POSTSCRIPT / March 26, 2002 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Yes, double Meralco rates -- at bahala na!

DIRTY FUND-RAISING: The Lopezes must be in bad financial shape to attempt sneaking in a power rate adjustment that would double the electric bill of households connected to the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco).

Everybody knows that many of the ambitious projects of the aristocratic Lopezes are bogged down in crippling cash flow problems and the banks are hounding them, but is this enough justification for them to raise rescue funds from captive consumers?

Kung hindi na nila kaya, they can always sell out — instead of making the suffering public carry the burden of their sagging businesses without giving them shares of stock.

* * *

WHERE’S THE REFUND?: Before we even talk of raising the rate, will somebody please tell us what ever happened to those billions that the Meralco is supposed to refund to us consumers representing its unconscionable overcharging over the years?

Last time we heard, the case was gathering dust on appeal before the Supreme Court. Some hoodlums in robes are probably having a hard time researching on how they could do the Lopezes a big favor by reversing or rewriting the adverse decision of the lower court.

That’s how it is in this country, sometimes. Ranged against a powerful party, a nameless litigant faces a life-time of endless Lenten penitensiya.

* * *

ARROYO TO THE RESCUE: Maybe President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose heart we were told bleeds for the poor, should tell the Lopezes to pay back those billions first before they even think of raising electricity rates.

If GMA’s handlers are still awake despite the somnolent air of Lent and the dulling lullaby of luxury, they should rush a statement saying the President has ordered somebody, blah blah, to hold the Lopez petition in abeyance and review the data carefully to protect (tear here) the poor.

She should do this before the usual hecklers remind her that when she signed that unpopular bill leading to the privatization of the giant National Power Corp., she solemnly promised that the cutting up of the Napocor and the privatization of its parts will not result in higher electric rates.

* * *

BIG BULGE IS SHOWING: Now comes the Meralco moving to have the total electric bill cut up into its various parts (generation, transmission, distribution, supply) with the rate increase spread out among these parts so it won’t bulge anywhere along the line and invite hostile fire.

But how do you hide a power rate increase that is more than 100 percent (double) of present rates? A crime as heinous as that cries to heaven for direct divine intervention. Jose Velarde would pale in comparison.

Spreading and hiding the outsized profit among the various parts or calling it some newfangled name is futile. Even the illiterate who may not know how to read a Meralco electric bill would readily spot the big bulge at the bottom line that says how much he is being asked to pay to sustain the lifestyle of the Lopezes.

* * *

LOOSE CHANGE UNNOTICED: We kept hearing during the pre-martial law heyday of the Lopezes that whenever somebody needed a hefty one-time sum, all that was done was simply to add a few pesos to each bill and, with millions of unsuspecting consumers chipping in loose pesos, millions were raised without having to disturb the power rates.

If, say, P30 were tacked on to your monthly bill, would you notice it? Would you go rushing to the Meralco office and complain? No, you won’t. If P30 were added surreptitiously to the computerized bill of each Meralco consumer, imagine the millions raised with a simple click of a computer key! Who would know the difference?

We’re not saying they did or are doing this. Maybe they don’t. But, in this country, who knows?

* * *

WE PAY MERALCO’S LOSSES: We also have to pay our share for the electricity that is stolen from Meralco. They tell us that we are our brother’s keepers and so must pay for the electricity filched by our neighbors through jumpers and illegal connections.

But why should we pay for Meralco’s own inefficiency, for its negligence and failure to catch the thieves?

Why would Meralco still exert effort to ferret out illegal connections when the rest of us are paying for the loss anyway? It’s really a crazy setup.

* * *

BLOATED ASSET BASE: Under the law, there is a limit to the profits that Meralco is allowed to make. It is a certain percentage (if we remember right, it’s 12 percent) of the value of its asset base. The higher the total value of its operating assets, the higher is the allowable profit.

To maximize profits within the allowed range, what Meralco reportedly does (or did) is include in the computation other assets or valuable property that have nothing to do directly with its franchised business of selling electricity.

What’s being done about this alleged cheating on the computation of allowable returns? While they are at it, the press release writers of President Arroyo may want to add something on this related issue.

Since she loves the poor, cannot the President order, for instance, the National Bureau of Investigation or the Department of Energy or some honest accountant-lawyer, if one could be found, to go through the Meralco files and look for entries that unduly bloat the public utility’s asset base to justify higher profits?

* * *

HONEST PROBE IMPOSSIBLE?: But then, somebody is bound to ask: What’s to prevent the government auditors from colluding with the Meralco?

Well, if that’s how we now think, we better stop discussing things altogether. We would be going around in endless circles until we drop dead. Or until we decide to emigrate.

Now you’ll understand why the Department of Foreign Affairs is running out of passports to issue to the ever-lengthening lines of applicants who want to rush out of the country and live elsewhere.

* * *

WHO ARE LEFT HERE?: Has anybody conducted an in-depth study of this phenomenon of Filipinos emigrating in droves?

Note that not just anybody can secure a passport and a foreign visa. This capability is mostly a function of the economic status of the person.

The result is that the migrant sector that the nation has been losing to other countries is the better-educated and better-situated (economically) class. In other words, we are losing better quality Filipinos.

Who are left to populate and litter the country? The squatters and the street urchins. The police characters. The barangay tambays. The destitute scrounging around for something to eat. The carpetbaggers who make more money when the rest of the population is ignorant and poor. The fast-buck artists thriving on people too lazy to work. The gambling lords preying on the poor relying on chamba. The drug pushers who see the connection between personal problems and addiction. The millionaire-preachers who cash in on the desperation of the poor and the sick. And of course the politicos and their ilk who see money in the glorious mess.

If it’s any consolation, those who have managed to slip out of the country and made some money will send part of it back home.

* * *

YOU’RE NOT SAFE: If you noticed, we have just enumerated the bulk of the voting population, the lost souls clinging to every promise thrown them by glib operators, the same citizens who grab every hundred-peso bill pressed onto their palms.

We have just identified the multitude of qualified voters who will choose the next president and other government officials down the line.

Where are the quality voters? They have gone abroad to work and live in more quiet and more orderly surroundings. Or if they are still around, they no longer bother to register and vote. They just read the papers and watch television, then curse the situation from what they think is the safety of their abodes.

These people who do not bother to participate in elections — and who just whine about everything but do nothing else — may not realize that even the high walls of their residences topped with ridiculous broken glass and barbed wire will not protect them and their children when the social volcano erupts.

* * *

BAHALA NA LANG!: Now why did we end up talking of these awful things at the start of Holy Week when we just intended to comment today on that indecent proposal to double our electric bill? Maybe there’s a connection somewhere, but we’re too exhausted to look for it.

But really, if we don’t care about this country anymore, and we have our passports and visas ready anyway, then let the Meralco double or even triple the electric rates. At bahala na.

As it is happening already, kanya-kanya nang lusot… with the government becoming irrelevant.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 26, 2002)

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