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Monday, March 4, 2024

Fingers in the dike

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“Why in heaven’s name should Comelec spend to automate barangay and that useless SK elections, when all the voter needs to write are a few names?”

Remember that story about the boy who saved Holland, by plugging a leak in the dike with his finger?

(Editor’s Note: Usually called Hans Brinker, the Dutch boy who saves his country by putting his finger in a leaking dike has no name in the American children’s book by Mary Mapes Dodge. It is just one of the stories about Holland told in the 1865 book Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland.)

The situation we find ourselves in, as a nation and as a people, reminds me of that story about the boy and the dike, except that now, when our leader, or whoever he listens to, plugs a leak in our dike, another leak appears, and then another.

The DA, of which our leader is the secretary, kept assuring us that we had enough rice. Early on, he launched the ill-fated Kadiwa which sold P25 per kilo of rice, with the promise that his aspired P20 was soon to come.

But the prices of all kinds of rice rose to levels that alarmed our consumers.

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So as a threatening step, officials raided a bodega or two somewhere in Bulacan, and announced that the “hoard” will be seized unless the owners can prove that these were legally imported.

The deadline has passed, but no word from Customs or the raiders of the lost rice.

Then, because prices kept rising, a price ceiling of 41/45 was suddenly ordered. Another leak in the dike was plugged with a little finger, without consulting the engineers of the dike.

To assuage the rice retailers, our leader directed DSWD to roll out “ayuda” with a ceiling of P15,000 per retailer. Another finger on another hole.

When the engineers balked and said plugging one hole would cause the water pressure to bore a bigger hole, they said the solution would better be to temporarily reduce the 35% tariff to zero or 10% on imported rice so as to bring down cost, without ensuring that the importers will pass on the tax savings to the consumer.

The farmers balked, and rightly so, because harvests have started and the main bulk of it will commence this October.

Had the leader consulted the engineers earlier, when one of his foremen in the NFA sounded the alarm, the engineers might have advised him to open the floodgates for more imports earlier, when the summer harvests ended and before the lean months.

The leader tarried, and the prices rose further, threatening to breach the dam of public patience. His knee jerk solution, done without calling upon his engineers, was to order unrealistically low price ceilings.

The other day, he ordered the bodegueros at NFA to buy palay at competitive prices, to ensure that the farmers will be properly compensated for their back-breaking labors, and they will be more fingers to plug the holes in the dike.

Nothing is said about where the funds will come from, when NFA buys at P23 to P25 while the previous ceiling was P19. The P7 billion provided in the GAA can only buy 280,000 tons, where the total annual consumption is 14 million tons, a drop in the bucket.

But DA says they will spend P15 billion to buy enough palay to make a dent in the market. That’s two drops in the bucket.

But where to source the funds? Maybe from the combined intelligence and confidential funds of the palace and the princess-in-waiting?

Industry sectors and consumers are confused.

It would seem that our leader has been doing a trial and error method of decision-making, with even the doctors of engineering (economic managers) and the lowly peons (farmers and lowly consumers) as well as several foremen (the supply chain of palay traders, millers, rice traders and retailers) including the government’s warehouse foreman mismo, the NFA — all are utterly confused.

Like little boys, we are told to help government plug the leaks in the nation’s dike, about to burst with a myriad of problems from an impending shortage of food staples and prices reaching historic highs, to a humongous debt wave that threatens to become a tsunami in the coming years, to huge fiscal deficits which the engineers blame on the soldiers who guard the dike with their MUP slice of the pie, but never, never on the pork barrel or constituency entitlements, or budget insertions, from where our legislators squeeze their juices of 30 to 40 percent in “tara.”

In my mind as I write, I recall that line from “You Must Love Me,” a song from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita, about the former first lady of far away Argentina where we now plan to buy whatever little rice their gauchos could spare — “Where do we go from here?”.

Or, as opposition senadora, the Lady Risa, exclaimed in bewilderment: “Ano ba talaga, Kuya?”

The president must have rued the day he listened to well-meaning advice to take over the agriculture department which is beset by so many problems.

Yet to his credit, because he was at its helm, agriculture got a bigger slice of the budget, thrice what the previous administration gave it.

How that has been spent in the last 447 days we still have to fathom, as prices of almost every kind of food has gone way up, even when most food crops are harvested in months unlike fruit trees such as durian which takes years.

We were assured the rice competitiveness enhancement fund which came from tariff proceeds on imported rice of which we have become the world’s largest importer, beating China with its 1.4 billion mouths to feed (not counting North Korea which it also feeds), would capacitate our farmers through better seeds and farm mechanization.

Who supplies the mechanical dryers and the small tractors funded by the RCEF we do not know, but some farmer-recipients are saying, “madaling masira.”

Since rice is a four month crop, “anyare?”

Now the Philippine Statistics Authority is predicting a drop in 3rd quarter palay production contrary to DA’s expectations of a bumper crop. Will it be any better in the 4th quarter? Don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, the price of oil in the world market keeps rising. Within the last week, the benchmark has gone up by more than $2.50, and even if Iran and the US has settled their frozen assets with prisoner exchange, do not think that will impact so soon on oil supply, as the volatility remains.

Our legislators are mulling the suspension of excise tax collection on oil. In 2021 when candidate Isko Moreno proposed the same, the DOF said “nyet” as it would cause a fall in government revenues.

Doing away with it now, or at least until the end of 2023 will entail around P30 billion in lost revenues at present prices, or so our economic managers bewail. Another P40 billion if the VAT on petrol is suspended.

Through this all, no one has suggested that government tighten its belt. Congress is bent on passing the P5.7 trillion budget proposal of the executive department through its railroad express.

Can’t anyone even discuss austerity on the part of government? Can we not trim the fat from government expenditures?

President Garcia did it way back when I was in grade school. President Ramos did it with a mandatory cut in government expenditures.

Why should Diokno immediately equate lost revenues from petrol with a 0.03 percent increase in the national debt?

Can’t confidential and intelligence funds be sacrificed for now?

What about junkets, whether abroad by top officials in all three branches, or those basically useless seminars and conventions of lower-level officials which cumulatively add up to much?

Why in heaven’s name should Comelec spend to automate barangay and that useless SK elections, when all the voter needs to write are a few names?

We could go on and on listing down unnecessary government expenditures which could be sacrificed temporarily to give transport drivers and the ordinary commuter some relief, but will Congress and the executive even listen?

They keep trying to plug the dike with dirty little fingers but will that prevent public sentiment, now simmering, from eventually bursting?

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