Two things have concerned former Marikina mayor Bayani Fernando since he became chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA): traffic and sidewalk vendors. Even his focus on sidewalk vendors appears to be a component of his concern for Metro Manila traffic. One of his stated reasons for clearing the capital of sidewalk vendors is their impeding not only pedestrian movement but also the flow of motor vehicles, especially in the narrow streets of the city of Manila.
But traffic does still pile up during rush hour, and a long vehicle such as a truck towing a trailer can tie up Fernando?s U-turn slots even on major streets. The U-turns-only policy also forces motorists going straight ahead to stay on the right when approaching these slots, and to suddenly veer to the left when they?ve passed them. Vehicles going straight thus tend to pile up on the immediate right of these slots, and to make a rush for the left. But these are admittedly minor issues, and, generally, both motorists and public transportation commuters agree that some improvement is better than none.
There may not be as much agreement on Fernando’s second concern. Fernando has cleared some of the areas sidewalk vendors had been occupying: for example, the surroundings of the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran and parts of Quiapo district, especially those near the church, in Manila. But the vendors keep coming back, which explains why MMDA’s “sidewalk-clearing operations” are continuing. The persistence of the sidewalk-vendor “problem” also explains why the MMDA last week passed an ordinance–which will apply to all the municipalities it covers–penalizing not only sidewalk vendors but their patrons as well.
The implementation of this ordinance will require a legion of enforcers to go after sidewalk vendors and their patrons. But its wisdom is even more basically questionable in that it is trying to implement what amounts to a social policy based on mistaken assumptions.
About the need to solve the traffic problem through better enforcement, there is hardly any debate. Although it could be argued that its other causes are more basic (the growing number of vehicles using streets of constant width and length), preventing motorists from turning left is hardly a matter of social policy. But arresting sidewalk vendors and even pouring kerosene on their wares?which not only destroys their meager capital but also prevents the goods they’re selling from being used even by their own families?is.
Fernando has argued that sidewalk vendors violate several laws, among them, those that require local government permits and clearances. He?s only trying to enforce the law and, at the same time, free the sidewalks for the use of pedestrians. To the charge that he’s going after the poor, he has countered in so many words that only a minority in the capital can be considered poor.
Sidewalk vendors, because capable of raising the capital to buy the goods they sell, are not in that category.
Are the people who sell pencils, hairpins, cheap clothes–all sorts of shoddy goods–on street corners and sidewalks poor, or are they, as Fernando argues, plain criminals who could be doing something else to earn a living rather than breaking the law?
The problem is identifying who the poor are, and government statistics and analyses are of no help. The government puts the poverty threshold?the point below which one may be considered poor, meaning incapable of paying for one’s family’s food and nonfood requirements?at about P14,000 a year, or P1,166 and change per month. Anyone making more than this amount is, thus, not poor, which means that most of the vendors pushing everything from underwear to foodstuffs are not driven to the sidewalks by poverty but by lawlessness.
Unfortunately, the government-mandated poverty threshold is at best unrealistic and at worst a deliberate attempt to tamp down the poverty statistics. No one, except the government, will agree that P14,000 is enough to meet an average family of six’s food and nonfood requirements (rent, utilities, education, health care, transportation) for a year, unless it’s traveled back in time to 1970. And yet, anyone earning more than that, say P15,000 a year, is by definition not poor–which puts not only sidewalk vendors but also millions of Metro Manila residents who live in substandard housing, eat two meals a day, and who have no access even to the most rudimentary health care in the category of the “not poor.”
The MMDA ordinance is an admission of two things: first, that sidewalk vendors persist, despite the draconian measures–including arrest, confiscation of their goods, and even pouring kerosene on them–the MMDA has adopted; and second, that people do buy their goods. The MMDA ordinance is premised on public patronage of the vendors’ shoddy goods, and says so–but neither Fernando nor the mayors of Metro Manila have asked why.
The answer should be clear enough once that question is asked. Many people buy from them because most people can afford to buy only the cheap goods the sidewalk vendors provide. This conclusion suggests that there are more poor people in the capital than the government poverty threshold would make us believe, which thus leads to the probability that sidewalk vendors are not the mere police problem the MMDA says they are, but part of the poverty issue. Sidewalk vending, like home-based carinderia, is incidentally part of the underground economy sustained by the demand of poor people for cheap necessities.
Arresting sidewalk vendors and their patrons will not solve the “problem.” On the contrary, it will fuel social unrest and even open hostilities and pitched battles between Fernando’s demolition crews and sidewalk vendors on the streets of Manila. And it has happened several times. The intensity of vendor reaction to Fernando and his polices?which has ranged from calling him names to fighting the police?suggests that the people involved have no other alternative except what they’ve been doing, and that they’re convinced that Fernando is depriving them of the right to a livelihood.
It isn’t an unreasonable belief. There are practically no jobs to be had in Metro Manila, where for every job open, whether as clerk or peon in a construction project, hundreds apply. In most cases, the only alternative for poor people is to sell something, anything, either on the streets or the sidewalks–or a life of crime snatching bags and cell-phones. This has led to anarchy on the capital’s streets and sidewalks, which is why, among the middle class and the wealthy, Fernando’s effort to restore order has met widespread approval. But it is also true that the chaos and lawlessness are the results of the poverty that afflicts most Filipinos, whether in Metro Manila or outside it.
But what to do and what are the solutions? As in the case of most of our problems, the solutions can be found only in the long-term, not in artificial, means to enforce social order–an approach as shoddy as the goods sidewalk vendors sell. Rather than force them off the sidewalks, and their patrons into the malls, the MMDA can instead register sidewalk vendors, and impose controls to allow pedestrians and motorists passage, in implementation of a realistic and far more humane social policy.
As for the rest of us, we can forgo the comfort of clear sidewalks in favor of cluttered walkways of controlled chaos where some of our fellow human beings can eke out a livelihood. It’s not too much to ask.