Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Development and social responsibility

Aerial view of the Huaguang community yesterday
A truly modern society should also make provisions to assist those who are unfortunate enough to stand in the way  of development

The ongoing destruction of the Huaguang (華光) community in Taipei is an excellent study of what happens when the rich and the powerful, aided by the government, join hands for the sake of what they call “modernity.”

However, “modern” shouldn’t be restricted to glitzy buildings, trendy shops and skyscrapers sprouting out of the rubble of demolished communities. At least in wealthy societies like Taiwan, modernity should also include the ability by society as a whole to deal with the nefarious impacts of development under the guiding principles of justice and compassion.

In the Huaguang case, where several households built “illegally” on government-owned land decades ago are in the process of being demolished, and their occupants evicted, the fundamental problem isn’t that human beings are being forced to leave the homes they have lived in for decades, but rather lies in the way in which the government, along with the land developers, have handled the manner. The core issue is that as this valuable plot of land is “returned” to the government for the future development of a Roppongi-style elite neighborhood, impoverished families and their offspring — none of whom, by force of circumstances, are exactly from the fortunate strata of society — along with humble vendors, the elderly and the ill, face an unknown future. Most cannot even afford the rent (from NT$2,500 to NT$14,000, as of 2011) for the social housing they have been promised.

The provision of social housing is itself uncertain, as the Ministry of the Interior has not responded to a proposal by the Taipei City Government that the residents be placed there. The city, furthermore, already faces a shortage of social housing, with demand far exceeding supply. Unless the residents of Huaguang are to receive preferential treatment and be allowed to cut in line ahead of the many, equally needful families that are awaiting their chance to gain access low-cost residences, one wonders where the former will live in the coming months.

To make matters worse, residents who have refused to leave have had their bank accounts frozen, one-third of their (often fixed) revenue grabbed by the government, are facing lawsuits, and will be charged NT$50,000 for the demolition of their house.

Moreover, some vendors have been accused of illegally profiting from years of selling their products to local residents, sums that they must now return to the government. In some cases, stall vendors have found new — and also illegal — squatter residences outside the city, which means they will have to commute every day to go to work and thus adds to their financial burden.

For almost every single person who is reading this, the catastrophic impact that forced eviction will have on the victims of Huaguang is hard to fathom. Most of us are young enough, resourceful enough, and wealthy enough that we would eventually get back on our feet, find a new place, and perhaps take up a second job to compensate for the immediate financial losses. But for the residents of Huaguang, the trauma of having their homes taken away from them is accentuated by such factors as old age, unemployment, and low education. Most are not healthy enough to work a second job, or to find something that pays better than what those who currently are employed make right now. Consequently, the finances of every single one of them will be hit severely. In many instances, the impact will simply be devastating.

In a truly modern (or have we now entered the post-modern?) era, the victims of this march of history would be taken care of, if not by the government, then by the wealthy conglomerates that stand to further benefit from the downfall of others. Surely, land developers that can afford to pay NT$1 million-plus per ping (about 3.2 sq. meters) of land, the winners in the ever-widening wealth gap, can also afford to create a fund to assist those who were evicted. Surely, a progressive government would offer to lend a hand as well, perhaps by sharing the burden with the private sector. Even officials, officially known as “executors,” in charge of overseeing the demolition of those illegal residences will admit they cannot understand why such help isn’t forthcoming, let alone being considered.

A good number of the Huaguang residents said they do not, in principle, oppose their eviction. Most will even admit that they are there illegally. The reason for their recalcitrance is that the powerful forces of “modernity” that are now expelling them have failed to provide the safety net that is necessary for them to rebuild their lives — in many instances, simply to survive.

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