Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Monday, October 4, 2010

‘Over-population’ as the politicos’ favorite bete-noire

A thoughtful article that appeared in the Cebu Daily News today and circulated in the Internet articulated what this blog column wants to say on the raging issue of overpopulation in our country. Writer Ricky Poca opined that the question is not really over-population in the Philippines, but the over-population in our urban areas. This reality, in turn, boils down to the inequitable distribution of our country’s resources and the uncontrolled migration from the rural areas to the cities, because of the lack of opportunities for employment and livelihood in the rural areas.

Poca cites his native Cebu to buttress his argument. He stresses that in Cebu City and Mandaue City, the two biggest cities of Cebu province and the hub of tourism and industrial development, there is such overpopulation; but in the countryside of Cebu there are vast tracts of land that are even uninhabited. Poca emphasized the need to disperse economic development to the countryside by providing adequate employment and livelihood there, so that the folks stay there. He cited the longtime advocacy of Cebu’s former governor, Lito Osmena, of “devolution of initiatives to the countryside.”

Vastness of uninhabited areas in the Philippines

I totally agree. My husband and I have been traveling all over the Philippines over the years, especially in Mindanao where he retired from military service as the big island’s Armed Forces commander in the mid-90s. Since he joined the PNOC and later the SSS in his civilian status, we have traveled around the country whenever the opportunity arose, in order to see whether things are progressing or not outsite Manila. Our travels convinced us not only how beautiful our country is, but also how vast and uninhabited many areas are, particularly in the huge island down south.

To be fair, over the years, especially during the nine years of President Macapagal Arroyo, transportation infrastructure poured into the countryside. Among them are the “nautical highways” whereby fast inter-island boats have linked the various provinces of the Visayas and northern Mindanao, as well as numerous concrete highways, ports and airports that opened up remote areas of Mindanao, the Pacific side of Luzon over the Sierra Madre mountains, and the Visayan countryside. These sea lanes and highways came to the rescue of Luzon during last year’s calamities of Ondoy and Pepeng, when without the vegetable and poultry shipments from Northern Mindanao and Central Visayas our food supply in Luzon would have been seriously threatened.

The need for more infrastructure

But despite these developments, there remains sorely the lack of infrastructures such as power plants and communication facilities that could attract industrial sites in remote provinces and develop them; there’s also not enough agricultural support to enable many of our farmers to support their families decently. There’s also the continuing problem of peace and order in certain areas, where NPAs or renegade MILF periodically attack industrial or business sites and extract “progressive” taxes from them.

Because of the lack of such infrastructures in the countryside to generate gainful employment, and the continuing peace and order problem, rural families continue to pour into the developed cities so that they’re now bursting at the seams. These cities are where there truly is OVERPOPULATION. Sadly, the local and foreign media and grandstanding politicians like to focus on the slum areas where millions of poor Filipinos live in appallingly sub-human conditions and there’s a lot of idle economic unproductivity.

The need to control rural migration

As Ricky Poca correctly argues, local governments have to control rural migration to the cities; but this cannot be done without developing the necessary infrastructure in the provinces, as only with these can industries be attracted that will give the rural folk gainful employment. Who wants to live in the filthy city slums and ghettoes, if there’s adequate work, health and educational facilities in the clean and unpolluted rural areas? The late President Ramon Magsaysay already saw the need to control rural migration as early as the late ‘50s, as he sought to open up vast tracts of lands in Mindanao and convert them into new government housing settlements. But unfortunately RM didn’t even get to finish one term.

 Dangers of over-pushing population control

Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Gregorio Honasan have cautioned against too aggressive pushing of population control, as they cited the experience in many countries in Europe and right here in Asia that have “graying populations” and sharply declining birth rates. In Asia we have the example of Japan and Singapore where zero birth rates even as years are lengthening for the population are causing problems. In Singapore the shortage of workers to run its economy is about two million people, so that a policy has been in place for years now to get senior students from other countries such as RP, to provide skilled labor for six-month periods, renewable for another six months. In fact, in some countries, the zero birth rate has become so alarming that efforts are being made to attract couples with all kinds of incentives, such as fancy all-expenses paid vacations, just to have more children, to no avail.

Debate over population explosion

Every opening of Congress, the debate over the so-called “population explosion” crops up, and politicians love to use it as the bete-noire, the whipping boy, for failed economic policies and gargantuan wastage of various resources. Over-population makes good sound byte, but I like to cite the reality of South Korea.

Some decades back, the Korean media also loved to bring up this excuse for SK’s backwardness, compared to its bitter-sweet rival, Japan---the seemingly uncontrolled population. But instead of wringing their hands, its economic managers developed the economy to such a spectacular degree that ultimately the issue of over-population disappeared. Households became engrossed in cottage industries that cut the birth rate without even a legislation.

In our country families are largest in slum areas and the reason is obvious: too many idle people, especially the youth, regard sex as an escape from life’s harsh realities. But our politicians are simply too paranoid about population control, when what they ought to do is to stop wasting precious countryside development funds on grossly over-priced projects like basketball courts and dubious “family foundations,” and marshal them into productive factories and infrastructure in their districts.

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