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SRA under scrutiny over SIDA

BY GILBERT P. BAYORAN

Rep. Jose Francisco Benitez (center) presides over the House Committee on Agriculture Technical Working Group blended meeting on SIDA amendments, with Bacolod Rep. Greg Gasataya and House minority leader Stephen Paduano in Talisay City yesterday* GPB photo

The Sugar Regulatory Administration is now under scrutiny by the House of Representatives for the alleged slow implementation of the Sugar Industry Development Act programs, causing adverse effects on the sugar industry, small farmers and workers.

While the 15th Congress passed RA 10659, or the SIDA, to increase production efficiency in sugarcane farms and sugar mills through research and technological innovation, infrastructure, and human resource development, Rep. Jose Francisco Benitez however said that the implementation of programs, except the hard infrastructure, has been slow  and with limited impact.

With this development, Benitez, who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture Technical Working Group, presided over a blended meeting yesterday with other solons, sugar industry stakeholders, and SRA officials, to devise solutions to make local sugar production sustainable, efficient, competitive and profitable, and to promote the welfare of small-scale sugarcane farmers and farm workers.

P2 BILLION FUND

Benitez said they will look into many factors in play, primarily the slow implementation of SIDA programs, including its funding, as he noted that the budget allocated for SRA is P712.26 million for this year, which only covers the construction of farm-to-mill roads, although SIDA mandates an annual appropriation of P2 billion.

Under the TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) law, SIDA programs are supposed to benefit from the collection of excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, he said. But despite collecting billions in taxes from sugar-sweetened beverages, Benitez said “zero” has been allocated for SIDA programs.

POOR LEADERSHIP

The TWG will look into how to improve the SRA performance, and the bottlenecks in the implementation of programs, Benitez said.

“It is lack of personnel or it is poor leadership?” Benitez, who is the younger brother of former Rep. Alfredo Benitez, who authored the SIDA law, asked.

The TWG also yesterday discussed several solutions to the problems, including House Bill 997 that seeks to increase the mandatory appropriation of SIDA programs from P2 billion to P5 billion, granting greater powers to SRA to regulate sugar importation, and prescribes SIDA funds be allocated proportionally to milling districts, in terms of productivity, and the call to SRA to shape up and scale-up its interventions to fulfill its mandates.

Benitez said they are not pointing fingers and blaming anyone, but are finding solutions to the problems of sugar industry.

“At a time when the sugar industry is threatened by liberalization, at a time when our economy is being radically transformed by pandemics and climate change, we must work together to save the industry that has become an integral part of our culture,” he added.

The solon was joined by House minority leader and Abang Lingkod Rep. Stephen Paduano, Bacolod Rep. Greg Gasataya, and former Rep. Mercedes Alvarez, who represented her father, Rep. Genaro Alvarez Jr. (Neg. Occ., 6th District) during the blended meeting in Talisay City.

Sugar Regulatory Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica presented the SRA accomplishments in the four-year implementation of SIDA programs during the zoom meeting, and said they welcomed the legislative inquiry.

Serafica also lauded the proposal of Rep. Manuel Sagarbarria (Neg. Or., 2nd District) to strengthen the regulatory powers of SRA to regulate the entry of imported sugar and its substitutes to avoid flooding the domestic market, and of Rep. Michael Romero’s proposal to strengthen the sugarcane industry and increase its annual supplemental budget.

In four years of the SIDA implementation, Serafica said they were able to complete 155.572 kilometers of farm to mill roads in 137 sites, 57 meters of bridge projects, while the construction of 21 kilometers of farm to mill roads in 31 sites is still ongoing.

A total of P2.69 billion has been allocated for SIDA infrastructure programs, from 2016 to 2020, with budget utilization ranging from 92 percent to 17 percent, as of 2019, based on the March 2020 report of the Department of Public Works and Highways, Serafica said.

In the implementation of the block farm program, he said 5,688 farmers were benefitted and provided with tractors, cane loaders, cane cutters, implements, and irrigation equipment.

Under the socialized credit program, there were 2,517 beneficiaries, who availed of P484.91 million in loans, while P169.283 million in loan applications of 329 beneficiaries are still being processed by the Land Bank of the Philippines, he added. The lack of personnel, delayed procurement, incomplete documentary requirements, and delays on memorandum of agreement preparations were among the challenges they had encountered in the implementation of SIDA programs, which they are addressing, he added.*

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