A story that appeared in Thursday morning’s (February 6) edition of The Manila Times struck me as a little odd: “PPA may scrap deal with Batangas port operator.”
What was odd about the story was that its subject, the Port of Batangas operated by Asian Terminals Inc. (ATI), has not been the source of any significant controversy since ATI was awarded a 25-year concession by the Philippine Port Authority (PPA) to run the facility in July 2010. In years past, Batangas was a bit of a trouble spot, but under ATI’s management has normalized to a thoroughly up-to-date and efficient maritime terminal; given this country’s appetite for scandal, the fact that the port has not attracted much public attention is in some ways a high compliment.
But Rep. Raneo Abu of the Second District of Batangas is apparently not impressed; back in October he filed House Resolution 38 before the Ways and Means Committee, which bears the heavily loaded title, “A resolution urging the Committee on Ways and Means to conduct an inquiry, in aid of legislation, with regard to the gross underutilization of Batangas Container Terminal [BCT], a multi-billion project funded by Japanese official development assistance [ODA], resulting to huge waste of government funds and loss of prospective government revenue.” The measure finally got its moment in the sun on Monday (February 3), when it was included as one of four or five separate issues taken up by the Committee in its regular session.
According to Abu, the BCT, which has an annual capacity of 300,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of container cargo, is only processing about 11,000 TEUs, which “means a huge loss of revenue for the government and livelihood opportunities for my constituents.” He also charged the PPA with not conducting and making public a performance assessment for ATI, which is apparently a condition of the concession agreement, characterizing the oversight or omission as “highly questionable.” And in the sort of leap of logic which makes politicians different and more special than people like you and me, Abu seems to have concluded (and thus obviated the need for a hearing “in aid of legislation”) that since the PPA is not doing its job it, has not yet discovered that the low volume at the BCT is ATI’s fault, and that once the PPA caught up with the problem, it would likely have to cancel the contract and find someone else to operate the terminal.
When I asked for a reaction to the report that the PPA may “scrap” the BTC contract, an ATI official said, “Obviously, we can’t comment on a speculation like that. But we have not had any discussion with the PPA on the subject.”
Although Abu has had his better moments—one of which was his filing last month of House Bill 3339, which seeks to align Philippine customs administration with the guidelines established by the World Customs Convention—his anxiety over the lack of traffic through the Batangas port is entirely misplaced, and for most embarrassingly simple of reasons: The utilization of a port facility is completely dependent on how much cargo actually arrives from either its landward or seaward side, and that in turn is completely dependent on where customers want to go.
“For port operators like ATI, the most important thing is to provide their customers options. ATI sees a lot of potential in the Calabarzon region, but that potential depends a lot on that area having facilities to support a supply chain, so from that perspective Batangas Port is a real advantage—it is a closer and faster option than Manila,” an industry insider familiar with the issue explained. The figure of 300,000 TEUs cited by Abu is a medium- or long-term forecast of volume through the BTC, which is actually designed for a little more than that; in addition to the port, ATI also operates an inland customs-clearing facility in Calamba, Laguna. And efforts to attract locators from the Calabarzon region certainly do not appear to be lacking; ATI themselves have been aggressively marketing the Batangas facility since opening it in 2010, and the Philippine Export Zone Authority (PEZA) offers a number of incentives to businesses to use Batangas as a faster alternative to Manila. Despite Abu’s downbeat assessment, there are clear signs of progress; Batangas has attracted big customers like MCC Inter-Asia, a subsidiary of Danish shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk, who inaugurated weekly direct service between Batangas and Singapore after a decision by Nestlé back in December 2011 to ship almost all of its imports and some of its exports through Batangas instead of Manila.
Reading between all these disparate lines, one starts to get a sense of some pretty shallow political thinking at work. The launch of Batangas under ATI management seems to have been perceived as an instant bonanza of jobs and commerce for the surrounding area, according to the old (and not always rational) “build it and they will come” rule of thumb. When that didn’t happen, or to be accurate, when the reality set in that it would take longer to happen than the time between a congressional election and the start of the next election campaign would provide, concerned political leaders started looking for someone or something to blame.
Finding fault with a bucket for not filling up fast enough is stupid. It fortunately does not appear the PPA shares that ridiculous point of view, and hopefully it is not necessary to remind the agency of the serious harm that would be caused if they were to consider it. The port in Batangas is a key ingredient for the economic growth Abu is looking for in his district; if he is truly concerned that it is being underutilized, perhaps his efforts would be better applied in helping to attract the sorts of enterprises for whom the availability of a good part facility is a location advantage.
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For those who like music, and like it even better when it’s for a good cause, the BKB Black Kings’ Bar (107 West Avenue, Quezon City, in the Westlife Building) is hosting a benefit concert tonight from 8 p.m. onwards for Ramon Dacanay. Ramon is the father of one of my close comrades, Laurence Dacanay, who is the bassist for the Ukelele Philippines Ensemble and the Crowd Dispersal Unit; both of them will be playing at the show, along with The Republicats, Death To Puberty, Isidro Project, Anna and the Shark, Comrade, Navy Blue Pants and Pao Gumba. Mang Ramon unfortunately has been hospitalized in intensive care; not surprisingly, he has incurred a very large amount of medical expenses to go along with his health concerns, which his friends in the local music scene are hoping they—and you, if you happen to be in the area and have an urge to liven up an otherwise boring Tuesday—can help to defray.