Negros irrigators’ federation official slams condonation of back accounts

Erwin P. Nicavera

THE top official of the Negros Island Region (NIR) Confederation of Irrigators’ Association (Nircia) expressed dismay over the move to condone the back accounts of farmers with the implementation of free irrigation services.

Nircia president Rosemary Caunca, who also heads of the League of Government-Assisted Federation of Irrigators’ Associations in Negros Occidental, on Wednesday, June 14, said relieving farmers of their unpaid irrigation service fees is a “sad and negative” development.

“It is unfair to our members, especially small farmers, who have diligently paid their obligations while a tolerance of the erring ones,” Caunca said, adding that most farmer-members who have back accounts are actually those who have the capacity to pay.

Earlier, members of the House of Representatives unanimously approved on third and final reading the bill seeking to provide free irrigation services to farmers.

House Bill 5670, which will become the Free Irrigation Act, seeks to strengthen assistance to farmers, agrarian reform beneficiaries, and members of the indigenous cultural communities by providing them free irrigation services.

It is one of the National Government’s measures to boost agricultural productivity and improve the farmers’ access to markets.

Under the bill, the government shall promote and institutionalize irrigation systems that are free, effective, suitable, applicable and efficient as a key strategy to achieve genuine agricultural development.

Aside from granting full subsidy on irrigation fees, the bill also provides condonation of all unpaid irrigation service fees as well as corresponding penalties.

National Irrigation Association (NIA)-NIR records showed that currently about P230 million in unpaid service fees are accounted for farmers in the region. The figure is part of at least P13 billion back accounts nationwide.

Engineer Mario Sande, regional director of NIA-NIR, had earlier said that even before the implementation of free irrigation in January this year, farmer-members of various irrigators' associations have already stopped paying service fees.

“There were no payments made even prior to the approval of the bill repealing the collection of back accounts,” Sande said, adding that those with unpaid fees have also been availing of free irrigation services.

Under the free irrigation program, an additional allocation of P2.3 billion in the budget of NIA has been allotted for the salaries of its workers previously sourced from the fees of farmers for irrigation services.

During the Senate hearing in March, Caunca said they already expressed their opposition to the proposed condonation of back accounts on irrigation service fees.

She pointed out that in Negros, for instance, the P230 million unpaid fees could be translated to projects that will improve the delivery of irrigation services.

“We hope that the Senate would consider our stand. But if not, whatever the law says, we can do nothing but to follow,” Caunca said.

On top of the incentives to be provided by the NIA under the free irrigation program, Caunca said the IAs will still collect membership fees.

These fees will augment their operational and maintenance services, including canal clean-up, which are part of the associations’ obligations to the agency.

“We will do our best to help maintain a smooth implementation of the free irrigation program, particularly making sure that small farmer-members will really benefit from the program,” she added.