Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Frenzied feeding on Meralco and power

Like wolves or sharks going for the kill, the Philippine oligarchy has once again descended upon the power industry; this time for its piece de resistance—Meralco. With its owners weakened after their face-off with Malacañang and the global financial collapse, a hovering dark angel is now about to capture this luscious prey in whole. But, just as quickly, a vulture has also swooped down from the perches of Mt. Cartens ( Indonesia ’s highest peak) to join the fray. What has brought about this frenzied grabbing?

Meralco has had the lion’s share of the Philippine power industry with its control of up to 60 percent of the country’s most lucrative distribution franchise. It enjoys the highest prices of industrial electricity in the entire Asian region, and is second only to Japan in residential rates. As such, Meralco has been fattened by the blood, sweat, and tears of at least 4.5 million electricity consumers. Yet despite this huge base, it still bills upwards of up to P10/kWh compared to the much, much smaller Davao Light’s P6.44/kWh, or Bacolod’s P5.22/kWh, or Visayan Electric’s P6.92/kWh.

Certainly, this predatory battle for the control of Meralco is all about these enormous profits--profits that are unmatched by any other businesses in the world, and way better than the menacing drugs trade because of its specter of legality. Question is: Why are we giving all these excessively rich profits to these predators when Meralco is a public utility and is paid for by consumers?

I am afraid that the Filipino may have become hopelessly resigned to the idea of allowing the oligarchy to exploit our public utilities for their personal gain. I hope this short article will help rekindle public indignation.

Just recall how Meralco shares were apparently crashed by the largest government stakeholder to lower the base price for the entry of new bids. Now that share prices are rising to irrational levels because of this frenzy, what does it mean for Filipino electricity consumers? Will a new dominant management mean lower rates or, as I believe, will we just end up with even higher rates after the battle for control is over? Of course, the new winners will have to recoup their investments fast!

It is in this light that we have to see the entire energy sector being cut up for various factions of the oligarchy. In fact, as large a prize as Meralco (or even larger) is Transco, which has been awarded to the Carlyle Group-China State Grid-Monte Oro consortium, with the last owned by a crony capitalist cum port services operator who charges the highest rates in the world.

Despite having these fat chunks of the unimaginably lucrative energy industry divvied up among the oligarchs, contentment is still far beyond reach as they crave for more by concocting the myth that a power shortage looms within the next two years if the country doesn’t tax consumers again for the revival of the mothballed nuclear power plant!

And they believe that this con game, which started with the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira)--made easier by the intertwining control of profits from the power industry with control of political power--can go on without end?

Edsa I saw the transfer of Meralco and other formerly public or quasi-public power assets to fully private hands, and the beneficial owners became the power behind the throne in Malacañang. Edsa II saw this rising to even unprecedented heights; that is, until Gloria Arroyo found a new ally, with a common protégé they can groom and “say cheese” with till Kingdom come.

Even prior to Edsa II, this column has been almost a lone voice in anticipating events and problems that would face the nation and the world. As I have warned about the fraud that Gloria Arroyo was to be, as with the dire impacts of the Epira (in its many incarnations), and as I’ve hammered into Philippine nomenclature John Perkins’ “corporatocracy” to alert the nation to the perils of the overarching power of financial cabals, along with many others, I am informing everyone once more of another danger that lies ahead. And it is more of the same privatization and corporatization of our basic utilities, and the grooming of the oligarchs' surrogate young politicians to be a new Gloria Arroyo, which, if left unchallenged and unchanged, will doom us all.

Today, I pin my hopes on middle class forces that have had many rude awakenings--from the shock of Gloria Arroyo dashing their false hopes, to that of “venerated” financial icons cheating them of their educational funds and life savings, to the crash of the US financial system--supposedly the paradigm of “corporate responsibility,” down to the failures of globalization, liberalization, deregulation, and privatization. These forces, as gallantly typified by Mr. Phillip Piccio, are the ones who can lead the country to adopt genuine professional and social principles that are dedicated to the welfare of the people, over and above profits.

If these forces help liberate public utility services such as power, water, toll ways, and financial services from oligarchic control; and convert these into consumer cooperatives with socialized rates and people-driven management, then we would have successfully sent the message that “The People are not food for predators!” loud and clear.

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