Friday, October 9, 2009

Selling the jewels

The business section of many newspapers bannered the story recently that the Food Terminal property in Taguig City will be up for sale. One hundred twenty hectares in all, the property, minus some 17 hectares which is being used by the National Food Authority, is expected to fetch a minimum of 13 billion pesos for the Philippine government.

The usual reason given for selling off crown jewels is privatization, which as policy recognizes that the private sector is better at business than government can be. In the past, government itself pioneered in business investments, blazing trails in strategic industries where the private sector was either too timid to risk its money, or had been unable to raise the huge capital requirements thereof. But there has been a paradigm shift since the post-war policy of protectionism, and then again, after martial law, when a lot of government corporations went in the red, drawing more and more public money subsidy in order to stay afloat.

The Cory Aquino and Ramos administrations sold a lot of government-owned assets, from the Manila Hotel to Philippine National Bank, to Petron (which Marcos bought from Exxon, an American corporation), Nawasa, and many more. Of late, the Macapagal-Arroyo regime has been on a selling binge --- the transmission grid which used to be owned by Transco, which in Marcos’ time was centrally-owned and operated by Napocor, among others. The latter is also privatizing its generating plants. The policy is to privatize the entire energy assets of government, from power generation to transmission, to distribution. Meralco is the latest such sale of government holdings in power distribution. But while indeed government has been a failure in running business, principally because unfit political appointees with little vision and plenty of greed have been given charge of such lucrative GOCC’s, the question of selling real estate is something else.

The Ramos government sold one of the best located pieces of real estate in the country --- Fort Bonifacio, which used to be Fort McKinley, headquarters of the Philippine Army and the Marines, and on which is located the Libingan ng mga Bayani. The property straddles the boundaries of Makati and Taguig, as prime as prime could be, because it is right beside Manila Golf Club, behind Forbes Park and Dasmarinas, and accessible to both South Superhigway, the circumferential road that leads to Pasig and Quezon City, and barely a kilometre away from EDSA. It was a much celebrated sale, the proceeds of which were supposed to be used for the modernization of our Armed Forces. Whatever happened to the money is still a puzzlement to this day. The Armed Forces has been planning and planning, talking and talking about modernization, yet, as of last count, our air assets were confined to two C-130’s (one mostly out-of-service) and a few hand-me-down helicopters from the US of A. Why, even Typhoon Ondoy found the NDCC headed by the Defense secretary scrambling around for rubber boats to effect rescue operations.

Now there’s another hundred hectares in Taguig, adjacent to what is now called the tony “Fort”, that private land developers, giants like the Gokongwei-owned Robinson flagship, or the Ayala Corporation, perhaps Henry Sy’s SM, or maybe even the newest kid on the block which has been gobbling up whatever real estate is up for sale, Alphaland, are salivating to acquire from the cash-strapped government --- Food Terminal, Inc.

The sprawling development was one of Ferdinand Marcos’ pioneering public investments. It was envisioned as a hub for the wholesale, processing, storage and myriad requirements of produce marketing and distribution. Ostensibly, the hub would help stabilize supply of fresh and frozen produce, and the pricing thereof. A set of cold storage facilities were put up, and for a while, even frozen and canned produce processors of tuna, crabmeat, and the like, used the FTI’s modern facilities. But that was more than three decades ago. The facilities have gone to pot since, with successive post-Marcos governments giving FTI not only less than optimal utilization, but utter neglect. It has become more a business carcass than anything else. But ah, the terra firma upon which its detritus stand, is now prime real estate. And a regime that has made fiscal deficits annual state-of-the-art reality is now selling it in a frenzy.

So it will become another residential-commercial complex for the rich and the near-rich. Beside it are tenement buildings put up by Dona Gloria’s father Disodado, as poor man’s housing. If only the daughter could eject the families there from, pack them into no man’s land somewhere in Calamba or Bulacan, cared of her HUDCC head, the vice-president, so they would not “lessen” the value of the FTI sprawl, she probably would. But then, the tenements are only four storeys tall, and the rich who would buy the condominiums put up by Ayala or Sy, Gokongwei or Alphaland (reputedly owned by the newest mestizo Castila “taipan” in town), need not see these monuments to decay from their penthouse aeries. The developers will put up swanky malls in a nation where shopping malls are mistaken for progress. And so on and so forth.

But wonder why the FTI complex could not be utilized instead for its original purpose, which is to be a distribution and processing hub for produce. Imagine if fruits and vegetables could be brought here from the North via NLEX and C-5, from the South via SLEX, stored in temperature-controlled multi-level warehouses, and sold to market whole-sellers. Instead of huge cargo trucks going all the way to Divisoria or Pasay or Nepa-Q, they would disgorge their produce into neatly-segregated sections of FTI, for smaller trucks of buyers to bring into the metropolis. Less traffic, more efficiency, and likely, better prices for the end-consumers.

And imagine also if all provincial passenger buses were to disgorge their human cargo into an inter-modal transportation hub at the FTI complex. Instead of these huge buses entering Pasay and Makati, QC and Manila, they would instead unload everybody at the hub, from where the MRT could be extended, and inter-metro buses and taxis could bring them to destinations outside the hub. This should quite decongest the metropolis of its traffic bane, and result in a more orderly, more organized intra-city transportation system. All these can certainly fit into the hundred and three hectares that government now intends to sell off the FTI complex. And government could ask the private sector to efficiently run these pro-consumer, anti-traffic operations, without ever losing title to the land.

On the contrary, where will the 13 or so billion pesos from the sale of the Taguig real estate go? To service an unsustainable deficit, brought about by low-efficiency tax collection, mis-prioritized government spending, and plenty of corruption. Talk of good governance.

Optimum benefit is not in the regime’s lexicon, despite an economist for a president. Myopia is. And add greed as motivation.

What a country!