By DR. BERNARDO M. VILLEGAS
I was fortunate to be in a briefing given to a multisectoral group of stakeholders by DPWH Secretary Mark Villar just before the old year ended. The secretary, assisted by his very able Undersecretary for Planning and PPP Maria Catalina E. Cabral, gave us a very comprehensive status report on the accomplishments of his department since the Duterte administration began in July, 2016. We were first reminded that the mandate to the DPWH is to undertake: (a) the planning of infrastructures, such as national roads and bridges, flood control, water resources projects, and other public works; and (b) the design, construction, and maintenance of national roads and bridges, and major flood control systems.
I took special note of the exclusive role of the DPWH in implementing an integrated water resources management program which encompasses the construction/rehabilitation of flood mitigation structures along major river basins and principal rivers; the construction of water impounding projects; and the construction of water supply/septage and sewerage/rain collectors; and upgrading drainage capacity. The report included a complete listing of the river basins with master plans/flood control plans, such as the rivers in Cagayan, Agusan, Pampanga, Agno, Pasig-Marikina-Laguna Bay, Bicol, Ilog-Hilabangan, Panay, Tagoloan, and Cagayan de Oro. Also enumerated were the updates of master plans/flood control plans for the rivers in Abra, Abulug, Tagaum-Libuganon, Davao, Buayan-Malungun, Jalaur and Agus. It was very clear to us that even if some of the legislators could suggest specific flood control projects in their respective districts which should be included in the annual budgets, the exclusive responsibility for planning and implementing these projects (including the bidding and granting of awards to construction companies) is with the DPWH.
It was reassuring to us that the DPWH has done much to improve good governance among its ranks. They have actually blacklisted a good number of contractors who have been involved in anomalous transactions or have reneged on their commitments. At the district level, where dishonest officials can still rig the bidding process, there have been serious efforts to discipline and even fire the erring officials. I think that this fact should be considered by those who are concerned about the so-called resurfacing of “pork barrel” in the preparation of the annual budget. As long as the DPWH is doing its job of ensuring that public works projects (including flood control programs) are awarded to competent and honest contractors, it does not really matter if some Congress people are involved in recommending specific projects in their respective districts to be funded in the annual budget. Instead of making wild accusations against members of the Cabinet or some of their own colleagues in the House of Representatives, those who are concerned about good governance in the awarding of projects should consult with the officials of the DPWH about the honesty and reliability of those who are being awarded contracts. It is unfair to cast doubt about contractors who have won contracts just because they have bagged a good number of projects or just because they happen to be relatives or friends of some government officials.
What impressed me most in the presentation of Secretary Villar was the information that the bulk of the budget of the DPWH was spent for infrastructures in the countryside and not in urban areas like Metro Manila or Metro Cebu. It is Secretary Villar’s strong belief that the funds of the government for infrastructures should not be channeled to the rich urban centers but should be almost wholly spent in the rural areas which have suffered most from lack of infrastructures. If Metro Manila, for example, needs to improve its roads, railroads, or airports, let these be constructed with mostly funds from the private sector through the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) mode. These infrastructures projects can easily get commercial rates of return such as SLEX, NLEX, TPLEX, CAVITEX, STAR, SKYWAYS, and many others around the Metro Manila area. The same can be said about airports like those in Mactan and Clark.
What are not commercially viable are farm-to-market roads, irrigation facilities, flood control systems, and bridges connecting sparsely populated islands. These projects are those that result in more inclusive growth because they benefit the poorer segments of the population and should, therefore, be fully subsidized by the government. That is why I found it desirable for inclusive growth that big amounts of money in the budget were allocated to provinces like Sorsogon which is in one of the poorest regions of the country. In fact, we should encourage the members of the House of Representatives who come from these economically depressed regions to actively lobby for a greater part of the infrastructure budget for their respective districts. They should not be considered “pork barrel” as long as the final implementation of the projects is left completely in the hands of officials of the DPWH.
(To be continued)