The East is Red (and a prostrate land, too)

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Marlen V. Ronquillo

SPREAD out a Philippine map and draw a straight line through the middle to demarcate the East side (the Pacific Ocean side) and the West side (the China Sea side). Apply all the available human and development benchmarks after viewing the data for the East and the data for the West.

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What you will find (okay, only if you care for your country) will shock you.

The East or the Pacific Ocean side lags on every measurement that can be captured by data. It contributes less to the GDP. Never in the history of the country has it led the West in output. The poverty and illiteracy rates are starkly higher than the rates of the regions on the West. The educational system, whether public or private, and at every level (basic to tertiary) lags behind the educational system of the West. The health care system is likewise inferior to that of the West.

More. Mobility is slower to take place. The state of public infrastructure drags down potential revenue generators such as the East’s awesome tourism spots. Where power distribution is at best faulty and unreliable, which is the harsh reality in the East, Internet presence is at best faulty and unreliable You can’t even develop technology hubs or just plain contact center hubs in most of the provinces of the East because of the weak broadband connectivity.

But then, what kind of educational system—and economic environment—would encourage the bright and ambitious kids of the East to dream of becoming the next Elon Musk? Even political power has been concentrated in a few powerful political families. The story of former journalist Ben Evardone is an exception, not the norm.

On training and nurturing national leaders, what is the score of the East? Manuel Luis Quezon from Aurora was the Commonwealth president. But from Mr. Osmena Sr., down, presidents have all been raised and nurtured in the Western provinces.

We have yet to discuss “quality of life.”

The most depressing thing about this is that public policy, for reasons both bizarre and unfathomable, does not give a damn. From Quezon’s time up to now, we have had no policies that are dedicated to the growth of the East. Funding is an equalizer and it is quite easy to allot funds dedicated to the East and its myriad development needs. Even with a P3 trillion plus budget for 2017, nothing special and extraordinary has been allotted for the depressed parts of the country. The special intervention to upgrade the infrastructure systems of the East has been mostly pursued by multilateral institutions.

Why? The morbid and next-to-unbelievable response from some quarters was this.

Were Eastern Visayas like Southern Tagalog (minus the Bondoc Peninsula) or Central Luzon (minus Aurora) in terms of economic output, the devastation caused by Yolanda would have dragged down the GDP, toppled down vital economic and political institutions and ruined thriving cities and provinces.

But because Yolanda hit a less-developed region in the East, the needle of the GDP growth hardly moved that year. . Ergo, no one was bothered.

It is this kind of cavalier valuation of the East’s value to the nation and its development dreams that has shaped state policies from time immemorial. We are now reaping the brutal results.

The East’s economy relies on an early 20th century platform: resource extraction and coconuts. Those with ambition flee in their youth to spend their best years in the cities, to return, in vain mostly, in their old age to their native towns. A good friend of mine, the late Lucino “Reba” Rebamontan, spent his best years doing writing and journalism work in the Big City, only return to San Julian, Eastern Samar, in the winter of his life. His heart was broken by both dirty politics and the failure of his farming ventures. I tried to help him set up a piggery business but the brutal market conditions, culled hogs from Mindanao flooding the Eastern Samar market, never gave him a chance. Ideally, you can raise hogs on the cheap in his town, given the availability of the basic ingredient for feeds (copra, yellow corn, etc.). But the market was often disrupted by cheap pork shipments (sent by the shipload) from Mindanao.

So, what happens to areas like the struggling provinces of the East?

A lot of alienation takes place and that is expected of people that can’t move up and that can’t access the economic mainstream. The Left has found the perfect conditions to open up more guerrilla fronts on the Eastern Fronts, to make up for its losing base in the more developed regions. Central Luzon, my region, used to be the hotbed of the revolutionary underground. A steady stream of Communist Party of the Philippines top leaders used to come from Pampanga, my province. No longer true today and there are no potential Dantes and Bilogs from the ranks of our youth.

As the headline of this piece says, The East is Red and struggling. It is a laggard on most, if not all, human development benchmarks.

Worse, nobody gives a damn and policy is too West-centric to reverse the century-old, intractable miseries of the areas facing the supposed “Ocean of Calm.”

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