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EC not yet ready to okay Bt130 billion borrowing to pay farmers

The caretaker government yesterday cleared one barrier blocking it from implementing the next phase of the controversial rice-pledging scheme when the Election Commission allowed the sale of rice from the state's stocks, but it still faces a political backlash if the EC does not remove another hurdle.

The commission said yesterday that it would take around a week to consider a request by the government to borrow Bt130 billion to pay farmers for their crop from the October-February harvest season, as it was "such a huge decision".

Article 181 of the Constitution prohibits certain actions to be made by a caretaker government without prior permission from the EC.

"Each commissioner needs to study the request thoroughly, and individuals might be asked to testify to the EC. If testimonies are needed, the EC would invite individuals to appear, and this option will be considered starting next week," deputy secretary-general Tanith Sriprateth said.

Caretaker Commerce Minister Niwatthumrong Boonsongpaisan said the government's request to continue selling rice through government-to-government deals under a new contract was approved by the EC. The government needs the money to buy the pledged rice from the current harvest season.

Farmers have complained about delayed payments and have threatened to march against the government. The current rice-pledging round started in November and ends next month. Farmers say they have suffered from the month's delay in payment. They called for the government to expedite the payments as they owe money for production costs and need to feed their families.

Niwatthumrong said the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) should be able to pay the farmers within 15 days.

"The government already has Bt77 billion cash on hand, and should be able to pay farmers about Bt3 billion to Bt4 billion a day," he said.

None of the farmers should be hurt too long by the delayed payments, he said.

About 10 million tonnes of new rice is expected to enter the pledging scheme, which would need about Bt140 billion to pay farmers.

The government has already paid Bt30 billion to the farmers who have pledged rice with the government since November. The remaining Bt77 billion will be soon paid, he said.

The government will need to earn Bt40 billion to pay farmers under the pledging scheme, which is capped at Bt270 billion, so it will urge the EC to allow the government to borrow Bt130 billion to ensure adequate funds to pay farmers.

The EC should approve the loan, since the pledging scheme is a continuing policy, he said. The government will not comment on whether it intends to continue the pledging project after the election as that could breach election rules, he said.

With the EC's consent, the government will continue selling rice from its stockpiles. The Commerce Ministry will urgently negotiate with its trading partners for more rice-purchase deals. China, for one, is interested in procuring 1 million tonnes of rice from Thailand.

Also, the government expects to sell more rice - about 500,000 tonnes - to private traders, he said.

Since the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office in 2011, the government has earned about Bt180 billion from rice sales. The Commerce Ministry believes it should be able to earn more money this year as many contracts were signed last year and the rice is awaiting shipment.

However, the ministry has not yet calculated how much the government should earn this year under its rice-sale plan.


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