Rebooting Balik Probinsya: Solution to urban planning woes?

Published August 1, 2020, 3:41 AM

by Johannes Chua

It is a program filled with good intentions, but are we and our provinces ready?

Out of the many proposals to survive the coming new normal, balik probinsya, translated literally as “return to the provinces,” was one of the solutions presented to finally decongest Metro Manila. It seemed like a practical option in the point of view of urban planning.

Aside from freeing space in the capital and solve its traffic woes, it will equalize growth and boost economies of provinces. It will also ensure more people will be employed and countryside poverty can be eliminated. Who doesn’t want these scenarios to happen? It would be utopia when an individual who works in Makati is paid the same rate should he decide to work in his hometown in Catanduanes.

Urban density is very high in Metro Manila… can Balik Probinsya program solve this problem? (Manila Bulletin file photo)

If balik probinsya sounds like a novel idea that must be implemented after the quarantine to stop all woes of Metro Manila, stop right there. Balik probinsya has good intentions, but it also pays to look back at and learn from past mistakes. As a popular saying goes, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” 

Most experts agree that government still has a lot of things to iron out. Most recently, those who have availed of the balik probinsya were reported to break the 14-day quarantine and spread the virus in their hometowns. But the pandemic has shown that even a modern metropolis such as Metro Manila was ill-equipped to handle its entire population.

Manila Bulletin Property reached out to some senior members of the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners (PIEP). A lot of them are architects, urban planners, and former government officers who were involved with the original balik probinsya program. Yes, same program name. Same program mechanics.

But what happened? Is this post-Covid era the right time to implement such a program? 

The government recently implemented the Hatid Probinsya operation to bring locally stranded individuals back to their hometowns (Photo by Jansen Romero)

“This may seem like pouring cold water over the euphoria on balik probinsya, but this program was already created by the Marcos administration under the same name,” says Lilia Casanova, senior fellow of PIEP. “Financing assistance was provided by the Ministry of Labor and Employment and Ministry of Local Government. But it did not prosper because there was no ‘progressive province’ to return to. Repatriates moved from urban to rural poverty. Gradually, they trickled back to Metro Manila to ‘squat’ once more.” 

Times have changed from Marcos to Duterte, Casanova says, but the motivation to make the program a success remains the same. 

Balik probinsya is a motivation that needs no funding. People will go back to their hometowns if the economic conditions there are right,” Casanova says. 

She recommends making agriculture the foundation for creating opportunities for jobs that people will hope to find in the provinces—from farm jobs and service jobs of transporting, distributing, and selling produce to marketing, manufacturing, packaging, and, eventually, exporting. 

“It is not enough to enjoy operating an agri-enterprise. Government has to make sure it fully supports these enterprises. Government has to make sure that farm-to-market roads are adequate, the transport system is available, and the police are minding the traffic and not the delivery trucks. Developing the agriculture base is a wise way to make the country leap to manufacturing and to industrialization,” she explains. 

Emmanuel Ikan Astillero, also a fellow of PIEP, supports the observation of Casanova, which highlights the need for the government to have a doable plan, especially in terms of providing livelihood.  

“The main issue in this balik probinsya is livelihood at the return location. It is safe to assume that those in the congested slums of Metro Manila came here to seek better opportunities that the big city can offer,” says Astillero. 

He adds that health and education are also factors. “There is also the matter of health and education facilities. Our experience in provincial local government units (LGUs) is the lack of these facilities, especially in education for high school and college—and in health. Regional health units are available, but hospitals are sometimes lacking.”

If livelihood, health, and education are not available in the provinces where balik probinsya will be implemented, Astillero has similar views with Casanova regarding the outcome. “Those who participated in balik probinsya, after a few years, will go back again to urban slums.”

What is there to do? President Rodrigo Duterte has signed Executive Order 114, while Senator Bong Go’s resolution was already adopted by the Senate. These acts have started the engine of this administration’s “Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-Asa” program, touting it as “a pillar of balanced regional development,” made more urgent by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Astillero recommends that the government must include some incentive schemes that will be developed by agencies such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), and the concerned LGU.

“This will encourage corporations to start rural-based ventures that will move capital, technology, and management expertise from urban areas to rural capitals,” Astillero says. 

The next stage is to put up health and education facilities of “sufficient” quality to encourage the wives (and children) to follow their husbands to rural capitals.

As of this writing, the provinces of Leyte and Camarines Sur, including four in Mindanao (Zamboanga del Norte, Lanao del Norte, North Cotabato, and Bukidnon) have expressed their intention to be part of the balik probinsya program. In fact, Deputy House Speaker Luis Villafuerte is offering a 300-hectare industrial estate for the program where “companies from Metro Manila could relocate and do business after the pandemic.”

This offer was lauded by urban planners as the 300-hectare industrial estate is already equipped with necessary infrastructure, such as fiber-optic connection, power lines, water system source, and a transportation hub. Though it really remains to be seen if it really pushes through. 

Most experts, however, agree that government still has a lot of things to iron out. Most recently, those who have availed of the balik probinsya were reported to break the 14-day quarantine and spread the virus in their hometowns. But the pandemic has shown that even a modern metropolis such as Metro Manila was ill-equipped to handle its entire population.

Some experts also see that the program may achieve success because of the President, who has long championed countryside development, a major tenet of federalism. 

Delia Josef, a fellow of PIEP, is also somewhat optimistic. She hopes that the national government will stay true to its words and provide the requisite assistance to all receiving LGUs participating in the balik probinsya

“The program is laudable, but it requires a good implementing rules and regulations (IRR) and well-thought-out implementing mechanics. It is a challenge for urban planners to support this program, and create ‘livable, compact, coordinated, and connected’ communities,” says Josef. 

Only time can tell if this balik probinsya of the post-Covid era will become a success. But for now, any idea—rash or rehashed, like balik probinsya—to solve the urban nightmare that is Metro Manila is welcome.