What you need to know
Estrelieta “Ka Inday” Bagasbas has lived a storied life, but it is for her passionate activism in defense of the urban poor in San Roque, a community in the Quezon City area of Metro Manila, for which neighbors and fellow residents are truly thankful.
She’s waited tables on the president, escaped an arranged marriage, changed tires to feed her children, sold suman (rice cakes) during the 1986 People Power uprising, berated a mayor for fooling his constituents and led barricades against demolition teams. Estrelieta “Ka Inday” Bagasbas, now 62, has lived an extraordinary life.
From her humble home in San Roque, Quezon City, Metro Manila she safeguards her community from forced evictions, which are increasing in intensity under the stewardship of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista.
Ka Inday, the ‘Ka’ prefix meaning comrade as designated by her fellow activists and neighbors in San Roque, grew up in the province of Cotabato in Mindanao, one of the southernmost and poorest parts of the country. Born into a family of farmers, she stopped schooling after fifth grade to help out in the fields, and eventually went to Davao City to work in a canteen at 14 years old.
Here she encountered a young Rodrigo Duterte. At the time, Duterte’s family was in the early stages of carving out what would eventually become a political dynasty. “He was feared by the waitresses,” she recalls. The famously disciplinarian president had crass moments early on in life, according to Bagasbas. “It’s true that there was a time in his life when he was very rude, arrogant and offensive, especially towards women. None of the staff liked him. It's a trait he seems to have carried through his political career.”
At 17, she was enjoined by her father to marry a boy from a landed family, but she refused. Bagasbas struggled in the knowledge that her family needed her to plough the land. In the dead of night, she made arrangements to leave for Manila and find alternative work, intending to send earnings home.
She ended up working as a domestic helper for a year, leaving after not being paid properly and taking up work in a factory where she earned P30 a month (this was in the 80s when a peso went substantially further than it does today). Most of it was used to pay off her debts to the company that shouldered her plane fare. During this time she met her husband and they had their first child.
She had disputes with her “worthless, drunkard’ spouse over supporting the family. To cope with this and her meagre wages, when her husband went off drinking, 18-year-old Bagasbas changed jeepney tires in front of their home. She kept the money for her family and baby.
She tried her hand at any job she could find. Peeling garlic in markets for three pesos a kilo and pumping and delivering water on foot for five pesos a jug. Eventually, in 1985, her family settled as one of the first 25 households in what was to be Sitio San Roque.
Picture of urban poverty
San Roque is smack in the corner of two major Metro Manila roads. It is government owned land and for a long time was merely the site of casual gardening efforts. Bagasbas was one of the people who started planting in the area, and maintaining her crops was a reason her family settled there. They built a small shack lit only by gaslight. Overtime the community grew, absorbing migration from the countryside to the cities as people searched for urban opportunities. Nowadays, residents estimate that around 7,000 families live in San Roque.
Since the 90s, the national government has been hard at work to make use of the land for commercial purposes. In 2009, the Central Business District Project was launched, a 65-billion peso endeavor by the National Housing Authority (NHA), the Quezon City government and Ayala Land Inc, one of the largest conglomerates in the country. Their goal was to establish medical, residential and tourism hubs where the people of San Roque now reside. Demolitions, violent forced evictions inevitably followed.
Bagasbas laments the fact that the government took no interest in the land when it was just a pile of dirt and now seeks to drive residents into homelessness. “They left us alone for so long, and now that we’ve put up our houses, our own community, structures and livelihood, they want to tear it down for profit.”
Her political awakening occurred during the People Power uprising in February 1986 that ousted former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. One of those major adjacent to San Roque is EDSA, where hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the time to protest. Hence the other label of the uprising, the EDSA People Power or even just EDSA.
The demonstrations were literally right outside her door and Bagasbas was swept up in the fervor; not forgetting to peddle suman along the way. Her stock ran out in minutes, but she stayed at the rally for a full two days, driven by a certainty that there would be no space or justice for poor Filipinos under Marcos.
Later, troubled by dwindling income insufficient to support a family, Bagasbas decided to go abroad and become an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW). For two years she worked as a nanny and domestic helper, learning Arabic in six months from the kids she cared for. She earned just enough so that their home would have some basic kitchen tools and concrete walls.
Bagasbas’ life is illustrative of the fate faced by millions of women and their families; their narratives framed by urban poverty, silent escapes to cities and enmeshment in expanding slum settlements. By 2003, a United Nations Habitat Report stated that slum dwellers comprised 44 percent of the Philippines’ urban population.
Manila is number one for homelessness in Asia and the country is number one for unemployment in South East Asia, according to the World Bank. This duality represents both the slumification of cities and the susceptibility of its residents to various forms of eviction.
According to the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), there are around 1.5 million informal settler families in the Philippines (see table below). The BBC estimates that 2 percent (equivalent to 20 million people) of the world’s slum residents can be found in the Philippines. Most of them, approximately 96 percent, are vulnerable to evictions by virtue of their homes being arbitrarily deemed a danger zone, situated on publicly or privately owned land or in areas tagged for infrastructure projects.
Baptized at the Barricades
San Roque is just one of the communities earmarked for demolition; its informal communities under threat of eviction by the public-private partnership mentioned above that is implementing a project to refashion San Roque as a central business district. “Every day that we remain here is a victory in itself,” says Bagasbas. While some homes have been demolished, community barricades have stopped several waves of attempted demolitions — the largest barricade being the very first, erected on Sept. 23, 2010.
Bagasbas recalls that while she was against the demolition, the presence of community organizers in San Roque “irritated me for a time. They would come to my house, start talking about so many issues when all I wanted was to rest and relax!”
Yet on the day of the barricade, she feared the worst and dropped everything. Around 300 SWAT and conventional police along with a 600-strong demolition team swarmed the entrances to San Roque. The clash spilled over into EDSA, the site of Bagasbas’ initial awakening to political activism 24 years prior. Scores were injured and some homes were torn by mid-afternoon, but the resident’s opposition proved resilient.
Then President Noynoy Aquino ordered the National Housing Authority and the police to temporarily halt their demolition ops. The day was won. Bagasbas became infamous for a tirade she launched at mayor Bautista that was caught on camera (the video has since been taken down).
She slammed Bautista for reneging on his mayoral campaign promise that San Roque would be left untouched. “Putang ina siya! Pare-parehong lang silang ganid! (That son of a whore! He’s just like the others, power hungry and full of greed!)” she exclaims.
The legend of Ka Inday Bagasbas was born. She quickly immersed herself in political work in a bid to stop further attacks on San Roque. Organization came as second nature —in part because as an original resident she commanded the respect of the community. In December of the same year, led by national militant urban poor group Kadamay (of which Bagasbas is now vice-chairperson) the Sept. 23 Movement was founded with Ka Inday Bagasbas as president.
Prof. Chester Arcilla, of the University of the Philippines’ Manila Development Studies program closely documented affairs in San Roque and its barricades. He writes: “The community barricade is the last line of defense for the right to housing for the subaltern. It is the culmination of a series of protests and dialogues with state agencies. When subalterns engage in a barricade, they risk their lives and whatever meagre property they own in defiance.” He also praises San Roque for the precedent it has set for subsequent communities facing demolitions. Scholars, activists and those preparing for attacks by the authorities still study the case.
Bagasbas even appeared with mayor Bautista on TV. According to her, the mayor was apologetic in the face of her fiery protestations. She even shrugged off his attempts to embrace her.
“There are resettlement programs for the residents of San Roque,” Bagasbas recounts of Bautista’s attempts to coax her. “But we were there before any corporations like Ayala showed up. Stop trying to send us to the middle of nowhere,” she recalls saying. Public relocation and resettlement sites were infamous for being remote, unaffordable, and lacking in water, electricity and job opportunities.
“We can give you the cheapest rates, just P900 (US$17.37) per month for housing,” mayor Bautista offered. “I live in my own home, without having to pay rent and still come up short every month paying for my kids’ schooling. Why haven’t you thought about helping our community instead of tearing it down,” Bagasbas retorted.
Demolition teams continued their assault through the summer of 2013 and into early 2014. The last round was dubbed “overkill” by residents as 700 policemen were deployed. They destroyed 500 homes and left 200 families homeless.
Sources who were on the ground at the time report that local man Resty Torres died from tear gas suffocation. Another resident, Mary Reyes, miscarried her twins. Eleven activists and two minors were arrested and subjected to aggressive interrogation. Eleven children were injured, and 167 other minors fell sick from tear gas inhalation.
No Rest for the Weary
While San Roque still stands, it has recently been the target of so-called “self-demolitions” where authorities shell out cash, up to P100,000 in some cases, for residents to voluntarily take down their houses. Some have complained that they only received a fraction of the promised pay-off.
On Oct. 19, 2016, another community in Metro Manila, Pasig City, was also demolished, marking the largest single eviction effort in recent history. More than 700 families were left homeless in the Floodway area of the city. The local government declared the area a danger zone (an area prone to floods or other hazards), in the process harnessing the power to eject the inhabitants. The justification is linked to the devastating impact of Tropical Storm Ondoy, otherwise known as Typhoon Ketsana. The administration of president Aquino believed that the presence of the settlements in runoff areas around Metro Manilla blocked the water from draining away, and worsened the impact of floods.
Still, that justification is a step removed from declaring the area a danger zone in its own right. Such administrative sleights of hand are often used by the authorities to justify their actions against urban poor communities. Sadly, such incursions are only set to proliferate.
President Duterte recently unveiled his “Build, Build, Build” or “BBB” campaign — an aggressive attempt to re-shape the country’s infrastructure, earmarked to begin in 2018.
The campaign has secured a massive P1.097 trillion budget, almost a third of the government’s entire forecast spend for 2018, and will focus on building railways, the country’s first subway, as well as other measures to modernize the Philippines creaking transport infrastructure. Education and classroom building also received a significant tranche of funding, —P691.1 billion for classrooms and classroom furniture, as well as new teaching posts.
Yet recent budget hearings at congress suggest the campaign will leave more Filipinos scrambling to save their communities from being destroyed. Congresswoman Arlene Brosas solon of the Gabriela Women’s Party, a leftist party that advocates for women’s rights, and a member of the Committee on Housing and Urban Development recently told me that Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s remarked that the government would “just give money to informal settlers to get out of the way!”
“We fear that this ‘demolition national budget’ will only exacerbate the displacement and homelessness of poor Filipino families,” Brosas says. Of particular concern is a “right-of-way” item in the budget, set to receive more than P48 billion. This item is a backdoor means of financing dispossessions and evictions. State funding for housing and resettlement will be slashed from P10.4 billion to P2.2 billion, an 82 percent decrease. Moreover, the reduced housing budget will cater mainly to housing of police and military, who will receive P1.6 billon, rather than the poor and underprivileged, for whom P625 million is deemed sufficient. The BBB budget thus appears to advocate spending more on evicting people from their homes than it does in providing new places to live.
A framework for persecution
The current housing framework is decidedly neo-liberal in that it favors ventures and profit over the basic necessities of communities. Quezon City is a prime example of this. Last year Mayor Bautista announced his administration’s intentions to relocate 55,000 poor families from his city in the next three to six years. He says this is to allow the “unimpeded implementation” of various projects.
Quezon City has the largest land area and population of Metro Manila, and arguably its most densely populated slums. The tone of Bautista’s statement implies that the presence of urban poor as opposed to urban poverty in itself is the hindrance to improvement.
In light of ongoing demolitions and relocations, as well as the highly publicized drug war that has claimed thousands of lives, the security of poor urban communities looks grim.
However Bagasbas is up to the challenge. The short, plump and charming woman says she remains as strong as a horse as she ventures into her senior years. Her dream is to see San Roque stand the test of time and be afforded the services and care it deserves. She wants it saved from eviction and crippling poverty.
Bagasbas still makes suman and hawks it on mornings as people head off to work. Once her suman runs out, she turns her attention to community organization. Sometimes the two go hand in hand — other activists have become fond of her rice cakes.
The unfolding story of San Roque needs to be told. It cannot be displaced by the rhetoric of corporatization that is undermining the Philippine urban poor. Yet San Roque is just one of the many communities that need more leaders and storytellers. More Ka Indays to stand on the barricades, unfazed and unrelenting.