POSTSCRIPT / August 12, 2007 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Allow our soldiers on Sulu to hit back

HIT BACK/ HOLD BACK: Peace advocates in Mindanao and abroad are urging the government to suspend military offensives against Moro extremists on Sulu island to enable, they say, an international group to find out what really happened.

Even without a ceasefire, the whole world already knows what happened: At least 57 combatants had been killed in new fighting on the blood-drenched island, 26 of them government troops on a lawful mission.

The number includes 14 Marines who were killed when ambushed by a Moro group that was supposed to be holding peace talks with the government. Ten of the soldiers were beheaded or mutilated.

The military will have to hit back! But now suddenly so-called peace advocates have sprung up to hold them back.

We cannot bring the dead back to life. But let us, this time and every time, do justice to the bravery of our ill-equipped, underpaid, disadvantaged soldiers.

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SCOLIOSIS: Back in Manila, we need a long-term policy and a master plan on passenger jeepneys, those World War II relics that defy technical scoliosis to stay as the backbone of the mass transport system in the nation’s capital.

Some groups, including the Makati local government, want to reincarnate the jeepneys as battery-operated contraptions rolling like modified electric golf carts in the asphalt jungle of the Bi-Nai Dynasty.

For its part, the Finance department wants to raise by 2,600 percent (!) the taxes on jeepney operators.

Is the department’s objective to make operators cough up the collection shortfall of the Bureau of Internal Revenue or just to bleed them to death, or both in sequence?

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LOOSE CHANGE: To many of us plain folk battered by the cruel combination of rising taxes and prices, the solution to the scrounging around for more public funds is to plug collection leaks and cut the sticky fingers of thieves in government.

Most people are ready to believe that for every tax-peso collected, not more than 20 centavos are left for payback to the people in terms of essential services, public health and mass education.

That is the barya (loose change) left after bureaucratic butchers carve out from the tax-peso the choice cuts for foreign debt, pork barrel, intelligence funds and the usual graft.

There is not much we can do to ease debt payments except to prepay or restructure them. But there is a lot that a determined administration and an incensed public can do to reduce pork barrel misuse, intelligence abuse and government graft.

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VEXING VAT: Why must government always take the line of least resistance and impose new or padded taxes every time it needs money?

Look what happened to the Expanded Value Added Tax, which the Arroyo administration promised would cover the fund requirements of the ambitious plans and projects that it feels compelled to present every SONA season.

The additional two-percent burden (from 10 to 12 percent) tacked on to the old VAT rate would have been unnecessary had the government only set its mind instead to improving tax collection.

But since it could not convince foreign creditors that it can boost collection, given this nation’s bad record, the Shylocks forced the Arroyo administration to just raise the VAT rate and, hopefully, collect more taxes to pay them.

Was the additional two percent under EVAT collected substantially? Sa awa ng dios, hindi po. We just gave cheating merchants, conniving taxmen and thieving bureaucrats more money to steal.

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BEST MODE: Back to the jeepneys… what is the government’s plan for them? Like the dinosaurs, they will have to go eventually because of the changing, increasingly harsh, environment.

Who is preparing for that day? No one.

Whatever progress we achieve in Metro Manila, we will never impress visitors and investors that we have latched on to the modern times as long as they see those jeepneys (and the pedicabs!) crawling on our rutted streets.

This is not to mock the poor man’s ride. I just want to submit that the masses deserve something better. I refuse to accept that — after half a century — the jeepney is still the best we can offer as a mode of mass transportation in the nation’s capital.

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TRANSITION: Administration after administration has postponed facing the problem. So now we have jeepney drivers and operators organized into pressure groups insisting with threats of violence that they be allowed to roll on — and on their terms.

The proposal here is not to remove jeepneys in one sweep but in a transition during which we do at least two things: Phase-in an alternative transport scheme and prepare the affected personnel (mainly drivers) for working within the incoming setup.

In the same spirit that animated the “Metro Gwapo” program of MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando, we should replace the jeepneys with something more attuned (and LOOKING BETTER) to the modern needs of the residents and visitors of the metropolis.

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MASTER PLAN: We do not throw out of job the jeepney drivers nor strip the operators of their investments. We just have to help them, reorient them, and improve their equipment.

The idea is: Change the jeepneys, keep the drivers, save the operators.

Recognized experts in design, Filipinos can come up with a vehicle that LOOKS better and OPERATES more efficiently under local conditions.

But first, we should have a forward-looking master plan.

For instance, are the electric or battery-operated jeepneys being road-tested in Makati attuned to a long-term plan? The answer is No, because there is no such plan in the first place.

Let us draw up the plan pronto to guide transport operators, their personnel and other stakeholders.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 12, 2007)

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