By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
Senators have urged the Department of Agriculture (DA) to file criminal and administrative charges against the officials who were responsible for procuring and distributing defective farm machineries to rice farmers.
During the plenary debate of its P54.9-billion proposed outlay in the Senate’s version of the 2020 General Appropriations Bill Wednesday afternoon, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senators Panfilo Lacson and Francis Pangilinan quizzed the DA about a recent ABS-CBN report that beneficiaries of the government’s mechanization program were given faulty and ill-suited equipment.
The machines were either not utilized, or had to be modified first before use in their farms.
Senator Cynthia Villar, who was seated beside Agriculture Secretary William Dar, clarified that the machineries were distributed as part of the farm mechanization component of the DA’s national rice program and not the Rice Competitiveness Enhance Fund (RCEF) of the new rice tariffication law.
The Senate finance vice committee chair and sponsor of the DA budget said Dar was already aware of the issue, and has ordered an audit of all the equipment distributed by the DA in all regions in the last five years.
“The Secretary of Agriculture said they are going to audit these previous procurement for the last five years. So they can report to you what happened there because he is not yet the secretary of agriculture when this happened,” Villar said in behalf of Dar.
The audit will take four months, Villar said.
But Lacson said the DA should not stop with its review and should also pursue charges against the officials involved in the purchase of the defective farm equipment.
“It’s really disgusting to see farmers suffering some more on account of not only mismanagement but these are corrupt practices. Obviously may nakinabang dito (someone benefitted from this) because a number of equipment [are] due for pullout, di napakinabangan (they were not even used),” Lacson said.
“I would urge the good Secretary Dar not to stop at mere audit, but charges should be filed. Sino ba sa (Who in the) office [is] in charge of procurement ng (of) farm machinery?” he appealed.
In an interview with reporters after the session, Lacson said the cases should include the suppliers of the substandard machines.
The DA, according to Villar, spent P8.5 million in 2018 for the purchase of farm equipment that were distributed to farmers’ groups in Eastern Visayas. In the ABS-CBN documentary, farmers in Leyte complained that the equipment, with costs ranging from at least P100,000 to P1 million, were too small, or heavy, or inappropriate for farming.
She said that under the Senate’s proposed 2020 national budget, the farm mechanization program will get some P2.5 billion from the P7-billion proposed fund for the rice program.
The funds will be downloaded to regional offices of the DA which will procure and distribute the farm machines.
Aside from the rice program, the government has also allotted P5 billion under the P10-billion RCEF for the provision of additional farm machines, which will be implemented by the Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech).
Saying he feels “very frustrated”, Sotto said he hopes the DA will act on the report and file the necessary cases against the concerned individuals.
“I will just hope, keep our fingers crossed that the department will do something about it. Because we will be here next year and next year, we will use the axe if we are not given a good report and people who should be charged [are] charged,” the Senate chief warned.
Pangilinan, for his part, said he wants to see action from the DA because “We will be distributing additional machineries, and we would like to ensure that the absorption is proper and the beneficiaries will in fact benefit rather than be provided with defective equipment and machines.”
Lacson said the incident should also serve as a “warning” to the DA and its concerned agencies in its implementation of the RCEF.
The Senate, before adjourning session Wednesday night, approved the DA’s proposed budget for 2020, which was lower than the P71.8 billion as proposed under the National Expenditure Program.