Government News Analysis

Lim gets MMDA portfolio

Lim at MMDA
Lim at MMDA

Serial coup-plotter, retired brigadier-general Danilo Lim (photo) has been brought into Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s Cabinet as head of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) – the overarching planning and regulatory body for the National Capital Region (NCR). It’s an interesting appointment but whether it’ll turn out to be a good one, time alone will tell.

Lim’s last government post was as a member of former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s administration. His role there was deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Customs (BOC), a position he held for just 22 months – a position he found too tough to handle. As he said when he finally and successfully resigned – he’d asked to be relieved of his post on six previous occasions – his work at the BOC was tougher than mounting coups.

Moreover, running the MMDA won’t be a piece of cake either. If Lim’s looking for an easy government slot, this isn’t it. The MMDA is a massive organisation which coordinates and supervises the development and functioning of every city within Metro Manila. Its role covers urban planning and development, flood control and dredging of waterways, transport and traffic management, solid waste disposal and sewage management, pollution control and public safety – and a host of other functions in between.

It also has to balance the needs of all 17 conurbations that form Metro Manila – Caloocan, Las Piñas, Makati, Malabon, Mandaluyong, Manila, Marikina, Muntinlupa, Parañaque, Pasay, Pasig, Pateros (municipality), Navotas, Quezon, San Juan, Taguig, and Valenzuela. That means handling everything from road markings and street lighting to preparing for a magnitude 7.2 earthquake.

With a combined resident population of close to 13 million people – or 12.4% of the country’s total population, making it one of the most people-congested places on Earth – the MMDA’s brief stretches across the entire socio-economic quilt of the NCR agglomeration. Its purview encompasses everywhere from the glitzy, manicured central business district of Bonifacio Global City and the up-market residential gated communities of Forbes Park and villages such as Urdaneta and Dasmarinas to the squalid slums of Payatas and Tondo, Happyland and Aroma with densities of around 80,000 people per square mile.

Lim mounted coups against the presidencies of Corazon Aquino in 1989 and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2007. These were attempts to highlight official corruption which is what probably earned him his credentials as a committed ‘clean-up’ merchant, and why Benigno Aquino chose him for the Customs Bureau – the most corrupt of any government department by a long way.

Interestingly, as an aside, Duterte went the same route by appointing another army rebel – Nicanor Faeldon, who took part in the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny – to the post of BOC commissioner. We don’t anticipate, however, that a position will be found in this administration for fellow Lim and Faeldon plotter, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, one of Duterte’s most outspoken critics. By making these appointments, it could also be that the president wants to isolate Trillanes from his two former renegades-in-arms.

The reason the former brigadier-general gave for his lack of success at the BOC, however, was that “various external forces [are] beyond your control”. But finding cohesion for the myriad of local government units and their respective ranges of agencies across the part-plush, part-torn quilt of Metro Manila has always proved difficult. Every authority is fighting for cash to fund its own projects. Vested interests here are as thick as January snow in Japan.

And often there’s more take than give. For example, just one area of MMDA responsibility is roads. More than a quarter of all the vehicles in the country can be found in the National Capital Region. The rights and needs of every form of transportation from public buses and haulage vehicles to private cars and motor bikes and ferries, plus commuters, somehow have to be accommodated while attempting to alleviate horrendous congestion which is estimated to cost around PHP2.5 billion a day in loss of productivity alone.

Lim takes over from acting MMDA chairman, Thomas Orbos who held the position since the previous incumbent, Emerson Carlos, resigned in August last year. Prior to his stepping down, the authority was heavily criticised by the Commission on Audit for its “seemingly random and disorganised solution” in addressing the traffic problems. Carlos admitted that the MMDA hadn’t structured a detailed plan because of Metro Manila’s “very fluid traffic environment”.

That same lack of fluidity still exists and has in fact been further burdened by a number of public-works schemes intended eventually to get a grip with the gridlock that strangles this region’s roads. In short, chairmanship of the MMDA is a big portfolio and will need all of Lim’s military discipline to handle it.

The reality is, though, the scale and diversity of the problems which the NCR faces – from illegal parking to flooding to removing vagrants and street children from city thoroughfares, for example – can never be fully solved in their own right.

For just these items to be dealt with across the urban sprawl that’s collectively Metro Manila will require establishing adequate parking zones, efficient drainage systems to take away the typhoon rains and for anti-poverty measures to be up and running to halt the massive migration from the countryside. At best, right now all that can be achieved is sound management of these problems while working towards long-term solutions.

The reality is, given the geographical range involved and the huge diversity of the demographic, MMDA policy cannot be all things to all people. And particularly at this time when infrastructure projects are being assessed and awarded and the public is being faced with its greatest upheaval – in terms of noise and inconvenience – as they get underway.

This isn’t a job for a diplomat per se, though diplomatic skills will be necessary. If the MMDA is going to work though, it’s going to require some tough and possibly very unpopular decisions to be made. Sometimes heads will need to be banged together.

Lim’s job is to facilitate, coordinate and oversee the development of the NCR. He will head the Metro Manila Council, the Authority’s policymaking body. There he’ll work with his Cabinet colleagues from the departments of Transportation, Public Works and Highways, Budget and Management, Housing and Urban Development and the Philippine National Police.

More pertinently, he’ll also have to work with all 17 Metro Manila mayors who, along with the presidents of the Metro Manila Vice Mayor’s League and the Metro Manila Councillors League, form the Council’s voting membership. In other words, it’s them who decide which plans and projects go ahead and what rules and regulations need to be issued and enforced. In attempting to drive though some decisions Lim will soon find that gridlock is not confined to the NCR’s roads. This, then, is not a job for the faint-hearted.

Certainly corruption is negligible compared to what Lim encountered at the BOC, but the logistical demands are much broader. Let’s take a look at just one area – wastewater management. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, some 2,000 cubic metres of solvent wastes, 22,000 tons of heavy metals, infectious waste, biological sludge, lubricants, and intractable wastes, plus 25 million cu.m of acid/alkaline liquid waste are improperly disposed of in Metro Manila each year. One of MMDA’s terms of reference is public safety.

Likewise, only 11% of the NCR’s population is either directly or indirectly connected to a sewage system; 85% use ill-maintained septic tanks while 4% – that’s more than half a million people – have no access to a toilet.

Every day in Metro Manila some 10,000 tons of garbage end up in landfills, around 100,000 families squat along the region’s filthy waterways. And when the typhoons drop their rain whole sections of Metro Manila disappear under water.

No one should expect Lim to be able to wrestle all these problems to the ground; he’s not Superman. These problems are the result of years of neglect and corruption that saw the money for improvement schemes disappear into the back pockets of unscrupulous officials and disreputable businessmen as bribes and graft delivered a city infrastructure little better than that of a poor African town. The legacy is long and the band-aid solutions of the past are now wholly inadequate.

Lim will need all his soldiering skills – and, West Point trained, he’s certainly not short of those – to lick this brief into shape. In many ways it seems a thankless task; but if Metro Manila is to be kept from slipping back into a sclerotic state – there have been some improvements over the past few years – he will need to get the mayors on side and treat this job like a military campaign. We wish him all the best.

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