11 February 2009

Sculpture For The Poor?

Proposed Sculpture and Father Suarez
Poverty incidence in the Philippines increased to 26.9 percent for families in 2006 compared to 24.4 percent in 2003. In terms of poverty incidence among population, out of 100 Filipinos, 33 were poor in 2006, compared to 30 in 2003. The poor's increasing struggle for existence is made more poignant when contrasted with programs that seemingly not connected to them as well as several astonishing display of affluence from some sectors, including religious groups.

Despite having poverty and malnutrition at alarming levels and the country's too-rapid population growth magnifying the strain on limited budgetary resources, a foundation promoting the ministry of healing priest, Fr. Fernando Suarez, is planning to build what promises to be the tallest Marian structure in the world in Batangas City. The proponents have pegged the estimated price tag at around PhP 1 billion.

What would make the Marian structure the tallest of its kind in the world is not the church, but the statue atop the shrine. The statue will be sculpted by Eduardo Castrillo, the Philippines’ most prolific builder of public monuments. And this early, the builders are already describing the structure as “like a beacon of light, a proclamation of love and faith, a steadfast companion and guide for the traveler on earth.”

It is common to find this kind of publicity being given to ostentatious activities and events promoted by politicians, celebrities and religious figures. However, nobody seems to know or question where the funds needed came from. This gives the impression that there is no foolproof system for gathering evidence of unaccounted expenditure. The common explanation publicly released is that the funds were freely given or donated by concerned individuals and civic-minded organizations.

It might be time to devised a system that do not give anybody immunity from taxes by arguing the there is a constitutional provision for the separation of the church and the state. A system that will instill fear on tax-evaders - that ostentatious expenditure from unexplained income would invite a heavy price.

To quote the former justice of the Bombay High Court V. M. Tarkunde, "Blanket immunity from penalty and interest irrespective of the merit of a case is bound to reduce the efficacy of search as a measure of detection of tax evasion and checking the generation and proliferation of black-money." Obviously, the much abused argument regarding the separation of the church and the state has justified the move to ask for large amount of tax-free money for religious and spiritual activities at the cost of practical and honest projects for the poor.

One way to check this ostentatious spending and proliferation of black-money is to adopt a donee-based gift tax. However, political compulsions seem to prevent the Government from introducing such a tax, especially now that the 2010 presidential election is just around the corner.

I don't want to be Pollyanna here. There are real problems with the Philippine economy, primarily income inequality and a looming economic slowdown resulting from layoffs and bankrupt companies. However, spending something considered as ostentatious by many does not feel right at this time because of their pernicious effect on the general moral fiber of society. They put integrity at a discount and place a premium on vulgar and extravagant display of wealth. It shatters the faith of a common person, especially the poor, in the dignity of honest labor and virtuous living. It is not even clear how a PhP 1 billion worth of shrine in honor of “Mary, Mother of the Poor” will really benefit the poor.