Rice wealth fantasy turns to nightmare

Rice wealth fantasy turns to nightmare

The populist politics of the rice-pledging scheme has kept many of us poor and made us immature. Yet, it has the immense power to lure.

When Caretaker Commerce Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisarn advised farmers not to pledge their new crop of rice to the government and sell it on the open market instead, he brought both relief and anger.

Relief because, by the sound of Mr Niwatthamrong, arguably the heaviest loss-making state project in the nation’s history will at least be shifted to neutral gear. Anger as to what has taken the government so long to put the brakes on it.

A rice farmer in Ayutthaya shared a joke over dinner with neighbours one evening and said in passing that the rice-pledging programme reminded him of the "Madame Parrot" pyramid fund scheme that swindled hundreds of thousands of Thais decades ago. A sandal landed on his plate of khao pad moo. A furious neighbour threw a left sandal to stop the man from blabbing and "getting in the way of his luck" in earning his fortune from the rice-pledging programme.

The man went home with a half-full stomach and felt like an outcast while his neighbours and fellow rice farmers across the country rejoiced to have received fat pay cheques for their rice.

Few had the foggiest clue of the financial and social ramifications of the policy which had farmers fantasising of wealth they never had. The allure of money from pledging the crop was so very tantalising and, at the same time, powerfully blinding.

The government set out to buy every grain of rice at above the market price knowing full well the policy would sink coffers into the red. The farmers did not, for one second, hesitate to pledge their rice, trusting the government would not betray them.

So ingrained is the mindset of most people that the government cannot fall, financially speaking, and is the pillar of credit, supposedly. As the popular perception holds, bureaucracy equates security.

But the farmers have gambled in the game of trust and lost. They did not suspect where the money to oil the populist machine would come from. But who could blame them when the television and radio were piping news that the government had clinched lucrative government-to-government deals which had raised funds to sustain the rice scheme?

The farmers, long neglected from the social safety net and left to dwell in their financial backwaters, finally had a chance to bask in the glory of the unprecedented policy which promised them a new lease of life and a golden era for rice farming.

With the rice-pledging money, some households had savings for the first time and sales hit the roof at gold shops. Others bought motorcycles on installments and wound up in debt.

Now, reality bites and good news is harder to come by. A sophisticated web of graft in the scheme is suspected and threatens to cost the caretaker premier her job for allegedly letting the irregularities thrive under her watch. Warehouses are full to the brim with sacks of rice bursting at the seams.

It would appear a lot of the rice is sitting in storage and is quite evidently unsold. The G-to-G deal with China that would have kept the scheme afloat, along with the farmers’ hopes of getting paid for their rice, has turned out to be hot air.

Despair has given way to wrath with farmers heading to Bangkok to demand payments that were several months late. The government issued deadlines which came and went. Still, most farmers found no money has been wired from the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives to their bank accounts.

In the midst of the endless wait for their money, tears and anxiety, the farmers have pleaded for their rice to be returned to them so they can sell it on the market. However, the government prefers to settle the fiasco by giving cash that it ran into brick walls trying to secure. Few would lend the government money to pay the farmers and the financial institutions that faced protests and social sanctions.

The argument was that the caretaker government should have offloaded the mountains of rice in warehouses instead of borrowing and thus creating a tied-over obligation for the next government to pay off.

The matter has degenerated into childish bickering while farmers are not any better off than before they joined the rice scheme. Some pledged 300,000 baht of rice six months ago and have not seen a single satang of their money. They have taken out loans from predatory lenders at prohibitive rates and their debts will soon dwarf the value of their pledged rice.

The populist scheme has failed us. Once again bad politics has won.

Kamolwat Praprutitum is an assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

Kamolwat Praprutitum

Bangkok Post assistant news editor

Kamolwat Praprutitum is an assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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