Vultures in Pampanga

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By Robby Tantingco

Peanut Gallery

Monday, February 24, 2014


FILIPINOS are truly a grateful people. We thank others profusely even for tiny favors. When someone says “Thank you,” we reply “Thank you” instead of “You’re welcome.”

Last week our government spent millions of pesos worth of billboards expressing national gratitude for the global outpouring of goodwill and generosity to Yolanda victims. I am not sure if some donors would have preferred seeing their money spent on more relief and rehabilitation, or if government should have first settled all controversy about where all the money ended up. But then, that’s just the way we are.

Just yesterday, for example, my friend adopted two kids from Tacloban whose parents were killed by the storm surge and whose only surviving immediate family, a grandmother, also died recently in the harsh conditions of the evacuation center. The two orphans were brought here on the kindness of strangers, neighbors and distant relatives. No government agency, social worker or elected official participated in their journey to redemption. Now shouldn’t they be still working out there instead of rushing those expensive ads?

When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, the scale of global solidarity was unprecedented in Philippine history, probably comparable to the Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II and certainly bigger than the international response to Yolanda.

Donations poured in from all directions, and so Malacañang issued RA 7637 creating the Mount Pinatubo Commission (MPC) precisely to catch all the money raining down on Pampanga.

The scent of money of course attracted a multitude of vultures who exploited the misery of Kapampangans and took advantage of the panic and confusion still prevailing at the time in the province. Imagine the cruelty of it all—preying on survivors who had barely crawled out of one conspiracy (eruption, earthquake, typhoon, lahar, locusts, floods, and other forces of nature) only to get caught in another conspiracy, involving corrupt businessmen, corrupt contractors and corrupt officials!

It was the Roman historian Tacitus who said, “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”

Government officials connived with congressmen in the Batasan to amend RA 7637 so that they could set the stage for corruption.

For example, they inserted a provision that upped the limit for amount of purchased equipment to P50 million, which meant that officials could connive with contractors who connived with suppliers to overprice even the most substandard equipment as long as the total price didn’t exceed P50 million.

The equipment were so substandard that they conked out even while still being tested! Suppliers then charged exorbitant amounts for spare parts and shipping costs, and customs officials did the same for duties and taxes. MPC had no choice but to accede.

It was open season for thieves in Pampanga, because the province was awash with cash, and also because the government was rushing or waiving bidding procedures due to the constant threat of the next lahars.

Although Pinatubo had stopped erupting by 1992, the pyroclastic deposits on its slopes were being mobilized by rains with every monsoon season for the next five years, filling up the Abacan, Sacobia, Gumain and Pasig-Potrero rivers with silt. If the rivers were not immediately desilted, the next lahar flows would spill over and bury more villages and towns.

Thus, MPC signed up all available bulldozers, diggers, dump trucks, amphibious trucks, etc. it could find, and everyone in Pampanga including their in-laws became a supplier and contractor overnight.

Most of these equipments were untested, unprepared and unfit for lahars, and so they kept breaking down, delaying the work and multiplying the expenses. Against the backdrop of vast deserts of lahar, the equipment were nothing more than tiny bulldozers pushing teaspoonfuls of ash, or toy trucks carrying matchbox loads of beach sand.

All the engineering intervention costing the government tens of millions of pesos every day proved to be totally inadequate for the sheer scale of devastation. Lahars just kept flowing down from Pinatubo season after season and year after year, erasing several months’ worth of progress and demoralizing everyone involved in the effort.

By 1995 the nation was ready to give up on Pampanga. Kapampangans led by Sen. Gloria Arroyo, Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, Gov. Lito Lapid and businessman Levy Laus staged a massive demonstration to convince Malacañang to go out on a limb for Pampanga, and sure enough, President Ramos relented and gave the go-signal for the construction of the aptly named FVR Megadike.

However, what started as a tribute to Kapampangans’ against-all-odds spirit ended up as another monument to government ineptitude and folly.

Once again, the megadike project assembled the usual suspects: barangay officials, municipal officials, provincial officials, and district representatives demanding commissions from contractors, and contractors padding the cost of projects in anticipation of these commissions.

For example, if a businessman sold a bulldozer to a contractor for P5 million, the contractor charged government (MPC) P10 million for the same bulldozer so that he could give an average 10 percent commission (P500,000) each to elected provincial, district, municipal and barangay official waiting down the line, not to mention the implementing agency. There would still be P2.5 million left for profit—except when an official or several officials suddenly demanded more than 10 percent commission, in which case the contractor would resort to scrimping and using substandard material to maintain his margin of profit. Since the megadike cut through several villages, towns and districts, the number of commissions multiplied accordingly.

Contractors also bribed government agencies in charge of bidding by shouldering the administrative cost of preparing a bid (which could cost the government agency up to P100,000). The government agencies in turn rigged the bidding process by selling leakages to preferred bidding contractors. Meanwhile, contractors bribed fellow contractors by preparing their bids that they would merely sign, with an assurance of a commission if they won the bidding. Some contractors also made multiple bids by presenting different licenses from another government agency that had also been bribed.

Corruption was also the reason poor Kapampangans stayed in evacuation centers longer than they should, and the reason they later moved to substandard housing units in resettlement centers. Much of the money earmarked for land survey, site development, construction of housing units, electrification, etc. went directly into the pockets of government and military officials in cahoots with contractors. Even the money intended for livelihood projects such as duck raising and balut production disappeared (hence we have the so-called "duck scam").

Such brazenness would put even vultures to shame. Pinatubo was such a tragedy, but still we survived it. As for the corruption, we’re not so lucky.

Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on February 25, 2014.

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