He has been called a tyrant, a dictator, a modern-day Hitler, an elitist - incongruous epithets for a man who likes the color pink.

But Bayani Fernando, chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority, says he does not mind the labels. As the "supermayor" of the 17 cities and towns that make up Metro Manila, he is far too busy to take offense at names.

Fernando, 58, is in charge of a megalopolis of more than 13 million people - one of the noisiest, most congested and most polluted cities in the world.

The metropolitan area, which covers 630 square kilometers, or 240 square miles, is notorious for its traffic. The sheer number of vehicles staggers the imagination.

Undisciplined drivers weave around street vendors, competing with the ubiquitous jeepney, the gaudy vans devised from World War II military Jeeps that are the main mode of transportation here.

Street crime is rampant. A good portion of the population resides in shantytowns and on the streets, tens of thousands of them living off the 6,700 tons of garbage the metropolis generates daily.

Of this garbage, 1,500 tons a day are dumped into creeks, rivers and Manila Bay, which reeks, discouraging people from watching its famed sunset. Floods caused by trash that clogs the waterways are a common occurrence.

Manila sunset

Although Metro Manila is far from perfect under Fernando, many agree it has improved. He increased garbage collection and has been trying to unclog the waterways and sewers.

Many Manila sectors are still congested, but the main roads and highways have become more orderly.

Fernando assigned separate lanes for buses. He built U-turn slots that ensure the continuous flow of traffic, closing off intersections to prevent jeepneys and buses from turning these areas into veritable terminals.

He also built footbridges to discourage jaywalking and bus shelters for pedestrians.

He even dotted the major roads and highways with urinals for men, whose habit of urinating anywhere they please contributes to the stink and results as well in what is possibly uniquely Metro Manilan: iron doors and gates corroded by urine.

Then Fernando added his signature touch: He painted all the pedestrian structures pink.

Pink, he says, "has a calming effect. It provides a refreshing contrast. It can help commuters calm down when they're stuck in traffic."

Today, Metro Manila is awash with pink. A bit kitschy, but it does provide a respite from the drab surroundings of dilapidated buildings, smoke-belching buses, and torn movie billboards.

Fernando also built new bus terminals to discourage buses from picking up passengers anywhere they please.

Map of Manila

He built grills and railings on the sidewalks that practically herd passengers straight to the mouths of buses.

At the same time, he implemented a "wet flag" scheme: Pedestrians who stray off the sidewalks are slapped with wet rags hoisted on Metro Manila Development Authority trucks.

For all this, Fernando has earned both admiration and derision. But all agree he has the one quality people feel Metro Manila needs: political will.

Past mayors of Metro Manila have refused to demolish squatter shanties and illegal stores on streets and sidewalks for fear of reprisals by voters.

But Fernando, who is a presidential appointee, does not have to worry about that. Although the demolitions often have turned violent - a handful of people have died and dozens have been injured - Fernando has stepped in on several occasions to direct them himself.

Fernando gets his mandate from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and he has no qualms about dropping her name.

Once, when environmentalists and residents complained about tree-cutting by the development authority, Fernando shot back: "I have the blessing of the president." He is among the very few who can say that and not fear political reprisal. "My mandate is very clear: run Metro Manila as efficiently as I see fit," Fernando said in an interview. "If people have a problem with that, that's their problem."

Many of the mayors of the towns and cities that constitute Metro Manila certainly have a problem with somebody who encroaches on their turf and tells them how to run their communities. At least one city, historic old Manila, the heart of the capital, has declared Fernando persona non grata. Others among the 17 have threatened to haul him to court.

"I wish he'd tell us first, consult us first, before he does anything that affects our community and our residents," says Peewee Trinidad, the mayor of Pasay City.

"I don't have to do that" is a typical Fernando retort to such complaints.

A creation of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1975, the Metro Manila Development Authority was given the tasks of centralizing collection of garbage, managing traffic and overseeing maintenance of Metro Manila's sewers. Marcos combined the 17 adjacent cities, which had by then begun to swell, and turned the metropolitan area into a province - first run by his wife, Imelda.

Some say that the Metro Manila Development Authority's dictatorial roots could be the reason why its leaders, and most of all Fernando, have tended to impose their will on others.

But that would be ignoring Fernando's background.

When he became mayor of Marikina, a riverside city north of Manila that was once one of the Philippines' most congested cities, more than a decade ago, Fernando, an engineer, put it in order: He demolished sidewalk stalls, widened the roads, cleaned the riverside, painted the walls. The city even made it illegal to walk the streets shirtless. And, yes, he painted the city pink.

A survey named Marikina the "most livable city" in the country, and Fernando went on to win two more terms, serving a total of nine years. His wife, Marides, is now the mayor.

When he was appointed to the Metro Manila Development Authority in 2002, Fernando wasted no time in transforming the disheveled and disorderly Metro Manila into a bigger Marikina.

"Kudos, Fernando. We are solidly behind, in front and around you," Raul Fabella, an economist, wrote to a newspaper. Fernando was so well liked that he was considered last year as a vice-presidential candidate. "Is Fernando an aberration?" Fabella asked. "That partly depends on us. The fundamental lesson we can learn from Fernando is that real reforms are painful."

The critics have a different view. To them, an official who ignores the fact that those affected by his actions are poor people who are only trying to make a living in a weak economy is an aberration.

When Fernando's men chased and harassed vendors one morning in January in front of a church, a witness was so enraged that she fired off a scathing letter to Fernando. "Here are people wanting to earn an honest buck and they are denied their basic right," wrote the witness, Sharon Joy Duremdes. "Clearing the sidewalks I can understand, but must you hound and pound people? Only fascists do that."

Fernando says that he cannot be a bleeding heart. "Much as it pains me to do this, I cannot cry with the poor because if my tears blind me, who then will guide them?" he said in the interview.

In one of the many brochures and primers that his office hands out about how Filipinos should learn to conduct themselves when in public, Fernando, who owns a large construction company, was quoted as saying: "I want to be remembered as a builder of character."

His critics, naturally, bristle at such high-mindedness.

For better or worse, Fernando has left his mark in ways that Imelda Marcos could not have imagined. And this means a lot more than just the color pink.

Source: Carlos H. Conde, International Herald Tribune
MONDAY, MARCH 21, 2005