"This is a huge undertaking in addition to the already many challenges we are facing."
Ever since I can remember, this Balik Probinsya project proposed by Senator Bong Go as a way of decongesting the Metro area has been thought of by the national government in the past. Various attempts, in one form or another, were made without much success. After much media discussions very much like what is happening now, the proposals always ended disappearing quietly.
Maybe this time, something new has come up that makes the government more confident of success, judging from the way some senior officials in government are embracing the proposal enthusiastically. National Housing Authority General Manager Marcelino Escalada is predicting that one million people might take the offer based on the number of initial applications. This is a lot, if it happens.
Perhaps conditions have changed to make the program doable if planned and implemented differently than in the past. Like many problems that we are experiencing in the Metro area today like traffic and transportation, the current congestion problem is the result of the lack or absence of proper urban planning. To think that Manila was called the Pearl of the Orient before the Second World War because of its beautiful parks and wide boulevards. Archival films and photos bolstered by the pristine Intramuros or walled city, made Manila's title as the Queen city of the Pacific truly deserved. The title was not simply a tourism promotion. Now, Architect Daniel Burnham, one of the foremost urban planners in his day who designed Manila must be turning in his grave seeing what has happened to the City that he gave so much of his time to make beautiful.
The first serious attempt to decongest Metro Manila that I know was when now Congresswoman Imelda Marcos was Minister of the Ministry of Human Settlements during the martial law years. This was in connection with her dream of making the National Capital Region into what she called the City of Man. Then as now, many of the Ministries were tapped to put in their various recommendations and given some specific tasks.
In the end, nothing came out of the effort. At that time, the population of the Metro area was very much smaller than today and perhaps one can argue that there was a slim chance that it could have been done. But there were simply too many obstacles that were difficult to overcome. The biggest reason why people flocked to the Metro area was the lack of opportunities in the provinces. Then as now, the Metro area was the economic, educational, and political center of the country responsible for two thirds its productive capacity and remains so to this day.
In the decades after the Second World War, the population increase in the NCR consistently far outstripped the national average increase for the reason that NCR was where the action was. The logical thing for the government to have done therefore was to create the opportunities in the provinces so that people did not have to come to the Metro area. The government failed in this or was too slow to implement such a program even if it knew that this is what had to be done. Instead, it continued to locate factories in and around the Metro area. To be fair, upgrading the infrastructure like roads, transportation and moving factories to the provinces needs a lot of capital that the country cannot always provide readily. Furthermore, government policies must not only be attractive but stable and predictable to attract foreign investors. It is therefore not so easy and simple.
Other countries simply solved the congestion in their capital cities by building new ones. Brazil did it with Brasilia. So did Turkey with Ankara. The latest that I know is Myanmar. The ruling generals there developed a new administrative capital called Naypyidaw about 320 kilometers from Yangon and inaugurated it in 2005. It is a huge city in land area which is about 7,054 square kilometers compared to our Metro area of about 619 square kilometers. In population, Naypyidaw has only about 924,600 people compared to about 13 million people in the NCR. More if we include the nearby cities. The extent of development however, is still limited and according to people who have been there, more work has to be done to make the place attractive. Myanmar after all is not a rich country but the government there had the political will to do it.
These countries were able to do this because land is still available unlike here that there is no longer any available vacant land large enough for a new capital city. The country could work on reclaiming land from the sea but being an earthquake country, building on reclaimed land might not be very advisable due to the danger of liquefaction during earthquakes. We are therefore stuck with this Balik Probinsya program as the only option. Can it be realistically done? The problems are daunting but the country is now a lot different from 30 or even 20 years ago. Our economy has grown in size and complexity. There are now perhaps three or four other cities that can be considered alternative destinations aside from the Metro area. With better planning, attractive and stable policies coupled with improved infrastructure and less corruption, we might be able to do it at a much shorter time. The idea is to spread development to as many growth centers and provide viable options to people. This project is a huge undertaking in addition to the already many challenges we are facing. But it is a problem that cannot simply be ignored.