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SPECIAL REPORT

Who will benefit more from merger?

(Last of three parts)

WHEN Silliman University’s Research and Development Center in the capital city of Dumaguete, Negros Oriental province, conducted an opinion poll in September last year on the proposed Negros Island Region (NIR), 58 percent of the respondents said they were unaware of the proposal to create a new region composed of Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental.

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After field interviewers informed them of the proposal, 43.34 percent said they were against the plan while 25.83 percent supported it. Nearly a third (30.83 percent), however, were undecided, according to the center’s head, Enrique Oracion, in a column published in the Dumaguete-based community paper, MetroPost.

Researchers have stressed the need for public awareness and understanding of the issues related to the proposal. They also said the decision on whether to form a new region should be based on its impact to the majority of the population, especially the poor.

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Negros Oriental Vice Gov. Edward Mark Macias said he was confident that the figures had changed significantly since the survey was undertaken eight months ago. “The survey was conducted before we launched our information drive and held consultations among various sectors,” he told the Inquirer.

Macias acknowledged that there were questions on the “fine details,” but that the “majority supported our proposal.”

Negros Oriental Gov. Roel Degamo has remained hesitant to throw support unless his concerns are ironed out. He wants concrete safety nets so that his province will not be at a disadvantage when it becomes part of the NIR.

Degamo expects Negros Oriental to be outvoted in the NIR Regional Development Council, pointing out that Negros Occidental has seven congressmen and 13 cities, while his province has only three congressmen and six cities.

He and his Negros Occidental counterpart, Alfredo Marañon, have agreed to a 60-40 sharing of resources poured into the island by the national government. He explained that Negros Occidental should get 60 percent because it is larger with a 4 million population compared to Negros Oriental, which has a population of 1.4 million.

But Degamo wants the agreement put into writing so it will be institutionalized and implemented regardless on who will be governor. “If this is not done, my economy will be eaten up by Negros Occidental,” he said.

Once a memorandum of agreement is reached, Degamo said he was ready to say yes to the NIR.

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A study conducted by Wilma Tejero, chair of the Economics Department of Silliman University’s College of Business Administration said that Negros Oriental urgently needed better economic opportunities as the province had long suffered from poor economic performance and high poverty incidence.

The creation of the NIR could result to Negros having a strong political influence on the national government, making it easier for the region to get more infrastructure projects, Tejero said.

“If new growth centers will be set up and industrial zones will be developed, more investments will be poured into the two provinces hence more jobs can be created for their constituents…,” she said.

But Tejero stressed that the creation of a new region would be useless without any concrete and clear-cut economic plan to set the direction for the two provinces to move to greater economic heights. “The move to integrate the Negros Island into one region and the proposed regional economic development plan should be genuine and not politically motivated,” she said.

Tabitha Espinosa Tinagan, dean of Silliman’s School of Public Affairs and Governance, said leaders should exercise caution in merging the two provinces. She urged that the provinces first undertake joint projects as a transition to full integration.

The projects could serve as “a test of compatibility of directions of the two provinces and the test of viability of the intended merger,” Tinagan said.

Aside from the capacity to share a common vision, she asked those seeking the creation of the NIR to ponder on who will benefit more from integration and if this will improve the delivery of basic services to the people.

Mikhail Lee Maxino, dean of Silliman’s College of Law, said the public should be informed about the details of the plan, including the composition of the RDC, how many votes each province has, and the sharing of development funds.

Once public awareness is high, Maxino proposed the holding of a province-wide plebiscite to determine public sentiment. “There should be not just consultations among the political levels of government but an honest-to-goodness free and intelligent general referendum or plebiscite.”

At the end of the day, it will be the public who will be affected by their leaders’ decisions. With a report from Carmel Louise Matus, Inquirer Visayas

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