A measure seeking the imposition of life imprisonment against individuals, associations and organizations found engaged in rice smuggling is gaining support from the public.
Rep. Emil Ong of Northern Samar and former administrator of the National Food Authority (NFA) filed House Bill (HB) 3987 which seeks the imposition of life sentence against those found guilty of rice smuggling.
The lawmaker described the measure as “timely and a calculated response to stop once and for all the continuing rampant rice smuggling activities in the country that have deprived the government coffers of billions of potential revenues.”
Besides the stiffer prison sentence, Ong’s bill also seeks to slap a huge fine against rice smugglers, equivalent to an amount double the value of the rice smuggled if found guilty of the offense.
Thus, if the value of rice illegally sneaked into the country amounted to P500 million the smugglers would subsequently be ordered to pay a total amount of P1 billion as penalty.
This developed as various groups expressed their support for the proposed measure.
Mike Domingo, convenor of People for Empowerment and Truth (PET) an anti-corruption watchdog, has urged the House leadership to immediately act on the proposed measure.
“We call on the House leadership to act with dispatch and give due importance to this proposed law, since we see this as the best weapon that the government could use in its battle against rice smugglers” he said.
Ong’s bill if enacted into a law also provides that all the smuggled rice shipments will be confiscated in favor of the government through the National Food Authority (NFA).
Moreover, in the event that the rice smuggler happens to be a government official or employee, he or she will also be perpetually barred from holding public office.
“I firmly believe that rice smuggling can be eradicated only if the private sector is prohibited from engaging in rice importation and providing stiffer penalties for violations,” Ong said in a statement.
“The government should not delegate [the duty of importing rice]to any person or entities through the issuance of import permits, more so taxes and import duties should also not be imposed on the NFA when it buys rice from other countries” he stressed.
Bid for legalization
In a related development, Leonardo Montemayor, former Agriculture Secretary and president of the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF), has urged the government to be steadfast in its commitment to protect the interest of local farmers, against attempts by some groups to effectively legalize smuggling of rice and other agricultural commodities into the country.
He noted, “Unscrupulous groups that were caught red-handed while smuggling rice into the country have resorted to questioning the legal basis for requiring import permits from the NFA.”
Montemayor noted that Congress enacted Republic Act (RA) 8178 in 1994 precisely to amend several laws that used to impose quantitative restrictions (QRs) on imports of vegetables, meat, and other products except rice.
“This was soon after Congress ratified our membership in the WTO. If it is true that our accession to the WTO superseded all local laws, then why did Congress have to pass RA 8178 into law?” Montemayor asks.
For his part, Ruben Presilda, vice president of FFF and a rice farmer from Occidental Mindoro, said that QRs are still necessary as the government is still finding ways to help rice farmers improve their competitiveness amid the influx of imported rice.
“If we allow unlimited volumes of cheap imported rice to come in, paddy prices will drop and discourage farmers from planting.
“Eventually, these farmers and their families will migrate to the cities to look for other jobs,” Presilda said.
He said imposing QRs would also allow the government to monitor just how much volume of imported rice is needed to complement the local supply.
Presilda also emphasized that removing the QR and giving traders full freedom to import does not mean that rice prices will automatically go down.
“What will stop these traders from colluding or selling the imported rice at a higher price? What if they stop buying from local farmers because it will be more profitable for them to import?” he added.