IS there, has there, will there ever be a government plan to put our transportation conditions on the utmost level of availability, punctuality, safety and affordability?
I know that NEDA has medium-term and maybe long-term plans for development using taxpayers’ money and the modern vision of delivery of basic services. Is transportation or the state of travel from one end of the archipelago or even from one end of an island to the other end, or from one neighboring island to the next neighboring island somewhere within their scope and part of their planning for the present, near and far future?
I am asking this question because from numerous past events and unchanging grim conditions, there seems to be something structurally mistaken or irremediably wrong in our transport systems at present.
If there is some kind of plan, it seems to be invisible. If there is none, then whoever is called to create one such, is it NEDA or the Department of Transportation and Communications? Whoever is falling down on the job and failing to address a basic service that is critical to the majority of the population, a service that is a must. Or, is this another failure of vision and planning by those in charge of transport?
These questions come to me as we contemplate the nth senseless sea disaster with its consequent loss of human lives just 200 meters out of Ormoc City, Southern Leyte. Blaming the Coast Guard and sacking the team that was in Ormoc when the MB Kim Nirvana set sail for Camotes Island is not the solution or even the adequate answer to what happened. If nothing more is done than an investigation and a ridiculous charge of murder against the crew and owner as purported in the news media, this incident will just be another forerunner of more to come. It does not address the underlying causes of sea disasters in these parts.
There is something wrong when decrepit vessels under apparently seriously incapable or ignorant crew take to sea overloaded with an unsafe number of passengers, the helter skelter and dangerous overloading of heavy materials such as cement and rice (even dangerous chemicals as found in previous wreckages). What is obvious is that the few reputable sea-going vessels with capable crew do not serve missionary routes (where there is no critical mass of passengers to generate a good profit) in this archipelago. The Ormoc to Camotes Island trajectory is one of them. Why? So, this passenger sector is left to flimsy seacraft that are given licenses but are hardly supervised or regulated as they should be.
If it is because these routes are not profitable or there is not enough capital for small private entrepreneurs to have access to so that they can come up with adequate facilities, then the government with taxpayers’ money has to step in. In this age of almost mandatory privatization of every basic service, it may be necessary to go the opposite way and invest in government-owned, controlled and managed transportation, at least in the matter of water transport, to provide service and save lives. I am probably taking a very contrarian approach but if the idea is seriously thought about or accepted and implemented with expertise and integrity (a basic need in government services), it may alleviate the travails and perils to which our current sea transport is prey.
There, of course, may be other solutions than the government taking over such as official encouragement through managed incentives like capital, technological assistance, training of seamen and even providing the sea vessel on easy credit terms as well as allowing fares to be enough so that the entrepreneur makes an attractive profit without gouging the passengers. That would be the ideal private entrepreneur route.
In Greece, an archipelago like ours and not necessarily outdistancing us too much in economical resources, they have long had decent, safe, affordable ferries that ply the islands daily, regularly and safely. Yes, there was a fire on one of them recently but the passengers had a fighting chance, most were saved and the ferry was not reduced to smithereens like the MB Nirvana Kim.
I am not too informed about the details of the ferry transport of Greece and if it is government-owned or managed. But it is certainly supervised by their equivalent of the Coast Guard. These ferries must have had credit facilities, or business incentives or whatever was necessary to have them come to existence and answer a need for safe transport. In fact, they are the backbone of the tourist trade of the Greek islands by offering accessibility to them at a fair price in safe, comfortable and regular schedules.
At this point in our economic and transport history, there is something missing and maybe wrong when our better ferry services do not find it worth servicing places like Camotes Island the way they can service Cebu, Bacolod, Iloilo, etc. Are we to leave people who live on our smaller islands to the mercy of credit-impaired and thus catch-as-catch-can entrepreneurs who may mean well but cannot deliver what is expected of a safe and comfortable sea trip?
Yes, regulations must be enforced, vessels must be sturdy and safe, routes must be served, crew must be well-trained, well-paid, professionally supervised. But these wishes can only come true when a serious study on how they can be put in place permanently is done.
At this point, private entrepreneurship has not found the answer or the incentives and cannot seem to give the solution. Isn’t it time that a government agency like the NEDA or the DOTC or whatever arm is in charge of sea transport address the structural problem? Everyone points at the Coast Guard but they are at the end of the chain of events. Will the so far invisible agencies that are supposed to address the issues of our sea transport system materialize into a take-charge presence?
Our record of sea disasters is an unenviable black mark on our society and our government. We need the government to address this disastrous status quo now.