By Manny Piñol

Before I left for a quick trip to the US early this week, I ordered a total overhaul of a division in the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) which is handling one of the most important projects in agriculture, the Farm-to-Market-Road Development Program Division.

The FMRDP which gets a funding of about P6-B every year has been placed under the Office of the Secretary and all the staff members who have been handling the program for decades now have been replaced with new faces.

Starting this year, nothing will be undertaken in this division without my knowledge and approval and I will take responsibility for everything that will be undertaken by the FMRDP.

My decision to place the FMRDP under my office and replace all of the previous staff members was prompted by my appreciation that the program has been politicized, rife with corruption and is being implemented without a national road map.

Last week, during the In-house Budget Hearing by the Department, I asked the former staff of the program if the FMRDP has an inventory of how many kilometers of roads have been constructed over the decades when government poured hundreds of billions of pesos.

Here are some of the questions I raised:

1. How much has been spent for the FMR program?
2. How many kilometers have been constructed and completed?
3. Where are these roads and is there an inventory of the roads and a continuing assessment of the current state and condition of the roads?
4. How many more kilometers of FMR do we need to construct to give our farmers and fishermen easy access to the market?
5. Is there a national road map which identifies the location of the roads which need to be constructed?
6. Is there a follow through program which would closely monitor the status of the roads after these are constructed and undertake repairs when there is damage?

I was not satisfied with the answers I received and that was when I decided that enough is enough with this program which at times is derisively referred to as the Farm-to-My-Pocket Road Program or Road-to-My-Farm Program.

Last week, I asked House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez if it would be acceptable to him and the Congressional leaders that instead of the Congressmen identifying the proposed road projects, it would now be the DAF which will identify at least three road projects in a Congressional District based on their connectivity to the market and let the Congressman choose his priority.

Under the current system, the Congressmen submit a list of road projects in their district which, more often than not, does not really connect production areas to the market but are intended to yield to the requests of their local political leaders.

What has been happening is that with an estimated budget of P25-M per Congressional District, Congressmen would ask for a 200-meter road project in one area, another 500-meters in another area or whereever he likes the project to be implemented.

The practice has resulted in a messy program where farm-to-market roads are constructed not really to support food production but for political consideration.

Speaker Alvarez agreed with my proposal. So, for the 2018 Budget, the DAF, instead of the Congressmen, will identify the priority road projects.

The Congressmen will be asked to confirm which of the road projects he will consider as his priority so that with the P25-M allocation for each Congressional District, there would be at least 2.5-kilometers of road from the farm to the market completed every year.

Another questionable set-up which I would like to be corrected is the delegation of the responsibility to construct the FMRs to the Dept. of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), instead of the DAF itself as in the case of the World Bank-funded Philippine Rural Development Program.

There will be other reforms that I will implement in relation to the FMR program, including addressing the problem with scammers and syndicates who claim that they have the influence and power to have FMR funds released.

They ask for money from Mayors and Governors showing fake documents purportedly indicating that there are funds which could be released to their towns for FMRs because they know me or people in my Department.

This is a scam.

If this happened during the previous administration, I promise the Filipino people that this will never happen under my watch and under President Rody Duterte.

Over my dead body!

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