Friday, August 22, 2008

Eviction move will backfire


Eviction move will backfire

No one can accuse Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of lacking a flair for the dramatic. His approach to problem-solving while serving as Bangkok governor was to exile the problem to the provinces, a tactic not always appreciated by those living in rural communities.

Homeless people, stray dogs and noisy, polluting two-stroke motorcycles all received their orders to move out, normally just ahead of an image-building international event.

Now he has brought his moving and shaking to the office of prime minister. This time, though, the target is 1,700 slum communities, which, he told the National Economic amd Social Development Board a week ago, will have to relocate themselves outside the capital in the near future so he can create some more parks.

If this was a policy statement it was sorely lacking in detail. But if it was designed to provide a talking point and get a reaction, it succeeded. Representatives from poor communities descended on Government House to point out that this flew in the face of everything they had been promised.

The claim is a valid one because the Ban Mankong and Ban Ua-arthorn homebuilding and land-sharing projects were intended to replace the slums and avoid any more forced relocations of the type now contemplated. Their launch was backed by a vow from then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003 to eradicate slums from Bangkok within five years, or by the end of 2008. He also promised to eliminate poverty but that did not happen either, as the nation's six million people currently living below the poverty line know well.

The Ban Mankong and Ban Ua-Arthorn housing projects were touted as the solution to the shortage of affordable accommodation and, while there were some successes, Ban Ua-Arthorn schemes gained notoriety as showpieces of corruption. This took the form of ill-fitting doors, roofs prone to blow away in the wind, holes and cracks in foundations, walls and ceilings, dangerous electrical outlets and all-round sub-standard construction. It can only be a matter of time before such low-quality, but not inexpensive, public housing projects begin to revert to slums again, completing a vicious circle. And whose fault will that be?

This appalling quality control was a disappointment because the housing projects had been seen as providing opportunities at the lower end of the market, during a time of soaring land prices fuelled by industrialisation and commercial development.

Now Mr Samak is proposing to order many who work at construction sites, factories and in the service industry to move out of their rickety homes and then keep going until they are out of the city altogether. Presumably their choice would then be to endure a long, arduous and expensive commute, or swell the ranks of the unemployed. Could he have failed to realise that much of the problem stems from populist government schemes to help the rural poor, which have had the side-effect of shifting the burden of poverty from the countryside to the slums of the capital? That rural-urban drift must be discouraged, and the defective low-cost housing developments fixed and upgraded.

Of course, new parks would be nice, but these have been promised before, only to suddenly turn into condos, shopping centres and office blocks because the locations are prime real estate. That is why activists leading the demonstrations this week are fearful of ''land grabs''.

There is plenty of suitable land available for landscaping as new public parks without kicking people out of their homes, and Mr Samak, as a street-smart former Bangkok governor, surely knows where it is.

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