Finally, the government has agreed to accept the hard truth that it can no longer buy every grain of paddy from rice farmers as promised when it launched the populist rice pledging scheme two years ago.
The cabinet last week endorsed the Commerce Ministry's proposal for a 105-billion-baht budget to purchase 6-7 million tonnes of second-crop paddy from farmers, with the exception of 18 strains of "light" paddy, or paddy strains which can be harvested within 110 days of being planted.
The inclusion of the exception clause for paddy purchases this season and the next constitutes a change of policy from the generous "buying every grain of paddy" policy once trumpeted by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong.
It also testifies to the flaws of this flagship populist policy, which the government has persistently defended despite widespread criticism.
Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom was reported to have said last week that light paddy amounted to an insignificant portion of the second-crop harvests this year. He would have us believe that the policy change stands to have little impact on the volume of paddy to be bought, the money to be used for the purchases and, above all, the huge unsold rice stockpile held in warehouses and silos across the country.
The Commerce Ministry has persistently refused to come clean on key details of the scheme _ such as the amount of rice it claims has been sold in government-to-government deals, the names of the buyers and the sale prices.
However, Thai rice exporters and several international agencies such as the World Trade Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation have estimated the rice stockpile could amount to at least 10 million tonnes.
The policy change from buying up every grain of paddy to selective buying of "quality" paddy amounts to, as a popular Thai saying goes, scratching at the wrong spot which does not itch.
It will not help solve the pressing problems confronted by the ministry such as the huge unsold stockpile, the poor prospects of export deals being made, and the shortage of space to store the newly harvested second-crop rice. Commerce permanent secretary Watcharee Vimooktayon says the ministry will have enough cash in hand to make new purchases.
But without any clear signs of recent export deals being negotiated, or deals pending in the foreseeable future, it is doubtful the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), the chief financier of the pledging scheme, will be able to fulfil its responsibility without an injection of fresh funding from the government.
According to the BAAC, the scheme has cost the government or, to be more accurate, the taxpayers, about 516 billion baht in spending, excluding management and storage fees, since it started in 2011, although that is well within the public debt management plan for 2012-13 budgetary years. Widespread corruption in the pledging scheme is denied by the ministry.
The entire rice pledging scheme needs to be reconsidered and revamped. But most importantly, the ministry must come clean about how the scheme is going. Taxpayers are owed nothing less.