ROUGH CUTS| How to make the Sasa port project acceptable

WELL , we do not know if it was intentional on the part of the Department of Tourism (DOT) Undersecretary Benito Bengzon Jr. to exclude Davao City as area of interest in the agency’s desire to cement the Philippines as a cruise destination. By cruise destination the DOT wants it to mean that the country and its provinces with huge tourism potentials will be included in the travel routes of cruise vessels carrying foreign and even local tourists.

     In a report from Manila by the Philippine News Agency (PNA) Bengzon Jr. mentioned only the upgrading projects of the ports of Manila, Puerto Princesa in Palawan, Boracay and Subic as beneficiaries of the government’s current efforts to meet the requirements for docking of bigger cruise ships that will be carrying tourists.

     We hope we are wrong with our assumption that this “exclusion” has something to do with Davao City’s strong opposition to the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) proposed P19-billion Sasa Port Modernization Project.

     It may be recalled that one of the lesser emphasized intentions of the multi-billion port project is to enhance tourism industry in Davao City. And by enhancing we took it to mean that with a modern sea port, Davao would be ready to cater to tourists on board cruise ships that will include the city and its neighboring Island Garden City of Samal as destinations.

     Naturally, with the strong opposition not only by certain sectors of the Davao business community but by the local government itself, the DOT might have thought that including Davao in its list of destinations is not acceptable by the national government.

–ooOoo–

     And talking of the Sasa Port Modernization project, personally we are in favor of its implementation. It is actually manna from heaven that is the “imperial Manila” without the local government spending a single centavo for it. We know that once completed it will have a tremendous impact on the city’s economy.

     We do not really fully believe that there were no consultations made by the DOTC on the said project. If there were no consultations, then how come the Regional Development Council (RDC) XI has endorsed the project for approval by the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) Board subject to compliance by the DOTC of certain conditions?

     In fact the NEDA regional office XI has earlier refuted such claim by the known project oppositionists. Regional Director Ma. Lourdes Lim wrote a reaction to our column some months back denying allegations by project oppositionists that there were no consultations at all.

      The NEDA regional office is the RDC XI secretariat, hence we are certain it has complete records of the number of consultative and other related meetings on the port project.  According to Director Lim during those meetings all the stakeholders were invited to attend and participate in the deliberation. The local government of Davao and the three congressional offices of the city were well represented during those consultation fora.

     We believe the NEDA regional director. She could not have told the untruth. But for purposes of transparency we urge her to release to the media the minutes of all the consultation meetings and those in attendance, specifically the representatives of the city government. Frankly, we do not know what is restraining her from making public the details of the discussions during those meetings. For us, it is only by divulging the names of representatives from the various stakeholders, individuals or organizations and government entities attending the consultative meeting will the “no consultation” issue be resolved with finality.

     Honestly, we have this suspicion that those who were tasked to represent the city during the consultative meetings did not do their homework. It is likely that they forgot to render official reports of what were taken up during those meetings.

     Assuming that the city representatives rendered their reports to the proper branches of the local government, say to the executive and the legislative (City Council), then any of the two branches should have advised the DOTC through the NEDA XI that implementation of the project needs to comply with the provision of the Local Government Code that requires all entities, be they private corporations, non-government organizations or national government agencies planning to put up projects in the locality to seek permission from the local government concerned. Meaning, the city should be proactive.

     But perhaps the best questions to be asked are: At what level and whose responsibility it is to seek the local government’s approval of the project; at the conceptualization and planning levels? Immediately prior to the implementation stage? We believe that the consultative processes apply on the first question. And this is the responsibility of the DOTC with support from the local office of NEDA being the secretariat of the RDC. On the second question we are of the opinion that the permitting processes come in at this level. We also believe that it would now be the responsibility of the winning bidder to work on the acquisition of the various permits from concerned government agencies including the city government. At this level also, the winning bidder shall include in its documentary submission to the local government executive department the minutes of all consultative meetings, the resolution of the RDC endorsing the project, proof of compliance by the DOTC of the conditions set by the RDC, and other papers that will support the viability of the project including social and environmental impact assessments.

     On the claim that the Sasa Port Modernization is highly overpriced project, we have this position: if the people will only focus on the figure, may be it looks like the cost is really bloated. But then, did not the DOTC say that it is only an agency estimate based on the conceptual framework and design used by the project planners. But as estimate, the budget serves only as the baseline figure for the bidders to consider in their own determination of how much they would bid for the project. Hence, the bidders could possibly come up with bids much lower than the agency estimate. It is even possible that the highest bid can still be lower than the P19 billion estimated project cost.

     But then again, the suspicion that the estimated budget of the project is laced with hidden anomalies to benefit certain administration officials. Hence, we feel that only by making every item in the proposed budget transparent can the suspicion be erased. And by way of compliance of providing relocation sites for residents in the port area affected by the project, the allocation for such purpose must be clearly stated in the budget itemization. So is the case of any real property tax payables for additional land acquisition must be clearly stated in the budget items.

     Should the DOTC refuse to undertake these processes of transparency the project, though already a much needed one by the city, will remain unwelcome for the rest of the Aquino regime.

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