• Giant fires are not a normal occurrence

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    EVERY week the past month, a large fire was reported somewhere in Metro Manila. “Large,” in this case, means it “destroyed homes numbering in the dozens.” This is not something that should be considered normal.

    Last Wednesday morning, a fire ruined about 50 homes in Tondo. Another 50 houses were incinerated and nine people killed in a blaze on December 11 in Damayang Lagi, Quezon City; an enormous fire hit the Quiapo district and destroyed about 500 dwellings on December 4; and on November 25, 800 houses were annihilated in a fire in Addition Hills, Mandaluyong. By our conservative estimate, that means about 7,000 people have been displaced in less than a month due to fires, and the real figure is probably much higher. Again, this is not normal. Anywhere else, it would be considered the calamity that it really is.

    It is a fact that about 35 percent of Metro Manila’s population lives in what are politely called “informal settlements.” These densely populated slum areas are inevitably magnets for disasters. None of the four recent big fires was the result of malicious behavior. The fire in Tondo, for instance, was reportedly caused by a cellphone that had been left plugged in to a charger. The problem is not how to reduce the risk of fire (although that is a priority), but how to decongest the poorly-built, densely inhabited and dangerous squatter areas, which are flourishing despite occasional government efforts at “resettlement.”

    The cynical view, and one we do not entirely disagree with, is that a generation of politicians has allowed the problem of “informal settlers” to persist because of their value as voters. How much effort to encourage the creation of worthwhile jobs and reduce poverty has been hindered over the years by ulterior motives, for which maintaining a large impoverished population is an advantage, is likely never going to be known. But just like the fires, focusing on that is treating the symptom and not the disease: If squatter areas didn’t exist in the first place, politicians couldn’t treat them as voting blocs for purchase.

    If our four (or is it five?) top candidates for the presidency are serious at all about the job – and only a couple of them, the ones who don’t get all the attention, seem to be at this point – they should have a substantial plan for decongesting the “informal settlements” around Metro Manila and other cities. It should be one that it is significantly more comprehensive than previous “resettlement” programs, which just seemed to move people to other squatter areas farther from the city. That plan would require actual job creation, investment in lower-cost housing, efficiently enforcing property, labor, and other sorts of laws and regulations, as well as providing safe and affordable basic services like water and electricity.

    Having that sort of a plan will very nearly represent an entire platform of governance, something that will tell us much more of how the country would benefit from one’s leadership than the prospective leader’s ability to hurl insults at his rivals.

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