Thievery and obstinacy

The following is my column today, October 4, 2006 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

In a perfect world where balance is the norm, a storm is nature’s way of cleansing itself of whatever it is that needs to be expunged from the system. It can be a welcome thing. But since we live in an imperfect world, a storm is an inconvenience, a punishment, a nuisance, etc.

I do not want to make light of the hardships that many are experiencing in the aftermath of Milenyo. However, it is important to put the misery in context. Forces of nature cannot be controlled and our best hope lies in having the contingencies to deal with them and their consequences.

Thus, it is wrong to attribute our current difficulties to Milenyo. We are in deep trouble today because of the lack of foresight among our leaders, because of greed of some corporations and some people, general ineptitude and incompetence of certain people, apathy, etc. The storm was a force of a nature. Our problems are man-made.

I have already ranted last Monday about the impotence of Meralco and our government institutions. I think that we should also call attention to other reasons for the mess we find ourselves in.

I am told that in many areas, electricity has not been restored simply because there are no more cables and posts to begin with. It seems that in many areas, electrical cables disappeared within minutes after electrical posts toppled down as bands of thieves had a field day carting off cable and wiring at the height of the typhoon. I presume these people had the expertise to do the dastardly act since cutting off electrical cables is not among the simplest of tasks.

It is tempting to justify the crime by saying that kicking Meralco in the butt once in a while and making it cough up more money for repairs should be okay considering the profits it makes. Unfortunately, consumers are the ones who suffer since replacing power lines actually takes time. Too bad for consumers who suffer from the absence of electricity simply because their neighbors stole the electrical cables.

And even if Meralco coughs up more money for repairs and wiring, which it eventually will, we know that the bill will eventually get passed on to consumers anyway. So it really is wishful thinking to assume we are actually getting back at Meralco that way.

I know that wiring and cable are bought because of their copper content. I called up a friend to inquire where these things are sold and bought and he gave me an address of a place where he said rolls and rolls of these wires are openly and actively traded. Imagine that! I wonder what happened to the law banning the trade on items that are obviously stolen from public utilities.

There used to be a time when PLDT had those thick round brass manhole covers that looked so elegant on the streets. Ordinary and unsightly concrete blocks have replaced those and I really do not blame PLDT. Those round brass manhole covers started to disappear one by one and ended up as coffee tables in some homes (yes, I personally know two people who have coffee tables fashioned out of those stolen things and they were proud of their ingenuity). Electrical cables, manhole covers, traffic signs, road warning devices, flower pots, plants, etc. These are some of the things that disappear from the streets and end up in private homes.

I make no apologies for this people but I can understand why impoverished people would steal so that they can eat. What I cannot understand are people with enough resources who steal public property just for kicks. And the strongest condemnation should be reserved for businessmen who patronize and abet the trade by buying off those stolen things and make handsome profits in the process. These are the people who should be the object of public ridicule; but unfortunately, these are the people who are mostly likely to escape scot-free in the event of clampdown since they have the means to defend themselves. Sadly, the scavengers who got a pittance as their share of the proceeds are the ones who will pay dearly for the crime.

I was watching television the other night and saw a report on how the people living in those shanties along Manila Bay were coping. All their houses were wiped out as these were made of lightweight materials and were perched mostly on makeshift stilts. They lost everything. It was very sad and my heart sank while the television cameras recorded how they were trying to rebuild their houses and their lives with the very little they had— some were trying to put lumber together using plastic twine. However, one cannot also help but get peeved at their obstinacy. They insist on staying put in an area that is highly vulnerable to calamities rather than relocating somewhere else. Our obstinacy as a people is truly legendary.

It is time to rebuild lives. One way we can do this is to accept part of the blame, too. For instance, a number of bloggers posted entries in their blogs recording how they watched people cart off whatever usable bits were flying around during the typhoon. They took photos instead of doing something to stop the carnage. We can all do our share instead of simply cursing and getting all hyped up.

But there are still some good things that came out of that typhoon. For one, Milenyo’s torrential rains and howling winds disturbed the breeding grounds of dengue-carrier mosquitoes and provided temporary relief from the dengue outbreak. It also pruned the trees around the Metro and in some areas, it was about time actually. Many of the trees were already growing branches that were crowding passageways and electrical connections.

The storm certainly did what local officials could not do in terms of clearing Metro Manila of those unsightly billboards (how strange it is to drive through Edsa without seeing Kris Aquino’s mug every five minutes or so).

Finally, Milenyo did test the true state of our disaster preparedness and proved once again just how ineffectual government and public utility companies are in dealing with crisis. Now we know. It’s time we do something about them.

* * *

Congratulations to the University of Santo Tomas for winning the UAAP basketball crown last Monday. It was a great performance and they deserve the title after 10 years!


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