progreso: para kay sin-o kag sa ano nga presyo?

From top, left to right: Calle Real - Iloilo C...

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ILOILO CITY, Philippines – This is the longest stretch of time that I have spent in Iloilo City in close to 20 years. It is no longer the eminently livable city that I remember it to be. The trappings of big city life are evident in the various amenities that have sprouted over the past twenty years.

The center of city life has moved from downtown Iloilo or Calle Real. It has moved less than 5 kilometers inland to the northwest to an area currently dominated by an SM City and right beside it the Smallville area which will soon see even more significant development with the entry of Ayala Land. The old Iloilo airport is seeing the beginning of another CBD-like development as being laid out by the property developer – Megaworld.

This is what is being touted by many as progress.

Yet, as I watch the transformation of the city, I see a city that may be losing its soul. The things that make Iloilo the unique place that it is are rapidly giving way to the conscience-less march of commercialism. The old Spanish-era houses are falling into disrepair and face being condemned, the various plazas that dot the city are in danger of being overrun by unsightly temporary structures housing beer gardens and “ukay-ukay” stalls.

The community activism which has slowed down the march of the “big-box” retailers in the United States is largely absent here as in many places in the Philippines. This has left the future of many of our communities in the hands of business interests who pursue profit at the expense of our cultural moorings and at the hands of politicians who tout mindless development as a sign of progress with an eye towards the next election.

It is pity that we have not developed the maturity to distinguish rational and progressive development with development that has no parameters. Left unfettered, we will soon see our heritage and identity demolished by the proverbial wrecking ball.

It is frustrating to know that there is not even a medium or long-term plan for the development of the city. This would ideally serve as a roadmap as to the types of investment that are solicited into the city. The closest to such a plan was a zoning and land-use plan that was prepared for the city by Palafox and Associates. The sad thing is that even this was not pursued after being shot down by the city council. The sadder part is that no alternative was even proposed by the councillors who voted down this plan. This essentially makes development in the city a free for all proposition.

This lack of planning is evident in the infrastructural deficiencies that remain unaddressed by the city.

Even before the fruits of all the current investment are felt, the city is starting to choke in the fumes of traffic gridlock. The flyovers that have been built along General Luna Street destroyed a large stretch of the street dividers which were home to decades-old pine trees while providing little to no relief to the gridlock. The pointless and unsightly pedestrian overpasses remain largely unused and instead serve as nightly sleeping quarters for the city’s homeless. The traffic enforcers as in many areas in the country are largely clueless about managing traffic flow.

The water supply remains a mess. The political squabbling centered on the Metro Iloilo Water District (MIWD) led to heated discussions with the result largely being an unacceptable status quo. The private water business remains very lucrative at the expense of the consumer who has to shell out more than would otherwise be the case with a functioning water distribution system. It is said that the officials of the MIWD are themselves involved in this profitable enterprise leading to serious conflicts of interest and the resulting lack of interest and incentive in fixing this problem.

The electricity supply situation has been addressed with the new power plant that came online earlier this year. The recent rash of brownouts point to a distribution problem from the power utility company which is playing catch-up with the provision of the new supply. While I have not seen the conditions attendant to the grant of the congressional franchise to distribute power, it behooves any utility to adapt standards which start with providing power to its customers 24/7, 365 or 366 days a year. If a utility does not have the ability to meet this standard, it should, at the very least, show concrete plans to achieve this within a specified period of time. Any interruption should be taken as a major deviation calling for full public disclosure as to the reasons for this interruption. This standard should apply to the water utility as well.

Public transportation is largely provided by inefficient jeepneys which need to go. There also appears to be too many of them. Like everywhere else, most jeepney drivers do not know how to follow traffic rules assuming they know them at all. Many of these jeepneys are a danger to safety with the lack of such basics as functioning front and rear lights. A lot of these jeepneys have corroding bodies which make it only a matter of time before they start falling apart.

Despite the presence of an inordinate number of medical and nursing schools, the delivery of healthcare services in Iloilo City is very expensive for the consumer. Prices appear to be twice what similar procedures cost in Metro Manila. Despite these prices, patients still complain about the state of facilities which are not commensurate to what they pay.

All these infrastructural challenges did not happen overnight. They are the result of short-sighted public-sector leaders, the timidity of the business sector in initiating progressive investment, the self-defeating passiveness of the populace and the general lack of real community pride.

I do not write this missive just because I have some nasty and malicious agenda. I write this because I am afraid.

I am afraid that my sense of being an Ilonggo will soon lose its physical mooring with the wanton destruction of the attributes that you can identify with the city that I grew up in.  I fear one day coming to Iloilo and having no sense of affinity to it. I fear the proverbial wrecking ball.

I write this to hopefully knock some sense into the leaders of the city – both from the public and the private sector. Yes, we may all have the same motive of making things better. But – it also makes sense to ask, better for whom and at what price?

Do we really need to attract call center businesses into the city knowing that the 24/7 culture of this industry has helped disturb the fabric of our society (the graveyard shift, anyone?)? Do we really want our children to start their careers with a dead-end job as a call center agent? Should we really be proud of the fact that we have educated many medical professionals who are now employed abroad? Should we banner the fact that a significant portion of the world’s commercial shipping crews come from Iloilo? Have we thought of how many families have been torn apart by the separation of its members? How many more parent-less children will we have to raise before we, as a society, realize that we are raising kids who will not have the moral grounding, the sense of family and the ideal home of generations past?

Yes – we have challenges and issues but I still believe in the innate talent and wisdom of our people to overcome these with the proper direction. We have to be less accepting of things that are not what they should be. We should be more open about our having problems and not sweeping them under the rug. We have to be less tolerant of those having the so-called “crab mentality”. And – we have to be more thoughtful and disciplined about the solutions that we will undertake to resolve our problems.

We have to stop skating through life without confronting our demons. To do so means to “kick the can” further along and leaving our problems to our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Doing so means asking future generations to solve problems which may not be as solvable as they are now.

As for those of us in Iloilo – go to the Jaro Plaza, tell me if you like what you see… is this the type of development that you can live with?

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