MANILA,  April 15, 2008 (MANILA) A neophyte member of the House of Representatives filed a resolution yesterday urging his colleagues to grant President Arroyo “emergency powers” to immediately and effectively address the rice problem.

La Union Rep. Thomas Dumpit Jr. filed House Resolution 512, which called for emergency powers but with a “restrictive scope,” noting that there is a “compelling need to treat the rice problem as a calamity.”

Malacañang declined the suggestion, saying “such grant (of emergency powers to the President) is hardly necessary.”

The Palace also gave assurance yesterday that food riots in the country are unlikely despite rising prices of food commodities, particularly rice.

“The urgency of the situation compels drastic measures on the part of the government in order to address pressing needs on the rice crisis,” Dumpit said in his resolution.

“This measure is aimed to mitigate, if not eliminate, the colossal effects of the crisis,” he said.

According to the administration lawmaker, the rice crisis “is no ordinary crisis since rice is a basic staple for the Filipino family.

“Hence, the large escalation of the staple’s prices may cause a social and political uprising,” Dumpit said.

But Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said while lawmakers may have been well-meaning in filing a resolution to give Mrs. Arroyo emergency powers, “such a grant is hardly necessary in dealing with this logistical problem.”

“Rice is starting to come in. The Philippines is much better positioned than countries where problems have been reported,” Bunye said.

He said the implementation of a better distribution network with the support of religious groups and local government executives will “considerably ease the situation.”

“We assure the people that with or without emergency powers, the President is on top of the situation,” Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said.

Deputy Presidential Spokesman Anthony Golez said the threat of food riots in the country “has been the reason why President Arroyo has been ‘laser focused’ with her work from the very beginning, in order to prevent any unrest from happening.”

He added that “the government has been spending billions of pesos to make sure that food is brought to our tables.”

Farfetched possibility

Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Gilberto Teodoro agreed with Malacañang that the prevailing rice problem will not lead to street riots.

Teodoro and Philippine National Police chief Avelino Razon also said the current rice problem will not lead to the declaration of a state of emergency by President Arroyo.

“The security situation is basically very stable. We don’t see any immediate threats to national security whether caused by this rice crisis or otherwise,” Teodoro said.

He said rice shortage has become a global problem and that even rice-producing Thailand is experiencing some shortage.

Teodoro likewise cautioned groups out to destabilize the government through the rice crisis that this would be counterproductive.

Instead, the rice crisis had opened an opportunity for peace-loving Filipinos to unite and address this concern, Teodoro said.

He added that the military and police are doing their share by ensuring that rice delivery trucks coming from the National Food Authority (NFA) reach the intended market.

Speaker Prospero Nograles also assured yesterday that the Philippines will not suffer the same fate as Haiti even in the face of a global food crisis.

“This is a good sign that we can unite behind a single cause. With our unity and our people’s resiliency, I’m optimistic that we will not be the next Haiti. We have done this many times before, there’s no reason we won’t do it again,” he said.

Nograles lauded the “voluntary” decision of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to help facilitate the distribution of NFA rice to poor communities.

“A rice riot is an alien concept that cannot be imported here. Filipinos are mature enough to know that you can’t cook rice by burning the rice warehouse down,” added Palawan Rep. Abraham Mitra, chairman of the House agriculture committee.

The International Monetary Fund had warned that rising food prices could have terrible consequences for the world, including the risk of war.

Mitra said that food riots are a “farfetched possibility” based on a briefing given by Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap to his committee, that the country has rice stocks good for two months, which will be further boosted by the coming harvest and imports that have yet to be delivered.

For his part, An Waray Rep. Florencio “Bem” Noel said this is the time for Filipinos, particularly government officials, to work together to address the rice crisis.

Sorsogon Rep. Salvador Escudero III, father of opposition Sen. Francis Escudero, also advised opposition stalwarts against injecting politics into the rice problem, warning that “wild and unfair speculations” could make the situation worse.

“I have said from the very beginning that rice should not be involved in politics. We should insulate the food situation as a whole from politics,” said Escudero, who served as agriculture secretary of former Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Fidel Ramos.

Malacañang said the country must unite to face the challenge head on and take away the threat of unrest caused by food supply and prices.

“The challenge is how we as a people can unite to fight the threat of a food war. We must work as one nation,” Fajardo said.

“The government and the people and even the opposition must work together in ensuring our nation’s food security,” she added.

More rolling stores

The Department of Agriculture and the NFA are deploying more rolling stores and have started distributing rice this week to the poor with the help of local government units, the Department of Social Welfare and Development and community and religious organizations.

Around 625,000 poor families are targeted in the distribution program.

Mayors Feliciano Belmonte of Quezon City, Benhur Abalos of Mandaluyong City and Recom Echeverri of Caloocan City are supporting the project.

Belmonte and Echeverri are the president and vice president of the Metro Manila Mayors’ League, while Abalos heads the League of Cities of the Philippines.

The distribution project was launched in Manila last Sunday with the opening in Tayuman and Tondo of two LGU-run distribution centers for rice sold by the NFA at P18.25 a kilo.

Yap said the DA has sought the assistance of LGUs and faith-based communities as part of the “aggressive procurement and distribution strategy of the government to stabilize retail prices of the staple.”

Alongside the sale of NFA-subsidized rice, Yap also announced the deployment of more rolling stores in depressed communities to expand the access of low-income consumers to other basic goods that the NFA is selling at cheaper prices.

Feeding program expanded

The government intends to expand its school soup kitchen program as soaring food prices have put pressure on millions of parents to cut costs by pulling their children out of classes.

Students in an additional 600 school districts will benefit from the P5.3-billion “Food-for-School Program,” which last year helped feed 2.7 million children, Education Secretary Jesli Lapus said.

Under the initiative, students in kindergarten and first grade receive a kilo of iron-fortified rice to take home to their families on 120 days of each school year.

“The results of our school feeding program are encouraging and if this continues, we hope to further reduce the number of students dropping out from school because of poor health and nutrition,” he added. – With Paolo Romero, Marvin Sy, Marianne Go, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Jaime Laude, Delon Porcalla, Jess Diaz, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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