The smokey fog makes it hard to see the heat coming from the train when it passes by almost unbearable, but what choice do they have? Early morning, people start milling around; grabbing their laundry and heading to wash them, crossing the tracks as if a speeding train doesn’t scare them one bit. The sound of children’s laughter mingle in the air as they run around, hopping over tracks and chasing each other.
You may have passed by the Philippine National Railway (PNR) tracks while on your way from Gil Puyat to Buendia and taken a curiosity to it. You probably wondered where the train tracks led to or what it was like on board as compared to the LRT/MRT. You may have even heard or read about the countless horror stories of commuter’s experiences on board the train. But beyond the periphery of the train and its commuters are the informal settlers who live along the rails, unmindful of the dangers and noises that surround them.
Once upon a time, lines of shanties housing thousands of families could be found just meters away from the rail tracks. But over the years, the government has been removing these families from their homes due to several safety concerns. Yet most of these displaced families often come back, seeking refuge by the rail tracks despite the precarious conditions that go with living in it.
Those that live by the tracks
In a country as densely populated as Manila, it can be difficult to find places to live in, especially for the homeless. Given their circumstances, they often find themselves living under conditions which we’d probably find appalling, but to them, is just a way of life. Some people choose to set up by sidewalks, while there are those who choose to live under bridges and overpasses, and for other families, they choose to live by the rail tracks.
When asked what their opinion is about those who live by the tracks, people would usually have their eyebrows knitted together, a silent moment, and then hesitantly try to answer. After all, not many are aware that there are people who take residence by the tracks. Such was the case with Graciele Reganit, a nineteen year-old Lasallian studying Early Childhood Education. She expressed, “I think it’s unsafe for them to live beside the train tracks cause well I think it’s unstable. And then the homes that they build, it doesn’t have a strong foundation, so they’re homes might get destroyed by flood.” Her concern wafted more to their safety–living by the tracks could have not possibly been the first pick of those who are homeless, as they know the risks.
Sean Pobre, another Lasallian said, “Generally the first thought that I would have is that it’s quite dangerous. I mean train tracks, so definitely, obviously, a train passes by and trains travel at a high speed so if people live nearby that they could be exposed to danger such as actually being run over. Whether or not the train tracks have certain barriers or not, it’s still very dangerous. There should be a certain radius or distance one is away from it if they want to live relatively near a train track.” He makes a good point on the dangers of living by the train tracks without barriers; what if a baby toddles towards the tracks, seemingly unaware of the approaching train? Or what if an old woman who cannot see or hear clearly steps onto the train track with the train fast approaching? Several dangers arise when one lives under conditions like these, but with nowhere to go, do they really have any other choice?
The help we can provide
As Filipinos, we are naturally inclined to help our fellowmen. It may be the oppression we have felt from the Spaniards, Americans, and the Japanese, but we all subconsciously agree that if we are united, we have a chance to beat the odds. So when asked what can a Lasallian student, such as Graciele and Sean, can do for Filipinos living by the train tracks, their answers were surprising. Graciele answered, “Build a community for them.” She further explained that when a community is built, a sense of camaraderie and collaboration will foster and bond these people together to strive for a better living area. When a community is built, people are now more inclined to help each other, to watch out for others’ babies and grandparents if ever they go near danger–a train tracks community is unheard of, but if we cannot remove them from their homes and bring them to a better place, a better solution would be to make their home better.
Sean on the other hand stated, “Currently, I’m not aware if there are any organizations or maybe movements regarding these issues. If there were, personally I don’t have the resources to start one but if one did exist I would definitely show my support. Whether it be through online movements or maybe various donations of some sort. I guess if I were to join, my work might be minimal. Maybe left with paperworks, nothing really too drastic.” A quiet approach to helping these people, but meaningful all the same.
Organizations and movements were started by people who wanted to make an impact on other people’s lives, and by joining an organization targeted in helping those who live by train tracks, students, and other people, are able to make a positive impact on them. The work may be minimal, as Sean has said–donations, online sharing of support for the organization–but the mere fact that a person has thought about this sector and wanted to help, is a big first step.
Our friends in high places
Graft and corruption, a never-ending drug war, allowing ourselves to be a lapdog for a bigger country; all these decisions come from our friends in high places, albeit at times it may seem that they don’t hold our best interest. However, we want to know what they can do for our fellow Filipinos–not those who go abroad and win medals for our country, but those who continuously toil just for a chance to live.
The families that live by the rails is a stark commentary on the lack of shelter facilities for the country’s growing urban population. With people coming in and out of the city due to the lack of facilities and opportunities in the surrounding provinces, thousands of people come to Manila with hopes and dreams of seeking greater opportunities only to find these desires distinguished.
When asked, Sean was able to say, “They should definitely pass certain laws, bills, regarding them being able to live near train tracks. But not only should they just state in the law that you are not allowed to do so, but you should find alternative areas for these people to live at. Not allowing it is not enough, because that will leave these people homeless. It might actually just force them to live by areas which are, which may have more posing dangers.”
And he is right in a sense–laws and bills should be coupled with action. The hand of justice wouldn’t be felt if it was just a brush on the cheek; sometimes, a hard slap in the face from justice is what’s needed to make its’ presence known. It is in everyone’s basic, human right to live in a place that poses no immediate threat or danger, yet the government, and most of us, see these people living by the train tracks and turn a blind eye. Apathy is the enemy of compassion, and shouldn’t we be the latter? Aren’t we known for being a hospitable and helpful lot? Or are those traits reserved for foreigners and well-known people?
Empathy, not apathy
If it is so dangerous living by the train tracks, you ask, why do they choose to live there in the first place? Well, perhaps, they may have no choice. They could have been born there, had to escape there because of an emergency, suddenly suffered a huge financial crisis that they had to settle down beside the tracks. There are a number of possibilities, but not enough plans to help them. Help may stem from our pity, our empathy, or sympathy–but does the origin of our act matter? Or the result of it?