Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Taking chances

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

The Reproductive Health Bill finally got through the Committee on Population and Family Relations at the House of Representatives last Monday. This means that the bill will finally get voted upon by the membership of the House, assuming of course that it gets calendared for plenary debates. The result of the committee voting was telling: The bill was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the members, 14-4. And yet, the consolidated bill barely scraped through the committee level.

How a minority can overrule a majority is truly confounding although not totally surprising in a country where power resides among a handful of families and institutions. The fact that the bill finally is finally out of the committee level this early in the life span of this particular Congress is encouraging. However, it would be foolhardy to expect that the bill would get passed easily, if at all. We’ve been there before many times in the past. In the last Congress, supporters of the bill had the numbers but the measure wasn’t submitted for voting at the last minute as powerful hands succeeded in blocking its passage.

Already, the Catholic Church and its lobby groups are sharpening their knives. I hope that our legislators will continue to stick to their guns and continue to stand by their convictions despite the threats and the heavy pressure from the bishops. When bishops start calling on congressmen one by one, promising them eternal salvation or doom, we expect some of our legislators to cave in. But hopefully, there will still be enough principled men and women among our legislators who will continue to fight for what is right and necessary.

***

Another tragedy involving a bus happened Monday. This time, the bus was traveling to Manila all the way from Ormoc City in my home province of Leyte. The bus turned turtle along the tricky slopes of Pagbilao Quezon in a place aptly named Bituka ng Manok (chicken’s entrails). I have passed through this particular stretch of road that must have been designed by someone with a serious fetish for roller coasters many times in a previous life when traveling from Leyte to Manila by car was still novel and exciting.

The fact that we build roads that tempt the fates is beyond me, but I guess we’re like that as a people—we like to take chances. And many of our bus drivers and many of our fellow Filipinos do take chances.

That stretch of road had been declared off limits to buses and trucks for a long time now because it really was not designed for large vehicles (if we come to think about it, I don’t think it was designed for any vehicle at all) but the driver took his chances. The shortcut would have saved him at least two hours worth of driving. The passengers knew that the bus was overloaded, a couple of them didn’t have seats and simply plopped down on sacks of rice or cardboard boxes, but they took their chances. Rather than wait for another bus or forfeit fare money, they threw caution to the wind.

One of the victims of the Pagbilao bus accident happened to be a cousin of a friend of mine. He was coming to Manila to process papers for possible employment abroad. He said he took the bus because he was in a hurry and he was trying to save money. When I asked how much the bus fare was, he quoted an amount that was almost comparable to a plane ticket on one of those budget airlines. He didn’t know that plane fares are now affordable, thanks to Cebu Pacific, Zest Air, and Air Philippines.

I don’t think that buses will eventually go out of business because it still is the most practical means of public transport particularly when traveling short distances.

There’s that rather politically incorrect joke about why these accidents are happening during P-Noy’s watch. It’s because he promised in his inaugural speech that “kayo ang bus ko.” I know. It’s not funny anymore. It’s really sad that we continue to have these accidents on the road involving buses because they are preventable.

The larger issue is transport safety. Buses and ships are notorious for ignoring safety issues despite the fact that these two industries account for a sizable percentage of passengers on a daily basis. There’s a serious need for bus companies and shipping lines to professionalize the way they operate their businesses and put in place safety policies. The truth is that many of our bus companies continue to operate like mom-and-pop enterprises with no institutionalized policies on safety and security or even basic policies for employee qualification, discipline and welfare.

This is morbid but two specific norms among bus drivers are so prevalent. The first one requires that bus drivers who figure in accidents immediately flee the scene purportedly to avoid being lynched by relatives of the passengers. The second one is so horrifying to imagine, but I am told it is still the advice being passed around by drivers—that one about how it is more preferable to leave victims of road accidents dead. The latter is utterly callous beyond words.

Of course, terrorist attacks are exceptions but even those can be prevented.

***

Safety Practices—or the utter lack of them—are also being cited as reason why 10 construction workers plummeted to their death last week at the building being constructed by Eton Properties. As usual, we’re all caught up in the blame game as people frantically try to heap the blame somewhere else. All of a sudden, government agencies have also become very proactive and diligent! They have discovered all kinds of violations ranging from safety to employment to God-knows-what-else.

I also find it utterly contemptible that we continue to have businessmen who take advantage of workers. However, we must stress that keeping businesses ethical and making sure that everyone toes the line in terms of following employment laws is everyone’s responsibility. Government agencies must not tolerate abuses so as not to encourage deviations. We actually have more than enough laws in this country to protect and safeguard the welfare of our workers. The problem is that enforcement is weak. This is one area that government must never compromise on.

***

It’s exasperating that while there seems to be a lot of more important things that happened lately that we can focus our energies on, we’re still sidetracked by the occasional outburst that reflect, well, emotional immaturity.

Let’s take this recent snafu over the President’s new Lexus. Okay, so it is not his. It’s supposed to be either of two things: Lent by a campaign supporter or leased by a Presidential brother-in-law. The fact that they can’t get their story straight on the real provenance of that car is annoying but that’s not really the most objectionable part of the story. What gets most people’s goat is this dismissive attitude. Instead of an explanation, people get lectured for having malicious minds. Even worse, they don’t seem to grasp the reason why the President’s use of a car allegedly provided by a campaign supporter is sending eyebrows into the stratosphere. It just makes a lot of people uncomfortable that someone who crows about “treading the straight and narrow path” does not see anything wrong with the whole setup.

The matter could have been addressed more effectively with just a little wisdom and emotional maturity. A forthright explanation, supported by facts, and perhaps a light banter about the importance of ensuring the security and comfort of the chief executive of the land would have done the trick. In fact a joke about how unseemly it would be if the President’s convoy were to get stuck on the road because the presidential car malfunctioned would have done the trick. The matter would not have merited even cursory attention.

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