Tue, 21 Nov 2000

Villagers ponder whereabouts of missing rice

BANDUNG (JP): While the reform movement may have provided the momentum for the introduction of a more transparent governmental system with an open atmosphere, nevertheless vestiges of the old corrupt, collusive and nepotistic practices still prevail.

Desperate times breed desperate officials and recent cases in the West Java area continue to reveal flagrant abuses of power at the expense of tens of thousands of people.

When the economic crisis began to hit the country three years ago, the government launched a program to supply cheap rice to poor families in order to protect them against the soaring price of the staple.

Channeled through the respective Provincial Logistics Agencies (Dolog), each family could buy 20 kilograms of rice per month at the heavily discounted price of Rp 1,000 per kilogram.

The program was then augmented to include a Social Safety Net (JPS) scheme launched by the National Development Planning Board (Bapenas).

But since November of last year, the residents of several villages, including Sumbersari in Ciparay subdistrict, Bandung regency, have no longer been receiving the rice from Dolog.

"Residents here keep questioning why we don't sell cheap rice anymore," village head Ruchiyat Zamzam told The Jakarta Post.

The residents, Ruchiyat said, badly need the rice as most earn only a little money as farmers.

Ruchiyat proceeded to investigate the matter.

He was shocked to discover that, according to Dolog, the rice supplies had been canceled as Sumbersari was already Rp 5 million ($556) in debt to the agency for the purchase of the rice.

He was left speechless as he had been regularly depositing the money every month.

An almost identical situation arose in three other villages -- Gunung Leutik, Pakutandang and Mekarsari -- in the same subdistrict.

The total debt owed by the four villages to Dolog amounted to more than Rp 60 million.

"We had to terminate the (rice) supply as the villages haven't paid the money whereas we need it to buy more supplies," said West Java Dolog spokesperson Gugun G. Gaos.

Attention then began to focus on an official of Ciparay subdistrict named Aep Saepudin as some 4,000 families in the villages concerned had pooled their money and given it to him.

Aep had taken the "initiative" of offering to collect the money and transfer it to a Dolog account at a local bank.

"We thought it would make our job easier. We also trusted him because he was such a religious person," Ruchiyat said, adding that Aep apparently used the funds to build a house.

When Ruchiyat and the other village heads found out, they demanded that Aep return the money.

Ashamed and with nowhere to run, on Dec. 5, 1999 Aep hung himself in his parents' kitchen in Cianjur, leaving the case unresolved.

Aep's family claim they have no money to return to the villagers while Dolog insists that it cannot distribute the rice until the debt has been fully paid off.

As a result, thousands remain excluded from the cheap rice scheme.

A similar case was also reported in Pandeglang where a village chief admitted to using the collected funds to buy a new car.

In Cilawu subdistrict, Garut, the money was used by the village chief to hold a wedding party for his daughter.

Another village chief in Garut admitted that he had spent the money on supporting his second wife.

A slightly different modus was used by a South Cianjur village chief who did not collect money at all from villagers, but instead took the rice from Dolog and distributed it for free during an election campaign in order to get reelected.

Oddly, none of these officials have been prosecuted.

The total arrears owed to Dolog in the province as of October stood at more than Rp 15 billion ($1.7 million) with the highest level of debt, amounting to some Rp 1.8 billion ($200,000), being found in Bandung regency.

Ironically, 99 percent of the arrears were due to corruption, and not because the residents were unable or refused to pay.

Since April of this year, Dolog has reduced its supply to only 10 kilograms per family and payment in advance is required.

"That's all we can do, as we can't press charges against the corrupt officials because we don't have the authority to," Gugun said.

"We've asked governors to ask regencies to pay their debts, but there has been no response," he said.

The newly installed head of Ciparay subdistrict recently asked Dolog to erase the debt because Aep was dead, so that the residents can receive their rice again.

But Dolog insists that the problem is not that simple as the Rp 60 million debt is not the government's money but turnover money used to buy rice.

Until then, the residents' wish to get cheap rice to feed their families will remain but a wish.(25/hdn)