Rice bill not in farmers' interests

Rice bill not in farmers' interests

The storied rice terraces at Ban Pa Pong Piang, Chiang Mai. The rice industry from farmers to exporters have raised concern over the junta's Rice Act. (Flickr/Creative Commons)
The storied rice terraces at Ban Pa Pong Piang, Chiang Mai. The rice industry from farmers to exporters have raised concern over the junta's Rice Act. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) made the right decision in backing down on the Rice Bill fight, removing controversial content which drew hefty criticism. It agreed to take out a contentious section that prohibits the trade of rice seeds which are not approved under requirements set by the bill. This positive response is good but is not enough.

The best thing for the NLA to do is to drop the bill and leave it to the next fully-elected assembly. The bill, which originates from the Finance Ministry, stipulates the establishment of a national rice board under the prime minister. It also envisions the zoning of rice planting areas based on potential and mean rice prices.

The controversial bill, proposed by NLA member Kittisak Rattanavaraha, passed the first reading late last month and is expected to head to the NLA for second and third readings next week.

Why such haste?

Despite its good intentions, the bill seems to be riddled with several shortcomings.

To start with, it gives too much power to the government. The rice board, in accordance with Section 6, shows an imbalanced structure with state officials, at 20, outnumbering those from farmers and rice mill groups which are to have five members each while there are three seats for experts. The proposed state agency overseers range from the ministers of Agriculure and Commerce, permanent secretaries from Finance, Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Industry, and directors-general from several departments including Internal Trade, Foreign Trade, Irrigation, and the secretary-general of National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), for instance.

Such a structure is bulky and bureaucratic, with farmers, who form a large population group at 17.6 million, being under-represented. They may not get a say in their own matters or interests.

Critics are of the opinion that the mandatory registration of rice varieties, as mentioned in Section 27, will do more harm than good to the country's rice development.

Initially, the bill sought to ban farmers from storing rice seeds for growing. Reports say this clause will now be removed. Yet it still prohibits the trade of rice seeds which are not approved under requirements set by the bill.

Even though the NLA promises to take out the section in question from the bill, it remains to be seen how the varieties registration process will be transformed. But, if too strict, the registration of varieties will backfire and compromise the country's ability to develop rice types. As a result, the country will have only a few strains left.

"If this draft was issued and became effective before 1957, Thailand would have possibly missed high-value rice varieties such as Khao Dawk Mali 105 rice, Khao Tah Haeng 17, Riceberry, Sangyod Rice and Tubtim Chumphae Rice," said Nipon Poapongsakorn, distinguished fellow at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).

The TDRI scholar also disagreed with the reassignment of agencies dealing with rice under the draft, that is moving the rice production and marketing subcommittee, under the Commerce Ministry's rice administration committee, to the Rice Department.

At the same time, Suthep Kongmak, president of the Farmers' Association, told this newspaper the bill was drafted by people who lack knowledge about the rice industry and how to add value to the grain.

Despite the aim to improve farmers and the country's rice production, critics are of the opinion that the bill, if it becomes law, will deal a heavy blow to farmers and harm the country's rice industry.

On top of that, the bill, which was drafted in haste, has drawn criticism for the lack of participation from major stakeholders, in particular farmers. No public hearings were held, nor consultation with the farmers.

There is no need for such haste. In fact, the bill that affects a large group of people who are branded the backbone of the nation needs thorough discussion with significant input from those who are directly involved.

As the national elections are near, the military-picked NLA should remove the bill from consideration, waiting until elected lawmakers take their place.

In fact, all controversial bills, especially the ones that seek to curb people's rights, must be left to the elected assembly.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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