NFA rice depleted: Who’s to blame?

GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc

Cheap government rice has vanished from Greater Manila public marts. Most National Food Authority stores have been closed for a week now with no grains to sell. Retailers in the few remaining open stalls say their stocks will last only till this weekend. Consumers are howling. Not only the eight million poorest of the poor subsist on the NFA’s P26-per-kilo rice. Although preferring fancy varieties, middle-class buyers now contend with suddenly higher prices, P37 to P40 a kilo. The NFA shortage has spawned profiteering.

As senators began to investigate, fake news swirled that recent calamities supposedly depleted the NFA’s 24-day buffer. Rice millers scoffed at the report, saying that greed was the culprit. NFA field men allegedly emptied the agency’s warehouses of last year’s rice imports from Thailand. Of commercial quality because long-grained, well-milled and only 15 percent broken, those falsely were reclassified as low-class. The stocks were then sold at bargain rates to favored traders in Bulacan. At a kickback of P50-P100 per bag, the NFA crooks made a killing from the fire sale of hundreds of thousands of bags. NFA managers who discovered the racket purportedly have been gagged. But they have provided documents to interested senators. Cynthia Villar, head of the inquiring Senate committee on agriculture, will have a busy week ahead.

The NFA Council and top management are blaming each other for the shortage. Administrator Jason Aquino says buffer stocks have run thin because the Council has not approved the importation of 250,000 tons for the 2017-2018 dry season. Phooey, retorts Council chairman Leoncio Evasco, the secretary to President Duterte’s Cabinet. Someone supposedly is staging a “drama” in order to import at overprice.

Consisting of finance agency reps, the Council had long okayed management’s standby authority to import the 250,000 tons. But the Council hasn’t activated the actual import, Evasco says. That’s because they expect the arrival soon of 350,000 tons of private low-duty imports by NFA-accredited groups.

Aquino claims that it’s all too late. About 1.2 million bags supposedly remain in NFA warehouses. At a withdrawal rate of 34,000 bags a day for market retailing, the stocks would run out in 35 days. Even if the Council consents to importing today, he says, the stocks would arrive in 45 days at the earliest, leaving the government rice-less for 10 shaky days.

The situation is under control, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque claims. Agriculture Sec. Manny Piñol says there are millions more commercial stocks in private storages, following the bumper harvest last rainy season.

Add to that the shiploads smuggled in late 2017 disguised as cement. Villar had exposed the smuggler five years ago during then-President Noynoy Aquino’s tenure. Duterte, then-mayor of Davao City, said he personally would kill the economic saboteur if the contraband passes through his jurisdiction. The smuggler is now bigger than ever. With the 35-percent import duty on rice unpaid, he makes that much profit per shipment.

The theft of NFA stocks, the overpricing of its imports, and the unabated smuggling are all arguments to abolish the agency. The National Economic and Development Authority had long advised a succession of Presidents to do just that.

The NFA loses billions of pesos a year buying high from rice farmers and from abroad to sell cheap to consumers. It has swelled the government’s debt by half-a-trillion pesos. If government allows open importation of rice, strictly at 35-percent duty, it would earn the same hundreds of billions. Such fund could then be used to boost rice and other grains farming, through irrigation, flood control, full mechanization, fertilizer and pesticide support, storage and drying facilities, and farm-to-market roads. The increased rice supply will stabilize retail prices.

Meanwhile, the P476-million construction of the NFA’s new central building is being questioned. Allegedly the chosen constructor is unqualified because of a separate unfinished project for the government.

Legazpi Premium Development Corp. reportedly was granted the NFA work. But some of the seven losing contenders aver that Legazpi had withheld a vital info from its list of ongoing government contracts. That is the abandoned erection of two structures for the National Defense College inside Camp Aguinaldo, the Armed Forces general headquarters in Quezon City. Only the library has been put up since last June; the dormitory has yet to start, but the work deadline is next month.

Under procurement laws, contractors who are at least 10-percent in remiss of the agreed goods or services may not participate in other government projects. The complainants have brought their case to chairman Alberto Romulo of the Development Bank of the Philippines, a member of the Council.

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