By: Arielina Arevalo, Junco Balmeo, Renz Homer Cerillo, Jarah de Guzman, Jan Denesse Nedamo and Areen Chelsie Valentino
It is not easy for anyone to get used to hearing the noise of trains passing by his/her front yard each day. Nor is it easy for any ordinary person to simply get used to the sight of railings just a few feet away from his/her doorstep. To someone who did not grow up in this setting, someone who may be considered an outsider, life alongside train tracks may seem extremely difficult. To some, it might even seem impossible.
However, this is the reality for about 13.7% of the Filipino population who are informal settlers who call the infrastructure lining the tracks of the government-owned transport company, the Philippine National Railways (PNR), their home. They have no choice but to train their senses to the noise and the view which is the same along the hundred kilometer railways.
So we ask: is it true that their kind of culture is a reflection of discomfort and chaos in an overcrowded space, just like those that we see in movies?
Let us look at Brgy. Baybayin in Los Banos Laguna which is home to 1,565 families. Here, houses are built very close to each other, and dangerously near the train tracks.
LAND OWNERSHIP AND PROPERTY RIGHTS
Mang Eddie, a resident of the barangay, has been living in his house built two meters away from the train tracks for 40 years now. Little did he know that in accordance with the law, the house that he and his family has been cherishing for generations is not supposed to be there.
Republic Act 10023, or the Free Patent Act, allows local government units (LGUs) to convert lands along railways from public to residential through an ordinance. However, the PNR management and guidelines emphasize the need for a five-meter clearance from the railway to ensure safety.
Unfortunately, majority of families ignore this rule. Mang Eddie, along with hundreds of residents in the area, did not know that there was such a rule.
Senator Miriam Santiago, in her proposed legislation numbered Senate Bill 1947, argues that squatting has been identified as a major social problem as early as 1975, under President Ferdinand Marcos’ Presidential Decree 772 but the government supports informal settlers. She cites the enactment of the Republic Act 7279 or the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992. This Housing Act, she said, seemed to have legalized squatting.
The Landowners Protection Act mandates the relocation of the squatters by the LGUs within six months after the landowner files a formal request for eviction. However, railway lands are not privately owned.
According to Mang Eddie, a portion of their house, along with most of his neighbors’, underwent partial demolition several years ago. He said that if he was not mistaken, it was the police, along with men from the MMDA, who said that they were not supposed to live there, and asked them to transfer immediately. The residents decided to stay despite the notice since they have no other place to go to. Besides, people are claiming authority over the land. Fortunately for them, the officials who were responsible for the partial demolition of their houses, for some reason, did not come back to evict them. Instead, the government instituted additional safety measures such as the sloping of front yard slopes toward the railway to prevent residents from building anything too close to it.
According to the “Property Rights and Legal Empowerment of the Poor in the Philippines” report of the University of the Philippines National College for Public Administration and Governance (UP-NCPAG), from the time the Presidential Decree 772 was issued in 1975 up to 1997, squatting was a crime and there was mass eviction and relocation of squatters to overcrowded neighborhoods 30 to 40 kilometers outside of the city.
Mang Eddie claims that the land their house was built on was truly theirs, and his family were not illegal settlers in the area. Yet, his house, along with others, exceeds the five-meter rule that the PNR abides by. If another three meters will be chopped down to accommodate this limit, probably the only room left will be their kitchen.
“We have nowhere else to go, that’s why we’d rather stayed here,” he said. “I don’t care if they evict us again, I don’t care if they give us a new place, we won’t ever leave because we’ve been living here for quite a long time.” (Wala na namang kaming ibang malilipatan, kaya dito na lang kami. Kahit paalisin uli nila kami dito, kahit pa bigyan kami ng malilipatan, hindi kami makakalimot sa tagal na naming nakatira dito.)
Is 40 years of living in a place enough to rightfully say that the place is yours? If suddenly you are to be evicted from your home because you found out that it is not yours, how would you feel? And more importantly, what will you do?
CRIMES AND SAFETY ALONG THE RAILWAY
Aside from the question of the legitimacy of their land ownership, communities along the train tracks have always been stereotyped as unsafe places where criminals might be possibly lurking. However, this is not the case for Brgy. Baybayin.
While there may be occasional chaos here and there, life along the railway is generally peaceful, residents claim.
Derrick Del Estenor has been living along the railway for more than eight years now. According to him, the usual causes of clamor in the neighborhood are family misunderstandings, quarrels due to debts, unequal sharing of properties, the tight space and trespassing. Also, since most of the residents have no particular jobs to use their time on, many of them simply gossip or have drinks with their neighbors and friends. These are also some of the major causes of quarrels in the barangay.
“It is common here. You’ll always see people drinking alcohol here and there. You can’t control these people” (Natural na ‘yan dito. Lagi na lng may nag-iinuman kung saan saan. Hindi na sila mapigilan), said Rommel, a 25-year old resident of the barangay.
Also, from time to time, there are robbery incidents. There are people who take advantage of the limited land area which forces the building of houses too close to each other, leaving no space for mounting security devices such as railings on windows or reinforcement on walls. However, not every suspect is caught. Some cases are brought to the barangay hall while some are settled amicably.
When asked whether these societal problems can be addressed, residents came up with a rather concrete yet at the same time vague answer: discipline. They say it is the key to peace in their community; if only people will learn and practice discipline, misunderstandings and disorder within the community will be avoided.
“People should have control of the things that they want. They can’t simply do things because they wanted to,” (Disiplina lang naman kasi ‘yan. Dapat may control ang tao sa mga bagay na gusto nila. Hindi porket gusto nila, ay pwede na nilang gawin iyon.) Rommel added.
BASIC NECESSITIES: WITHIN WHOSE REACH?
In Brgy Baybayin, residents have ready access to potable water supply and other necessities such as food, unlike in other rail-side communities where basic needs are scarce. Baybayin is not the stereotypical train tracks community since most of the residents have enough for their needs most of the time.
However, the people cannot help feeling a sense of dissatisfaction at times.
“We have food, water, and electrical connection, but sometimes resources get exhausted. We simply try to make the most out of these because this is how life goes,” (May pagkain naman kami, tubig, saka kuryente, pero minsan hindi rin nagkakasya. Pinagtyatyagaan nalang namin dahil ganito talaga ang buhay.) said Michelle Rondilla, a resident of the barangay and a mother of five.
Some residents have exercised resourcefulness in order to have decent homes. They live in improvised houses made from wood, cement, thin metal poles, and other cheap materials or other materials that they may pick up in their surroundings. This is the case to about one third of the families in Brgy. Baybayin, such as the Rondillas, who have no other choice but to resort to pure ingenuity in building their house from scratch.
The families have shelter, alright, but they do not find these comfortable and safe.
When the children in the community were asked if they are satisfied with their homes, they all nodded with a simple yes. They just play around with their friends and siblings and do not care at all with their house. “We’re just happy when we are playing” (Masaya lang kami ‘pag naglalaro kami.), said Aina, Michelle Rodilla’s daughter.
When it comes to water, the residents in general have a stable water source. Almost all of the families in the barangay have water connection and those who do cannot afford piped water can pump from the poso. The poso can be found near the central market of the barangay; it provides water to almost 300 citizens. The good thing is that there has never been a case of water-borne disease due to drinking that particular water. And in terms of food, there are several sari-sari stores found here and there. Plus there is a central market furnished with common food products like meat, vegetables, condiments, and many more. At the end of the day, it is really not a question of whether there are establishments they can buy food products from, but whether where they get the money they can use to purchase certain goods. Not all Brgy. Baybayin residents have decent and stable jobs that can provide them financial stability.
TROLLEYS: A RIDE TOWARDS A LIVING
From the countless sari-sari stores sprinkled along the way to the baskets of food products steadily perched on the heads of the locals, it is quite obvious that people living alongside train tracks have devised new ways to sustain themselves. Likewise, due to pervasive recession, and greater need of financial sustenance, Locals have exercised creativity to take advantage of the train tracks and get a living from them.
The trolley was invented along the PNR tracks; and contrary to public knowledge, transportations do not travel on flat and concrete roads alone, but also on steels, and unchartered tracks.
Compared with jeepneys, tricycles, buses, and other conventional means of transportation, the trolley is something not all Filipinos are aware of, and riding one is something not all people experience.
The trolley is an open, four-wheeled cart that runs on the tracks of railways. It can run via a machine, but most of the time, it simply works on the leg power of trolley drivers. Through plain pushing, drivers can make trolleys run incredibly fast and they can make them stop as well, using only physical force.
Mang Mario, a 46-year old resident of Brgy. Baybayin, Los Banos, Laguna, is a proud trolley driver whose entire life has been sustained by his upright job. He has been a driving trolley for 25 years now.
According to him, every time he drives a trolley feels exciting and fun, but not until he reached this age; it now feels just like an ordinary part of his daily routine. “It was really exciting at first, but now, it is not that fun anymore, unlike before.” (Noong una, talagang exciting, pero ngayon, masaya pa din naman, pero hindi na katulad noong dati.)
Earning a meager five pesos from every passenger, he gets to have approximately P200 to P250 every day. He said that his trolley gave him a beacon of light to hold on to, just to endure the daily hardships of financial troubles.
Mang Bernie, another trolley driver said that it is an extremely tiring job. Rising early at five in the morning, and exhausting himself until seven in the evening; Mang Bernie is the perfect model of a true hardworking Filipino.
When Mang Bernie was asked about his most unforgettable experience, his reply was the time when he almost got hit by a train while maneuvering a trolley. Fortunately, nobody got hurt. Considering the gravity of the trauma he might have experienced, he still learns to smile, and continue his living despite all being said.
Aside from safety concerns, another burden for trolley drivers is that the fare for a trolley rides increases, and if it does, the increase would be extremely minimal. It is cheaper, compared to jeepneys’ and tricycles’ because trolleys do not need any fuel. Drivers have no choice but to be content of what they can get and earn out of maneuvering trolleys. In the flipside, riding a trolley is environmentally friendly for it does not involve emission of any form of gas pollution.
According to other trolley drivers in Brgy. Baybayin, the secret to a safe travel is that you need to constantly look at your back and see if a train is coming. Whenever you see or at least hear, you have to clear the railway instantly.
According to them however, that accidents barely happen if you are wary and extremely observant of what is going on.
In addition, trolley drivers in Brgy. Baybayin still believe that people will continue to use trolley as a means to travel, therefore, making their source of income, stable nowadays. Although some might feel scared of the prospect of riding a trolley, many more ordinary people however would still like the feeling of the wind against their face while blowing their hair into an utter mess.
A trolley to some people might just appear as a piece of rotting plank with small metal wheels, carrying people all just for the sake of transporting them. But to those people, whose livelihood depends on it, it is more than a piece of wood, better yet, a cart that takes them to out of the dark tunnel, and into the light. Something that would fill the empty stomachs of their families, something that would give them a sense of living, and something that would give them a sense of faith- that every day, they will be able to do and accomplish something, and that they will be able to transport people safely to their destinations.
A LOOK INTO THEIR MINDS: BRGY. BAYBAYIN RESIDENTS’ PERSPECTIVE ON DEVELOPMENT
Families living along the railway in Brgy. Baybayin share several views regarding their status – whether in a financial or emotional level. Some have grown old living this kind of life, that they are only set on surviving every day. Some children, on the other hand, are still adapting to the environment but longing to escape their current situation.
Eight people we talked to say they stay there and work everyday just to survive; they no longer strive for progress. Some of them said they only wanted to provide food for their families and that the idea of progressing to a better life has been considered unreachable. Their focus is to maintain their current situation, afraid of making things worse. However, because of this they are not set on making things better as well.
The young ones, on the other hand, have a different view. They are striving for the betterment of their situation. “Hindi pa nman ako sumusuko sa para mabigyan ng magandang buhay pamilya ko. Masakit din namang makita silang nahihirapan, eh ‘di tuloy tuloy lang ang trabaho,” one of them said (I have not lost hope yet that I will be able to give my family a better life. It pains me to see them having a hard time, it’s what pushes me to continue working.) Not only are they working to survive, their mindsets are also fixed on making their lives better not only for themselves, but also for their family.
Living alongside train tracks may seem absolutely different from what many of us have been used to, such that people who have not experienced that particular culture and atmosphere might create and/or reinforce certain stereotypes. But for the residents themselves, this place has been their home and has given them their way of life.