Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The sorry state of public markets

This is my column today, January 3, 2007, at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Now that we’re done with the holidays, it is time to go back to official business. In this country, this could mean trying to put some sense into the heads of some of our leaders.

I found myself on Quiapo thrice during the holidays. When I mentioned this to some friends, the most common reaction I got was “you must have been crazy!” All through these years, Quiapo has acquired a bad reputation for supposedly being the haven of all kinds of unsavory characters so that only the bravest, the most obstinate, and perhaps the most stupid are supposed to go there. It truly is a sad reflection of our times that when something onerous happens to a person at some place, the blame is automatically placed on him simply for committing the mistake of being in that place to begin with.

So you got swindled in Quiapo; what were you doing there in the first place?

Anyway.

I had to be in Quiapo for various reasons. Okay, if you insist, we had to buy ham at Excellente (sure, there are other branches but we’ve always bought ham from that particular store). We also had to buy some parts for a camera, as well as fruit and other foodstuff, all of which are ideally bought on Echague Street in Quiapo. (A whole bag of imported frozen french fries in Echague costs half of that available at the ordinary supermarket.)

On ordinary days, the part of Echague that is bordered by Avenida, Rizal and Quezon Boulevard is already a major test of a driver’s patience. Vendors, buyers, promenaders, tricycles, people pushing carts and trucks and other people, transform the street into an exciting giant obstacle course.

But one learns to live with that kind of aggravation because as the twisted logical deduction says, he who chooses to go to that place deserves torture. After all, nobody pointed a gun at me to say “do your shopping at Echague.” Sigh.

During the holidays, Echague Street, totally impassable, becomes a hellish nightmare.
The reason became obvious when we finally found ourselves at the foot of Quezon Bridge two hours after we started our arduous 500-meter journey: Someone at the Manila City Hall had this insipid idea of extending Quinta Market right into Echague Street.

No sir, they did not just allow vendors to display their wares right on Echague Street; this already happens on ordinary days. What they have done is physically extend the market by building semi-permanent stalls right on Echague Street. By doing this, they easily reduced the width of Echague that is available to pedestrians and motorists by more than half.

What used to be a four-lane street has now become a battlefield of a trail where everyone fights tooth and nail for space, inch by precious inch.

The state of Echague Street is very symptomatic of the state of our public markets.
Similarly, when I casually mentioned to some people last December that I intended to go to Divisoria for some Christmas shopping, the reaction I got was quite vociferous. I was as if I had just declared I was carrying a grenade in my pocket. Everyone discouraged me from going, citing all kinds of potential harm to life and limb.

It seems the same cautionary warning is being made about going to other public wet markets. The conventional wisdom seems to be: If you can afford shelling a few extra bucks, then it is best to go to tiangges, or to buy meat, fish and vegetables from the supermarket. Or put another way, only the poor, the kuripot, and the foolhardy go to Divisoria, Quiapo, Libertad, etc. where one can expect to get crushed, dirtied, swindled, or get stuck forever.

Those who want bargains must suffer in the process.

Those who choose to save a few bucks do not have the right to complain about the heat, the dirt, the odor, the chaos, the traffic, the utter lack of order. Anyone who wants convenience must pay for it.

If people choose to go to Divisoria or Quiapo then they must be prepared and willing to pay for the consequences. It serves people right for choosing to go to these places when they could go to Greenhills or some airconditioned supermarket where the meat and fish glow under special lamps.

If people suffer, it is their fault because they chose to go to these places to begin with.
I think there is something horribly wrong with this line of reasoning. It is like saying the poor and those who choose to be with the poor do not deserve to demand good governance.

Now, you might be thinking, that’s quite a stretch; the state of our public markets is one thing while good governance is another. But if we come to think about it, what other public facility do people frequent the most other than wet markets? Who in this country does not eat and therefore has no need for products from wet markets?

Don’t you think there is something wrong in a setup where local governments spend gazillions of public money on parks and on beautification drives while ignoring the bedlam occurring inside public markets?

I do not buy the reasoning that says it’s the sheer volume of people that makes Divisoria, Quiapo, or the other public markets unmanageable.

They are public markets, for crying out loud. They exist to attract people. Besides I have been to public markets in other countries, for instance India and Thailand, where some system and order are clearly in place one can even find tourists mingling with the mass of humanity.

I also do not agree that it is the absence of discipline among shoppers that cause the chaos in our public markets. God knows how people wait in line ever so patiently even to simply traverse a path to another store.

I think the root of the problem is the lack of political will among our leaders to impose order and system in our public markets. Very often, we get the sense that they have simply accepted the mess as inevitable.

Perhaps they just haven’t set foot inside public markets and are blissfully unaware of the real state of our public markets. Or God forbid, they also subscribe to the reasoning that if people want convenience and comfort, they shouldn’t go to public markets. That’s like admitting there’s a caste system in our country.

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