Patience can lead to virtue and rotten rice

Taxpayers should not be surprised if they are occasionally confused by the conflicting statements made by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her ministers, Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom in particular, pertaining to anything related to the rice pledging scheme _ because the government is treating everything as a trade secret which must be kept confidential and disclosed to the public only at the end of next year.

Thus, taxpayers' questions _ about whether the export deals amounting to 8 million tonnes of milled rice to China, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Ivory Coast, as claimed by the Commerce Ministry, are in the form of non-binding memorandums of understanding (MoUs) or binding contractual agreements, or about the exact amount of rice sold to each of the four buyers and at what prices _ will have to wait.

Only next December, when all the rice shipments are expected to be accomplished, will Thailand's taxpayers be told the "truth" as promised by the prime minister.

That is only about 14 months away! So let us have patience as advised in this old Oriental saying: "Patience leads to virtue or merit."

And then there are the latest conflicting statements from Prime Minister Yingluck and Transport Minister Jarupong Ruangsuwan over the possible use of cargo terminal No.2 at Don Mueang Airport as a rice storage facility.

Minister Jarupong said the Commerce Ministry's Public Warehouse Organisation had contacted Paranee Watthanothai, director of Don Mueang Airport, for permission to inspect the cargo terminal to be used to store the new crop of rice to be pledged.

He said the facility is flood-proof and can store up to 157,000 tonnes of rice. But the prime minister said it was not necessary to use the cargo terminal as the Commerce Ministry could cope with the storage problem itself.

More confusion? Well, this might be just a ploy to distract the attention of doubters of the rice pledging scheme from the warehouses where more than 10 million tonnes of rice are being stockpiled and where the unconventional ex-warehouse deals are alleged to be surreptitiously forged.

And since there are 14 months to go before the "truth" about all rice export deals is to be disclosed, taxpayers had better brace for more conflicting statements and probably more confusion as at least another 26 million tonnes of paddy from the 2012-13 crops are to be pledged.

I just can't imagine how and where it is to be stored if the current stockpiles are not sold fast enough by the Commerce Ministry. Or should we, the taxpayers, be told to consume more rice in order to help reduce the stockpiles?

As I said before, I have no problem with the farmers _ and I mean the poor farmers and not the rich or landlord farmers _ benefitting from the rice pledging scheme. Honestly, I wish that they become better off and earn a better livelihood.

But are the poor farmers actually benefitting from the scheme? Just take a look at the following figures and facts from the Thailand Development and Research Institute.

There are between 3.6 and 4 million rice farming households throughout the country. Of these, 1.3 million households grow only enough rice for their own consumption, thus leaving nothing to be sold or pledged. So they do not benefit from the scheme.

There are also about 740,000 households who cannot grow enough rice for consumption and have to buy their supplies elsewhere. This group also does not benefit from the scheme.

According to statistics compiled by the former Democrat government during its tenure, there were 2.3 million households which had reported that their rice yield was less than 5 tonnes; about 700,000 households reported 5-10 tonnes of yield; 74,000 households with 10-30 tonnes of yield; and 2,300 households with more than 30 tonnes.

TDRI studies of the previous crop season show about 800,000 households pledged their main crop with the government and about 600,000 households pledged their second crop.

But the actual households participating in the rice pledging scheme number about 900,000 households because many pledged both the main and second crops as they could grow several crops a year thanks to the irrigation system, while the unlucky ones who have no access to the system grow just one crop a year.

The study also shows that some 33,000 farming households earned about 600,000 baht each from their rice sale under the scheme.

Their number accounts for 5.4% of the farmers who pledged their second crop whereas their earnings amount to 19.1% of the value of rice pledged, or 27 billion baht.

To sum up, only 1.18 million out of a total of 3.8-4 million farming households, or 40%, benefited from the scheme during the 2011-12 harvest season.

The question that needs to be asked is, why is taxpayer money being used to support rich farmers?

We appear to have a misconception that all farmers are poor. May I ask a farmer who owns, say, 100-1,000 rai of land in Pathum Thai if he is poor? Given the value of the land, I believe he is richer than many white-collar office workers in Bangkok.

TDRI went further to conduct studies on the problems of rice stored too long in improper warehouses such as Don Mueang's cargo terminal. Storage in a warehouse which is not airtight will cause the white rice to turn yellow and bring rice weevils: for the first three months, the rice whiteness index will drop from 51.5% to 49.4% and the number of weevils will average 23.2 per kilogramme; after six months the whiteness index will drop to 49% and the number of weevils will increase to 90 per kg.

Just imagine how much damage will be done to the rice if it is kept until late next year if shipments of all the rice claimed to have been sold by the Commerce Ministry are to be completed. Unless, of course, rice from the new crop is shipped out instead and the old rice left to rot. But don't panic yet. This is just the beginning!

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post

About the author

Writer: Veera Prateepchaikul
Position: Former Editor