ONLY three days are left (Jan. 27, 28, 29) for the House of Representatives to pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill. This was already passed by the Senate last Dec. 17, 2012. Farmers earnestly implore the representatives to pass this bill next week. Otherwise, they will have to wait for three more years for the next Congress to do the job.
Information is power. The farmers constitute the largest sector of society. Unfortunately, they are also the poorest and most powerless. However, being poor does not necessarily mean being powerless. The potential balancing factor is information.
When farmers pursue their legitimate demands, they are disadvantaged by their poverty and lack of resources. In addition, the information they need to secure justice is often withheld by certain government authorities. These officials consciously or unconsciously connive with powerful interests who exploit the farmers.
Below are examples of how access to information through an FOI law will significantly benefit the farmers.
“For the 2013 P44-billion Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Program, many farmers and fisherfolk are deprived of CCT benefits because information about them is needed. With the FOI law, they will know exactly what information is lacking. They can then proactively provide this information so they can get the benefits they deserve.
“For the P22-billion irrigation budget this year, the farmers can get detailed information on project implementation and fund releases. In addition, they can find out where the discrepancies and shortfalls happened in the past, so that these can be corrected through proper budget use. This is especially important because the Dec. 11, 2011 Commission on Audit report stated that P80 billion in completed and P61 billion in uncompleted irrigation projects had unsatisfactory findings.
“For this second to the last year of the agrarian reform program, farmers can finally get accurate information on what their individual status is. They can also look for details on support services promised to them. Providing land without the necessary support services often worsens, rather than improves, the farmers’ plight.”
In so many instances, when the farmers ask for needed information to pursue their legitimate demands, they are often unceremoniously dismissed by arrogant government officials. Thus, the farmers are rendered powerless, and their poverty continues to worsen.
Ramon Magsaysay once said: “Those who have less in life should have more in law.” Similarly, those who have less in life should have more in information. This is because information empowers the farmers to pursue their legitimate demands and obtain justice. Though assistance is good, justice is better. What is keeping the farmers impoverished is not so much the lack of assistance but the lack of justice.
In a previous Congress, the House of Representatives passed the anti-smuggling bill. But the Senate did not. Consequently, smuggling still flourishes today. In this Congress, the Senate has passed the FOI bill. But the House has not. If the House does not take any action next week, the farmers will be denied their right to information and empowerment. Injustice in many areas will therefore continue to prevail.
The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition co-convened by Nepomuceno Malaluan (0918-9271501, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), which the Alyansa Agrikultura strongly supports, has shown that there is no major difference between Senate and House of Representatives versions of the FOI bill. It is therefore quite doable for the House to exercise its political will and pass this bill next week.
In the next three days, the representatives can leave a lasting legacy that may take another three years for the next Congress to approve. This is a policy that they themselves skillfully crafted in House Committee Report HB 6766: “The state recognizes the right of the people to information on matters of public concern, and adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest. This right is indispensable to the exercise of the right of the people and their organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political and economic decision making.”
The farmers are thankful that the Senate passed the FOI bill last Dec. 17. Will the House of Representatives do the same next week? Or will the farmers be subjected to lack of information, lack of empowerment, and lack of justice for the next three years?
(The author is chair of Agriwatch, former Secretary for Presidential Flagship Programs and Projects, and former Undersecretary for Agriculture, Trade and Industry. For inquiries and suggestions, e-mail email@example.com or telefax (02) 8522112).