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DTI: 25K small rice retailers to get P15K aid before weekend

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An initial batch of 25,000 resellers of regular and well-milled rice in Metro Manila markets will get a P15,000 subsidy to offset losses from having to sell their rice at government-imposed price ceilings before the week is over, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said Wednesday.

In an interview, Trade Assistant Secretary Agaton Uvero said the DTI has an initial list of 25,000 legitimate resellers who qualify for government assistance.

He said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said it will be able to distribute the financial assistance within the week.

After the verification and validation process by the DTI with the help of LGUs and the Department of Agriculture (DA), the retailers on the list will receive a one-time payment of P15,000 from the DSWD, Uvero said.

Apart from financial and logistics support, the DTI is also preparing an interest-free loan assistance program for small businesses affected by the price ceiling.

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Some local government units have likewise voluntarily waived a month’s worth of rent from public markets where rice retailers have small stores or kiosks.

“From what we have heard, the DSWD intends to put up staging centers where legitimate retailers can access the subsidy,” he said.

He added that the government would like to extend the assistance to all rice retailers that are registered in their respective local government units (LGUs).

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. earlier approved the imposition of a price ceiling of P41 per kilo for regular milled rice and P45 per kilo for well-milled rice. The price cap took effect Tuesday, September 5.

The DTI earlier said most rice retailers in Metro Manila markets are complying with the new price ceilings of P41 per kilo of regular milled rice and P45 per kilo of well-milled rice.

“There has been a notable level of compliance observed among the retailers monitored, thus far. The initial rounds of inspections were conducted at various markets and supermarkets in the National Capital Region (NCR) by a composite team comprised of members from DTI and DA,” said DTI Secretary Alfredo Pascual in a Viber message sent from Indonesia, where he is attending the ASEAN Summit.

Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Bejamin Abalos Jr., meanwhile, led the inspection at Mega Q-Mart public market and Save More Supermarket in Quezon City to check if rice retailers were complying with the price caps.

He said he assured rice retailers that the price ceilings were only a temporary measure to make sure rice was accessible and reasonably priced.

The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority said it will assist local price coordinating councils monitor prices of rice in public markets to ensure compliance with the new price caps.

MMDA acting chairman Romando Artes said he and other officials from local and national government offices conducted an inspection at two public markets in Metro Manila Tuesday and found that resellers were following the mandated price ceilings.

DTI’s Uvero, too, said the price cap on regular and well-milled rice is a stop-gap measure intended to make rice more affordable in the face of what the government sees as an artificial shortage.’

He said when prices stabilize when the wet season harvest begins, the government will lift the price ceilings.

Uvero reminded consumers that they still have an option to buy other rice varieties, though the price of premium rice is higher than the regulated varieties.

He also advised them to buy from their usual retailers so they won’t fall prey to unscrupulous sellers who might mix good rice with sub-par varieties.

The price ceilings drew mixed reactions from senators.

Senator Cynthia A. Villar, who chairs the Senate committee on agriculture, said she agreed with the government’s decision to give a P2 billion subsidy to small rice retailers to cope with the price ceilings, even as she asserted there is no rice shortage.

“That’s okay. It’s okay to help…poor and small rice retailers,” Villar said.

At the same time, she assailed those behind an artificial shortage of rice, who merely wanted to sell the grain at higher prices. Villar said the rice shortage appeared “artificial.”

Senate Minority Floor Leader Aquilino Pimentel III, however, questioned the decision to provide mall rice resellers a P2 billion subsidy.

“Wow, that’s already around 20 percent of the budget of the National Food Authority,” Pimentel said.

Instead of providing a subsidy, Pimentel said the DA should get to the bottom of the problems besetting the sector, and that the government should just release P2 billion worth of NFA stocks.

At the Lower House, Marikina City Rep. Stella Quimbo filed a bill allowing the President to declare a “National Rice Emergency” for a maximum period of six months.

Quimbo, senior vice chair of the House committee on appropriations, said she filed the bill amid the rising prices of the staple grain, allegedly due to an artificial supply shortage.

Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte said the city government is ready to extend assistance to small-scale retailers who will be affected by the mandated rice price ceilings.

Belmonte said qualified retailers may avail of any of the city’s assistance programs for small business owners to enable them to remain operational.

“We learned that there are market stalls and stores that permanently closed shop because they cannot cope up with the rice price cap… The city government may waive rental fees or provide discounts to rice dealers, wholesalers, and retailers in the city to help alleviate any challenges they may face due to these price adjustments,” she said.

Also on Wednesday, economist Bernardo Villegas from the University of Asia and the Pacific said the government has not perfected the process by which it imports rice because it has yet to accept that the country can never be fully self-sufficient.

Speaking on ANC’s Market Edge, Villegas said the way the Philippines addresses its rice supply issues is a “result of decades of wrong rice policy.”

“Imports will always be necessary. But it’s very clear that we don’t know how to manage to import rice,” he noted.

He said the country could have accepted early on that it could never be 100 percent self-sufficient in rice as it lacks Thailand’s and Vietnam’s access to rivers.

“If 20 or 30 years ago, we, like Malaysia, had set our so-called sufficiency level at 70-80 percent and always imported the rest, we would have perfected both helping our small rice farmers improve their productivity and all the mechanics of importing,” he said.

He said that even with improvements in productivity, the Philippines “will never be able to reach the cost-effectiveness of Vietnam and Thailand.”

“And so we have to accept the fact that we will always be importing some amount of rice so that it will always be a two-edged sword approach,” he said.

Villegas said imposed price caps on rice must eventually be lifted.

“Price caps, in the long term, never work. Because they actually will cause an artificial shortage, and then eventually, the prices will go up again,” he said.

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