National Food Authority Administrator Jason Aquino has asked to be relieved amid mounting criticism of his inability to deal with rising prices of rice and its short supply in some markets, President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday.
In a tête-à-tête with Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, Duterte said he continues to look for Aquino’s replacement.
“Jason Aquino has already requested to be relieved from office. I will scout for a new one,” Duterte said.
The embattled NFA chief told the President that he was tired of the criticisms he received as the price of rice continued to rise.
“He says he is tired and he cannot cope up with the play there inside, which is always an ordinary happening,” Duterte said.
Lawmakers blamed Aquino for rising rice prices after he declared a supply shortage of cheap NFA rice and failed to buy enough palay from local farmers.
Opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan said Aquino’s departure was a good step, but more needs to be done to arrest the rising prices of rice.
“File charges against the NFA administrator. Don’t recycle him and reappoint him to another government position,” he said.
“Acknowledge the rice crisis. What explains the high prices? Even if there are grains in the market, what the people need are those they can afford with their meager income. We need quick and concrete responses to this gut issue,” he said.
Aquino and Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., both appointed by the President to supervise the NFA, disagreed over how best to secure the country’s rice supply.
Aquino wanted the agency to import rice from other countries through the government-to-government transactions, while Evasco batted for allowing private traders to import more rice and letting them shoulder the cost of importation.
Evasco was later stripped of his powers over the NFA.
In his departure statement before his visits to Israel and Jordan early in September, Duterte said he would not to dismiss any official for the rice situation, saying “no serious offense” was committed.
“Maybe the laws are weak or are unenforceable. All we have to do is improve on those laws, not necessarily fire people,” Duterte said when asked if he planned to fire Aquino and Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol over their failure to handle the rice crisis.
In the same speech, Duterte said the rice crisis was artificial and caused by “man-made manipulation,” and threatened to force open the warehouses of rice smugglers and hoarders.
Duterte appointed Aquino as the NFA chief on Dec. 29, 2016.
Senator Cynthia Villar, meanwhile, blamed the country’s 6.4-percent inflation rate on rice cartels.
In an interview with ABS-CBN, Villar said Duterte’s economic managers overlooked the presence of rice cartels when they pushed for the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Law, which raised excise taxes on fuel.
“The excise taxes on gasoline had an effect on the rise in the rate of inflation, but they did overlook the tendency of traders to speculate on prices,” Villar said in Filipino.
“That’s what was not counted, and that’s big. In a country where there are cartels, it’s hard to factor in,” she added. With PNA
The Philippine Statistics Authority reported last week that August inflation had hit a nine-year high of 6.4 percent, driven by increases in food and fuel prices.
In the House, the chairman of the committee on appropriations said he would file a resolution urging the NFA Council to raise the government’s price ceiling for the purchase of rice from local farmers.
At the same time, Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles, the panel’s chairman, said he would seek an audience with President Duterte to discuss the matter.
“I will file a resolution urging the NFA Council to increase their buying price from P17 to P22. But I will pester them monthly. I will remind them that we really need to raise the buying price for our farmers’ palay,” Nograles told a radio interview.
Nograles said the rice crisis should be addressed by the NFA Council, which recently decided to keep the buying price as it is, despite pleas from the mother agency and its officials, as well as farmers themselves.
“They made a decision. It was either Thursday or Friday. The decision is they would not change the buying price. It will stay at P17. We asked the NFA Council why. They claimed it would be inflationary,” Nograles said.
Nograles said he was not convinced of the Council’s explanation that increasing the buying price would lead to higher inflation.
“They said that increasing it by a peso or making it P18 would add 0.25 points to inflation. I have no idea how it will lead to such an increase in inflation. How much palay does the NFA purchase from farmers anyway?” Nograles asked.
Aquino earlier admitted at a congressional hearing that the government is having a hard time buying rice or unmilled rice from local farmers since they find the P17 buying price too low.
The NFA said it has readied funds to buy palay after the October harvest.
Aquino said he has instructed the agency’s field offices, especially in rice-producing areas, to be more aggressive in their palay buying strategies.
“Do not wait for the farmers to bring their produce, but rather go out to the farthest and remotest barangays [villages] to buy their harvest, especially in areas where the prices offered by private
traders are below the government support price,” Aquino said in a news release issued Tuesday. With PNA