More sugar industry travails-2

By: Modesto P. Sa-onoy

THE budget under the Sugar Industry Development Act that has been pegged at P2 billion a year is being reduced annually since the Duterte administration and the direct supervision of the Department of Agriculture Secretary Manuel Piñol. The latest report says it will be cut down some more to only P67 million. That will undermine the very reason for the law’s enactment. That will remove one of the most important means to cushion the negative impact of liberalized importation as the law was intended. The demise of the industry will accelerate.

We must credit the outgoing 3rd District Congressman Alfredo Benitez for the passage of the SIDA. It is a lifeline to the industry as it addresses most of the problems of the industry particularly improving farm and mill efficiency that makes the Philippine sugar less competitive to other sugar producing countries.

Reports show that the P2 billion mandated by law was reduced to P750 million in 2018 and slashed some more to P500 million in 2019. For 2020 it will be reduced to a pittance in relation to the objectives of the law. For instance, how far will this money go in terms of funds for industry scholars and the assistance for block farms that are composed of the marginal members of the industry – the agrarian reform beneficiaries?

Sugar Regulatory Administration head, Hermenegildo Serafica reportedly said that “the P67 million budget planned by the Department of Budget and Management is not final and that the SRA is working for a bigger allocation and had already submitted the industry’s proposals and there is time for lobbying”.

This will be the first challenge to Tatak Kalamay when the new Congress meets next month. During the elections, planters justified support for this slate of President Duterte’s candidates on the promise that they will protect the industry.

Serafica’s statement appears pathetic – the industry begging for what it rightfully deserves under the law. The slashing of its budget had been going on and considering the fact that the SRA had failed in the past to stop the bleeding, what are its chances of restoring the full amount by carrying a beggar’s bowl?

Enrique Rojas, president of the National Federation of Sugarcane Planters is right. While the industry needs all the support it can get from the government, “it appears the government is hell-bent on killing the sugar industry.”

He calls on the SRA and DA to “lobby hard with allies in Congress and the Senate to reinstate the full P2 billion that rightfully belongs to the sugar industry, particularly the small sugar farmers.” They lobbied surely in the past as the budget was being whittled down, but they failed. What chances have the industry now? Why did they fail in the last year budget preparation when they had also those senators pledging assistance? Are there realities they did not consider like the strong lobby of powerful personalities to bring the industry to its knees?

Serafica said SRA has been spending the amount allocated for the industry, especially for farm to market roads and scholarships and had spent the fund in partnership with other government agencies. They have a good performance in the utilization of the fund for farm to market roads and scholarships. He claims however that this manner of fund utilization also makes the pace of its dispersal and liquidation beyond their control.

That was a giveaway. If the SIDA funds were used in partnership with other government agencies, how can SRA claim it had lost control? Was the fund given unconditionally and without SRA exercising control? Is that not a dole out? To whom did SRA give the funds and for what projects or purpose? What kind of fund management is that?

DBM probably saw this negligence or shoddy use of public funds that it considered it wiser to cut the unaccountable funds and save the country some money. If the SRA cannot wisely use and account for the money, why give them some more?

In case the industry is deprived of fund assistance, how can it cushion the impact of open importation that the government is planning? Is the reduction of the assistance intended to maintain the higher cost but low level of production so the industry will be forced to yield to public demand for importation?

It seems so until shown otherwise.