The central government is considering drastic reforms to deal with simmering rural problems, including giving the Ministry of Agriculture more power and disbanding township and village governments. State officials and government advisers said although the measures were still being reviewed, the political climate had never been more favourable for change. Key among the proposals is a renewed call to elevate the Ministry of Agriculture to the level of a commission. As the government plans to group ministries under several new national commissions, the establishment of a commission of agriculture would centralise the power and funding - now shared between state ministries - in one body responsible for rural issues. 'The Ministry of Agriculture has been proposing this for years so that it can have more funding,' a senior government adviser said. An official with the State Development and Planning Commission said: 'The Ministry of Agriculture has always wanted to expand its responsibilities.' There are also rising calls to completely overhaul the rural government bureaucracy to stop village and township cadres from imposing punishing taxes and fees on farmers to raise money for local government coffers. One proposal is to scrap township and village governments and replace them with branches or representative offices of higher-level governments. By doing so, township and village governments will lose the ability to set their own budgets and payroll. Rural experts hope such reform will ease the problem of nepotism in hiring - a practice often blamed as the main cause of bloated rural bureaucracy. Earlier reports said county, township and village governments employed 60 million officials, most of whose salaries were paid by farmers. Government advisers and officials said it was unlikely the central government would replace township governments with organisations elected by farmers, as had been suggested by mainland press reports. A senior rural researcher with a government think-tank said: 'The central government rejected the idea of expanding village elections to the township level even though some towns have conducted experiments. The state dislikes the idea.' Officials of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which is in charge of grassroots bureaucracy, said it had not heard of the proposals. Rural experts and officials agreed that although the need for rural reforms was urgent, progress would depend on the political will of state leaders to challenge the interests of various groups, such as the many rural cadres. New party secretary Hu Jintao, who is expected to become president in March, and Wen Jiabao, the designated successor of premier Zhu Rongji, have worked hard to show they will stand by disadvantaged groups and have made several visits to the remote countryside.