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Bacolod City, Philippines Tuesday, August 13, 2019
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Come To Think Of It
with Carlos Antonio L. Leonardia

Clearing up


The previous weeks have been busy ones for many towns and cities as officials raced to comply with President Duterte’s decree, on his 4 th SONA, that they should clear their streets and sidewalks of illegal obstructions within 60 days.

I saw the Facebook post of someone from my hometown expressing the shock and disappointment at being given a ticket for doing what he had been doing for years: parking his vehicle outside a school. Unfortunately for him, the school is located along the national highway and the clearing operations naturally included that area.

He voiced his frustration that the law was being enforced in his little town that, in his opinion, didn’t need the enforcement of the law as much as the nearby capital city did. The gist was that, although he agreed that the nationwide clearing operations were necessary, especially in busy urban centers like capital cities, he and his town mates didn’t have to be subject to the inconvenience of the law because he lived in a place that wasn’t experiencing traffic and congestion yet.

It’s normal for people to feel attacked when things change, especially when laws and regulations that they have been allowed to ignore for decades are suddenly remembered and enforced. It doesn’t matter if they are sidewalk vendors, business owners, or private school parents. As long as they are denied of something that they thought they were entitled to, they will always complain.

Everyone supports a government that promotes discipline and the enforcement of the law, as long as it doesn’t affect them. When it affects them and makes life inconvenient for them or their business, or denies them a piece of public property that they’ve been using without consequences for as long as they can remember, that’s government being heavy handed and unfair.

The bottom line for most of us is that discipline is welcome and overdue, as long as it doesn’t affect us. Government can clear streets and sidewalks as long as it’s not the ones we’ve been using. Illegal parkers should’ve been penalized a long time ago, just not where I have been allowed to park or where my customers have been using the curb and sidewalk as my business’ reserved parking lot.

Many of those affected by the recent clearing operations are banking on the Filipino trait of ningas cogon to tide them over. They will comply because they know they can come back and everything will be back to normal within a few weeks. They are not panicking because they are counting on our government officials to be “considerately forgetful” and they can soon creep back to their old publicly-owned stomping grounds.

Sidewalk vending, business activities, illegal parking, and obstructions will keep coming back as long as the people who should be enforcing the law look the other way. The people who did the clearing and admonishing in recent days mostly come from City Hall and everybody knows that they cannot do this job every day for eternity. Unless that responsibility is given to barangay officials who can keep a daily watch over the areas that they know are prone to these activities, everything will be back to “normal” within a few months. If the president can threaten mayors with suspension, mayors should be able to threaten inutile barangay officials with the same. The only question is how much they are willing to commit to eternally cleared streets and sidewalks.

If a city disagrees with the law and wants to allow sidewalk vendors, illegal parking and obstructions, then its mayor and city council should declare all their sidewalks and curbs as fair game and let nature take its course. If they want to allow the regulated use of public property, they need to identify those areas and set up a fair system for the issuance of permits and the collection of approved fees. If it’s going to be totally outlawed, then they should be prepared for draconian enforcement.

As for the people living in those cities, we should be ready to obey the law, especially those that we’ve been getting away with ignoring for decades. The thing about obedience is that most of us will willingly obey only if we see fair and consistent enforcement. Like my FB friend, many will complain, come up with justifications and excuses, and even resist. But if they see the law being enforced fairly and consistently, they will eventually comply.

Of course, if the local government is going to take back public spaces that are being used by vendors or parkers, it has to provide replacements. Markets can be built for vendors or certain areas be allowed for their use. Free or pay parking areas must be identified, implemented and enforced; no hazard lights allowed. If an entire street that used host parking is suddenly cleared, alternate parking areas must be set up and the sidewalk or public transport infrastructure adjusted to allow easy access to those new parking areas. Those who cannot walk or refuse to take public transport to their parking areas will have to be ready to hire a driver or pay the fines and deal with the penalties. Providing these replacements will prove to be the more difficult part of the job, making the clearing part look easy.

Clearing operations may look difficult or seem like a great achievement in places where chaos has reigned for decades, but it is just the beginning. Without a clear goal in mind, those operations will be useless and temporary victories for those who have been pining for law and order. Let us hope that the government officials who have started the ball rolling by complying with the President’s decree, intend to see this through and are not just doing it for minimum compliance.*  

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