll on an already tight financial situation.

Mr. Fernando, a pedicab driver from Brgy. 77, also complained of a dwindling daily income. The pedicab terminal was moved, and they were restricted only to the minor streets. Traffic cops, he said, are only too eager to give them a ticket at the slightest mistake. (And if the pedicab is impounded, they pay around Php500- so much more than their net daily earnings of Php150.)

Some squatter's area were started to be demolished to give way to new construction- though resettlements for those who lost their homes were promised. Left and right, downtown Tacloban seems to be abuzz with activity- people erecting billboards, setting up new shops, and constructing buildings. A previously unemployed neighbor was now working at a newly opened Gaisano Mall. A new call center started hiring trainees. More traffic cops are now seen on almost every street corner.

Perhaps Tacloban's joining the ranks of metropolitan cities like Cebu and Iloilo was inevitable, and as far as the effects are concerned- they seem to be both a mix of good and bad. Whether it would be positive in the long run for the majority, only time will tell. We can only hope that this kind of progress bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, rather than further widening it , like what is evident in most metropolitan areas (perfectly illustrated by a fancy building right next to a slum area). One thing is for sure- life in Tacloban is bound to get a lot more complex and a little more fast-paced in the days to come.
Photo Source: Taclobanon photographer Gerry Ruiz

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