Flawed bill favors rice cartel, crooks

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Congress is to vote today on a bill to free up rice trading – yet can cartelize it via government crooks. Expect the measure thus to perpetuate present soaring prices and hoarding of the staple.

Malacañang’s efforts to cheapen rice would be futile. Only last week President Rody Duterte warned a big trader against supply-price manipulating. But with forthcoming legal cover from Congress, cartelists would render empty his threats of stern actions.

Lawmakers have finished debates on House Bill 7735 – safety nets for rice farmers and consumers through import tariffication. Grains users and millers, like restaurant-hotel chains and poultry feed makers, will be allowed to import directly from best sources. Thirty-five percent duties will be levied, to raise P21.6 billion a year. The money will aid tillers and raise domestic harvests.

But there’s a catch. The bill empowers the National Food Authority to license importers and issue shipment permits. That’s on top of its basic food-security duty to maintain sufficient national buffer stock.

In effect the bill retains the present rotten set-up. NFA will still have discretion over whom to license for how much imports. Discretion breeds corruption. NFA crooks can demand bribes for hasty licensing and higher quotas. Corruption has been plaguing NFA for decades; the National Economic Development Authority wants it abolished.

Restaurateurs, hoteliers, millers are disgruntled. NFA can force them to deal with preferred cartels, instead of being let freely to import.

Successions of NFA administrations have conspired with cartels to corner and hoard imports and local harvests. Three groups are vying for lordship of the cartel, by influencing the NFA governing council, the management, and the agriculture department.

Last week grains trader Jojo Soliman admitted to the press being cussed on the phone by Duterte for suspected hoarding. Denying any misdeed, he supposedly replied that rivals were badmouthing him. Duterte gave him 72 hours to unload rice stocks. Insinuating closeness, he told ABS-CBN News he considers Duterte his father. Soliman inherited the business from his late father, whom senator Tito Guingona in the 1980s had exposed among the “Binondo rice cartel.”

Last July authorities charged Soliman with smuggling 100,000 bags of rice in 200 cargo containers at the Manila port. Auction of the first 150 containers of contraband netted P178 million for the government. The law calls for non-bailable raps of economic sabotage for illegal shipment of at least P1 million in staples. Soliman claimed to have government clearances, but NFA management denied it.

Soliman was among traders called to Malacañang by Duterte in April, on suggestion of Agriculture Sec. Manny Piñol. Rice prices were soaring then due to sudden depletion of newly delivered NFA buffers. NFA Administrator Jason Aquino and Chairman Leoncio Evasco, the Secretary to the Cabinet, openly had been feuding about corruption and import volumes. Evasco wanted the agency audited to trace the vanished stocks. Days after the meeting with traders, Duterte removed Evasco as NFA chairman. The position has since been vacant.

A month earlier Sen. Cynthia Villar examined the rice situation as head of the agriculture committee. She noted that the persons involved were the same ones she had investigated in 2013 under the past Presidency. One is David Tan, aka Davidson Bangayan, implicated in smuggling and fake farmers’ groups posing as importers. Another is Bong Lim Sui, allegedly Tan’s ex-partner, tied in 2016-2017 to the Aquino-Evasco tiff.

Soliman was linked to an alleged P2.5-million bribery of an Evasco subordinate, who subsequently was fired. He and Evasco’s aide denied the reports. Soliman in 2014 accused newbie NFA head Arthur Juan of extorting P25 million for the reopening of his warehouse. Weeks earlier then-Interior Sec. Mar Roxas and NFA chairman Francis Pangilinan had charged Soliman with adulterating good rice with feeds unfit for human consumption. Before that, past NFA chiefs were linked to large-scale rice smuggling in Subic Freeport, and to overpriced imports from Vietnam.

In his third State of the Nation last July Duterte warned hoarders and cartels to “stop messing with the people” or else “the full power of the State will be upon you.”

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“Ang Huling El Bimbo” continues to pack full-house audiences at Resorts World Manila. Featuring songs of the Eraserheads, the musicale recalls life and loves of 1990s city youths – today’s upwardly mobile professionals. They’re the ones watching, guffawing at familiar phrases, and tearfully reminiscing.

All-star cast: OJ Mariano, Jon Santos, Gian Magdangal, Tanya Manalang, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Sheila Francisco, Jamie Wilson, Topper Fabregas, Boo Gabunada, Reb Atadero, and Bibo Reyes.

Story by Dingdong Novenario; musical arrangement by Myke Salomon; direction and chorography by Dexter Santos. Eraserhead songs played live by the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra.

Running on weekends till Sept. 2; Fridays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays; at RWM Newport Performing Arts Theater, Pasay City. Call TicketWorld (02) 891-9999.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459, or The STAR website https://www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha



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