More than a year ago, then President Joseph Estrada opened “Erap City” in Montalban, Rizal as a model resettlement site for Metro Manila’s slum dwellers. He had the “city” itself named after him. Estrada has already left the relocatees – he was deposed by People Power 2 last January – but he remains forever etched in their collective memory, if only in a different way. “Erap City” to them has become a Calvary, and residents want to make that clear as they observe Holy Week.

By Ananeza Aban

ERAP CITY, Montalban - On Holy Wednesday this week, poor people will flock to the flood plains of Montalban, a municipality in Rizal province west of Manila, to consecrate the grounds with a Holy Mass in honor of their dead. The dead were the latest victims of forced evictions and distant relocation.

In biblical times, Lent is a season of walking with Jesus Christ on the road to the Holy City of Jerusalem. The Epistles of Paul in the New Testament talk about how Christ suffered for the atonement of sins and the offering of life through his death and resurrection. Meanwhile, the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke stress the necessity of fasting, forgiving, and praying during the Lenten season.

Catholic devotees among the poor have not missed this Christian tradition. In a different religious message, residents of Kasiglahan Village (KV) 1 in Erap City, Montalban choose to imbibe the essence of the passion of Christ in the context of their continued suffering and poverty.

While the Catholic laity follow the traditional way of the cross, reading of the Pasyon, visita iglesia or Lenten pilgrimage, KV1 residents will build mock tombstones made of newspapers and corrugated sheets handpainted in black and white for the annual Kalbaryo ng Maralitang Tagalunsod (Urban Poor’s Calvary).

The objective is to epitomize their life’s daily misery outside urban Metro Manila after being forced by government to vacate the banks of Pasig River, more than a year ago during the Estrada presidency.

For Lourdes Lacsi, KV1 resident and a mother of three children, Erap City is likely the contemporary Mount Calvary where Christ was crucified and died.

“Konting bato, konting semento, sementeryo (A handful of stones, a handful of cement, cemetery),” is how Ricardo Miranda, another resident and a block leader in the area, describes the community.

“With the extreme poverty we’re in, we cannot help but say that Erap City is Calvary in itself. We have lost our jobs in the cities. Without any work here, you’re virtually on the edge of death,” Lacsi said.

Aling (elder) Lourdes used to earn a living in Barangay (village) Pineda along the river in Pasig washing her neighbor’s clothes or cleaning her friend’s dental clinic. For all these, she was earning P300 daily. When their shanty was torn down by government demolition crews, they were resettled in KV1. Unlike in Pasig, however, Erap City offered no work opportunities. For the first time, the thought of being hungry haunted her and her family.

Upon reaching Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, Jesus was given a wine to drink drugged with myrrh, a taste he refused to gulp despite his thirst.

Like Jesus, children here fell ill while some already died of diarrhea and dehydration because of the water they drink. Residents complained that the water is not potable. “Our stomachs grumble everytime we drink water from our faucets. It is like drinking the wine with myrrh,” Lacsi said.

From danger zone to death zone

“People are dying here because of starvation, joblessness and the absence of a hospital or a lying-in clinic,” said Vangie Pangilinan, leader of the KVI Action Group. “There is no doctor. Only a midwife stays in a so-called health center which has no medicines or health services for the sick and the dying.”

“We were evicted from the riverbank – a danger zone for slumdwellers like me. Now, we’re living in a death zone,” Pangilinan said.

Records of Urban Poor Associates (UPA), a non-government organization (NGO) helping evicted Pasig River families, show that 16 people including nine children, already died since last year due to lack of medical care.

But residents like Teresa dela Vega said that around 50 people have actually died. Most of them sick became with curable diseases – such as diarrhea, measles and pulmonary diseases - who should have been saved if enough medical attention was given.

The wake of one victim lasted for a month because the family had to scrounge for money to spend for the funeral. Another family is holding wake for a seven-month old baby and they just couldn’t tell when the burial will finally be held.

Feasts for the dead

At Erap City, poverty leads people to bury their dead in strange ways.

When Adelaida dela Cruz, 73, died of a respiratory illness, her family gave her a humble wake for a night in KV1. Too expensive for them, her casket was returned to the funeral service parlor (funeraria in the local dialect ) and had the old woman’s body wrapped in a blanket. Unable to pay the funeraria’s service vehicle, the family just carried her body to a jeepney, in the guise of a passenger. A few passengers noticed but just kept silent. Shewas to be buried in Napindan, several kilometers away from Montalban.

For them, it was better to bring Aling Adelaida back to Napindan, her birthplace, where relatives and friends can shell out money for her simple burial.

In another case, the bodies of two newly-born babies placed in ordinary coffins made by neighbors were brought by men across the Montalban river. The bereaved families, too, could not afford the services of a funeraria. Beyond the river, the Potter’s Field (or poor man’s grave) became their final resting place.

The multi-billion resettlement budget

Disgruntled for being forced into their present living condition, members of the KV1 Action Group asked President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo’s government to probe the anomalous P2.116 billion budget of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commisssion (PRRC) for its resettlement projects. 

It said that the Estrada government wasted the huge amount of loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which is part of the over-all P7.9 billion budget for the river’s rehabilitation.

 “Where did the P2.116B loan intended for the families removed along the Pasig River go?” asked Ted Añana, UPA assistant coordinator.

UPA’s current research-survey shows that of the 5,350 families relocated to PRRC’s distant camps, 54 percent have returned to Metro Manila because the commission failed to provide basic services.

Government documents, such as the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP), says the aim of relocation is to provide a better quality of life for evicted families through “good quality housing with security of tenure, better access to basic services, access to skills and livelihood development opportunities, and improvement in public health conditions for the people particularly women and children.”

“Government does not conform with its RAP guidelines.  It has violated its major provisions on the health condition of the people, citing our records of 16 casualties as a proof,” Añana said.

For its part, the ADB as the aid agency of PRRC, must review the performance of the government on resettlement, UPA said. The bank’s guidelines prohibit funding in projects that displace people. The ADB should stop extending funds if government does not do its homework to the people of KV1 and the rest of Pasig river families who have been relocated to other sites, UPA said.

Its Handbook on Resettlement says “ People unavoidably displaced should be compensated and assisted, so that their economic and social future would be generally as favorable as it would have been in the absence of the project…People affected should be informed fully and consulted on resettlement and compensation options…Ensure that relocation sites are completed with all amenities before any relocation takes place.”

The environment and Erap City

KV1 is part of the 2,500-hectare Erap City project, according to the executive summary of the Home Insurance Guarantee Corporation. Touted as the “first ever well-planned socialized housing city undertaken in the country,” Erap City is developed by the New San Jose Builders, reportedly the developer of ousted President Joseph Estrada’s grand Boracay mansions.

KV1 sits on the San Jose Flood Plains. Its development already affected the villages of San Jose, San Isidro, Puray, and Macabud which are near the critical watershed areas of Angat-Ipo, La Mesa, and Marikina.

 Several NGOs say that the housing construction already caused the denudation of forests and leveling of mountains in the area. The Bunga, Gabi, Lilid and Palapad creeks have been choked and filled. There is great possibility of soil erosion, siltation, contamination of rivers, and flash floods affecting not only Montalban, but also the cities of Marikina, Pasig and Rizal province in the future.

Aside from flash floods, maps from the Philippine Volcanology and Seismology show that Barangays Macabud and San Jose are found in the upper block of the West Marikina Valley Fault lines. The area is prone to surface rupture in the event of earthquakes, which makes the lives of residents in greater danger.

Inside almost every household in the community is posted the image of the bleeding and dying Christ nailed to the cross. It might as well stand as a grim reminder of how the ousted president popularized himself as the “poor man’s savior” and peddled the lie that his projects for the poor – such as Erap City – would make them happier for the rest of their lives. Nobody knows happiness in this city.  #