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'Where's calamity fund?' victims ask Aquino
Publication Date : 21-10-2013
Is the Philippine government’s calamity fund drying up?
When President Benigno Aquino III’s spokesman Edwin Lacierda declared last week that the government had “lots of money” to respond to the emergency caused by the earthquake devastation in Central Visayas, he was apparently kidding.
The Aquino administration has a total of 461.4 billion pesos (US$107 million) it can tap in case of calamities and related emergencies, based on this year’s national budget.
Part of the total package is the annual calamity fund of 7.5 billion pesos, which is listed under “special purpose funds,” a set of lump-sum appropriations described by critics as presidential pork barrel.
During his state visit to South Korea late last week, however, Aquino told reporters that only 1.37 billion pesos was left of the calamity fund.
But survivors of the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 180 people and destroyed centuries-old churches in Cebu and Bohol provinces on October 15 have complained that they have not seen government presence in their towns since the quake struck.
In Bohol, epicentre of the earthquake, entire towns had no electricity and water and residents claimed they received no help from the government during the first two days of the emergency.
When help finally arrived in one village on the third day, the aid consisted of two sacks containing 20 packages of rice and groceries, not enough for the 600 people in the community.
Authorities explained that the destruction of roads and bridges had made it difficult for the government to reach remote towns and villages.
They said some repaired bridges and roads were reopened to traffic on Friday, speeding up delivery of relief to devastated towns.
There is no mention of lack of money to buy relief goods.
As of Sunday morning, the Department of Social Welfare and Development had shelled out 8.05 million pesos in “food and nonfood” relief assistance to victims of the earthquake.
“We’re still working to reach villages and towns that still need help from the DSWD,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said on state-run radio dzRB.
Relief goods started to arrive in Sagbayan town in Bohol on Saturday and hundreds of residents lined up at the municipal hall expecting to receive food packages donated by private groups and business organizations in Manila.
But many went home empty-handed.
Resident Tita Fajardo said only allies of local officials got top priority in the distribution of the goods, leaving nothing for indigent people who had been waiting for help for five days.
Fajardo said 30 people from remote villages lined up for relief at the municipal hall on Wednesday but were turned away.
“They prioritised their allies rather than those who badly needed [help],” she said.
Fajardo said she decided to give to the rejected villagers 15 relief tickets that she had planned to give to her neighbors because the indigents really had nothing to eat.
Valte said the Palace had received reports that “some local politicians” were withholding relief from towns where the goods were needed.
She said Interior Secretary Mar Roxas had issued orders to make sure that relief operations were not “tainted with politics”.
“If these allegations are proven against some supposed politicians, then we will not hesitate to move against them,” Valte said.
In Sagbayan, the venue of the distribution of relief goods was changed on Sunday. Instead of residents flocking to the municipal hall to receive aid, the goods were taken to the villages in military trucks for distribution to the needy.
“The military has spearheaded some of the distribution in order to [prevent some people] from taking advantage,” said Capt. Lolito Destajo of the Philippine Army’s 6th Special Forces Company.
Emelda Detinol, 43, said she and her 6-year-old daughter Jopay arrived at the municipal hall at 8am on Saturday and waited for their turn to receive aid.
But when her turn came, she said she was disappointed to get just a plastic bag containing one kilo of rice, three cans of sardines, a can of corned tuna and three packs of instant noodles.
Detinol said she and her daughter walked 2 kilometres from Amay Sentro village to the town centre, only to get relief goods for only one day.
She said she and her husband had eight children and her grandmother lived with them.
“What we got was good for only one day. We have nothing to eat tomorrow,” she said.
When will the next package come?
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said the earthquake displaced nearly 400,000 people. Many are still in makeshift tents, terrorised by aftershocks and unwilling to return home.
About 109,000 people are sheltering in government-run evacuation centers in Bohol and Cebu.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said on Saturday that the relief operations would continue until all the displaced have returned home.
She mentioned nothing about the government needing donations to help the evacuees.
Of the 461.4 billion pesos available this year in the event of calamities and other emergencies, allocations pooled from the special purpose funds amount to 127.05 billion pesos.
Under the category of “unprogrammed fund” is 60.36 billion pesos for the government’s disaster risk reduction and management programme.
Allotted to the National Housing Authority is 21.37 billion pesos.
In the regular budget, there is a “quick-response fund” of 34.84 billion pesos.
Use pork barrel
If all that is not enough, why not tap 12 billion pesos in pork barrel ordered held by the Supreme Court in response to petitions to abolish the graft-ridden Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF)?
Senate President Franklin Drilon said Sunday that the senators intended to pass a resolution expressing their sense that the President could tap the remaining pork barrel to augment his calamity fund.
Drilon said this could be done even if the Supreme Court had issued a temporary restraining order stopping the release of funds from the PDAF.
“Even if there is a case against the PDAF, this can be used to augment the calamity fund. Even if the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional, this can be transferred to savings because the Constitution allows realignment,” he said in an interview on dzBB.
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the PDAF, Drilon said the Senate would adopt a resolution expressing its sense that the remaining funds should be added to the President’s calamity fund.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad earlier said that some 12.27 billion pesos has not been released from the PDAF for the second half of 2013. The President ordered the suspension of the PDAF in the face of public outrage over its misuse.
Drilon could not say how much of the remaining funds was allotted for the senators and the representatives.
If at all, the Senate resolution would apply only to the unreleased pork allocation of the 24 senators, who are each allotted 200 million pesos every year.
Drilon, who held a caucus with his colleagues centering on the pork barrel scam on Wednesday, said the chamber would decide on the language of the resolution.
“We will work it out how we will do it. Maybe authorising Malacañang, but to me, technically there’s no need for authorization because the realignment of funds is with the Executive,” he said.
Nothing from House
The earthquake victims can expect nothing from the House of Representatives, which is not too keen on following the lead of the Senate.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said: “We certainly would like to contribute to Bohol and Cebu if our case is won, but we cannot give everything because, unlike senators we have obligations to specific constituencies.”
Belmonte stressed that the House was not sensitive to the plight of the earthquake victim like the Senate.
“Even from our salaries, we contributed to Zamboanga. What more from our PDAF,” he said, citing the 3 million pesos raised from the salary contributions of each House member for the families displaced by the weeks-long siege in Zamboanga City.
He pointed out that it was hard to “speculate” on what should be done about the pork barrel frozen by the Supreme Court. “At the very least, I cannot commit without consulting the leaders of our 290 members,” he said.
Deputy Speaker Giorgidi Aggabao said House leaders “cannot second guess the sentiments of the members, especially since there are scholarships that have to be paid out of the PDAF.”—With reports from Gil C. Cabacungan in Manila and Carmel Loise Matus, Inquirer Visayas
US$1 = 42.98 pesos