Farmers fail to see big picture

The rallies by farmer groups in front of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) in Bangkok, Suphan Buri and Chiang Mai to show their support for the government's rice pledging scheme should not come as a total surprise. It is a normal phenomenon in a democracy where every individual is entitled to free expression.

But the farmer groups' anger vented against the 100-plus Nida academics and students who earlier petitioned the Constitution Court to challenge the constitutionality of the rice pledging scheme seems to be misplaced and unwarranted. In other words, the groups appear to have misunderstood the real intention and the wish of the petitioners.

Like many other critics of this populist scheme, including Central Bank chairman Virabongsa Ramangkura, the Nida group wants the project amended to plug all the loopholes so real farmers will be the only ones that benefit from it _ and not corrupt politicians and officials, unscrupulous millers, rice smugglers as well as some exporters with good political connections who appear to have reaped a windfall from this project.

Dr Virabongsa, also chairman of the government's Strategic Formulation Committee for Reconstruction and Future Development, earlier wrote a comment warning that the rice pledging scheme could doom the administration because the project opens the door to widespread corruption beyond the government's control. He suggested the scheme be scrapped quickly.

The Nida academics suggested that a cap be imposed on the amount of rice to be pledged _ 25 tonnes of paddy or 350,000 baht worth of grain for each farming household _ to ensure that only real farmers benefit from the scheme and not landlords who have rented out farmland to farmers. They also suggested that the rice pledged must be redeemed later by farmers and that the prices set by the government _ 15,000 baht per tonne of white rice and 20,000 baht a tonne of Hom Mali rice _ should be more realistic. Unfortunately, their Constitution Court petition was rejected due to a technicality. It is still not clear whether they will resubmit their petition or not in light of the farmers' protests.

Despite all the obvious flaws and the justified criticisms of the project, the government rejected them all and buried its head in the sand so it sees nothing and hears nothing. The cabinet's decision to continue the project for another farming season which will cost another 405 billion baht for 26 million tonnes of paddy _ 15 million tonnes from the main crop and the rest from the second _ from taxpayers' money is both disturbing and yet another grave mistake.

The government plans to borrow 150 billion baht to fund the rice purchases and hopes the rest will come from revenue from the sale of the huge rice stockpiles which are still kept in warehouses across the country _ that is about 14 million tonnes of milled rice, including 2 million tonnes carried over from last year.

The Commerce Ministry's ability to dispose of the huge stockpiles is, at best, questionable. Claims it has 7.3 million tonnes of export orders from China, Indonesia, Ivory Coast and Bangladesh ring hollow as no agreements have been formally signed yet. Indonesia's rice buying agency, Bulog, was quoted saying in September that it does not intend to import rice this year due to an estimated increase in rice production by 4-5%, but if forced to import, Indonesia will buy from Vietnam or India as the quality of rice is good and prices are low.

It appears as if the Commerce Ministry is in a desperate position and in need of outside help. So how can the government place its hopes on the ministry?