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Farmers' plight forgotten amid political maelstrom

Reports this week of the death of a 59-year-old farmer from Pichit signal a deepening failure of the government's rice-pledging scheme. His wife said the death was caused by stress due to delayed rice-pledge payment. The tragedy adds a further dimension to the ongoing hardship being suffered by farmers under the policy.

His wife discovered her husband dead in his hut by the rice field. She said he had borrowed Bt100,000 from a loan shark as he could not wait for the Bt200,000 he had been promised from the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BACC). The pressure was on as he was due to start planting a new crop. That same pressure is being felt by many others whose payment has failed to come through. Farmers in Pichit are calling on those in other provinces to join their protest.

The death of one farmer well illustrates the plight of rice-scheme farmers around the country. Under a normal circumstance, they would now be busy with preparations to plant the new crop. But things are different this year, with money for plants and fertiliser drying up. Disgruntled farmers are stepping up the pressure on the caretaker government.

At first glance, it looks like the administration has been backed into a corner. Yet for a long time now the farmers have been in a far worse position. For almost five months they have waited for the money due to them. Faced with ruin, they have no way out but to fight for their money.

Just how bad is the problem?

In Surin, of the 61,999 farmers owed rice-pledge money by the BACC, only 8.6 per cent of them have been paid. It's a similar picture in the North for farmers in Pichit, Nakhon Sawan and Phitsanulok. In the Central Region, their counterparts in Suphanburi province are still waiting for BAAC money. Such a widespread problem illustrates the magnitude of the rice-pledging scheme's failure.

In many provinces farmers are planning to block roads or lay siege to City Halls as part of simultaneous protests on Wednesday. The date is significant in coinciding with major anti-government rallies in Bangkok.

The caretaker government is trying desperately to raise fresh cash for the scheme, but their efforts, whether successful or not, are too little too late. The hardship being suffered by farmers should have been taken seriously much earlier.

The government should not use this as a political issue. Farmers might be protesting at the same time as the anti-government rallies but that does not mean they share the same cause.

Long before the government arrived at this desperate juncture, it was warned by economists and international organisations that such a scheme would not work and would be wide open to corruption. Despite mounting evidence that the rice-pledging scheme was in trouble, the government did not scale down or drop the programme.

Now in its third year, it is clear that scheme's supposed beneficiaries have actually become its victims. Despite the Bt600 billion spent on rice-pledging by the Yingluck government, the farmers are still suffering. Studies indicate that only 30 per cent of the budget has been paid to farmers, leaving the majority without cash. In the meantime, those who have benefited are millers, traders and unscrupulous officials and politicians.

Needless to say, as things stand now, the rice scheme is likely to be scrapped or at least heavily modified when the new government arrives. That is good news for farmers. In the meantime they can only hope that the caretaker government makes an effort to depoliticise the scheme in order to lift them out of this nightmare.


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