The Commerce Ministry appears to be unhappy with the World Bank's recent report which said the government's rice-pledging scheme is costly and has incurred losses of 400 billion baht in just two years.
Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisal on Monday categorically denied the World Bank's figures, questioning how they obtained them.
He said the government spent about 300 billion baht a year to fund the rice-pledging scheme and the estimated loss for each annual harvest should not exceed 100 billion baht. Apart from that, there is still a substantial amount of rice in the stockpile which is yet to be sold.
He also claimed the Commerce Ministry had already returned to the Finance Ministry 160 billion baht earned from rice sales.
But if the Commerce Ministry has doubts about the credibility of the World Bank's loss estimate, the public have just as much a right to question the ministry's figures given its track record of secrecy and unwillingness to disclose to the public any key information related to the rice-pledging programme.
It withholds key facts such as how much rice is sold, to whom and at what prices, how much rice remains in the stockpile and how much was earned from all rice sales.
The ministry's standard claim that there is still rice yet to be sold and that accounting to determine the actual losses cannot be carried out until it is all sold is just a lame excuse.
Despite the heavy losses in the first two years, the government kicked off the start of the rice-pledging scheme for the 2013-14 harvest on Oct 1 with 270 billion baht being set for its implementation.
Where the money is to be secured remains a question for the Commerce and Finance ministries as well as the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), the real sponsor of the scheme.
From the field, farmers have started to complain they have to wait much longer to get paid for the rice pledged at rice mills.
Tougher restrictions introduced by the Commerce Ministry to screen farmers in order to weed out the fake ones are necessary even if that means a delay in rice payments.
The regulations require farmers to produce a copy of the contract or rental fee from the landlords in the event they rent land for rice farming.
Although the Commerce Ministry may feel comfortable or proud that it has returned 160 billion baht to the Finance Ministry, that may not be good news for the BAAC which has so far spent 640 billion baht to fund the pledging scheme.
And that leaves 480 billion baht to be settled with the bank by the Commerce Ministry which seems to be wondering how to find the revenue to settle this staggering amount with 10 million tonnes of unsold rice still in the stockpile.
Adding another 270 billion baht to the scheme with the certainty that more than half of which will definitely be written off as a loss, the actual losses from this populist policy within just three years are simply beyond the wildest imagination of most of us, considering the fact that the real beneficiaries are not the farmers themselves but the rice millers, the corrupt politicians and officials involved in it.
The rice-pledging scheme is too costly and bleeding our economy. It needs to be drastically revamped or suspended.
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