LOST IN PLAN­TA­TION

Mil­lions of grow­ers and work­ers are in dis­tress in Ker­ala, the plan­ta­tion cap­i­tal of In­dia, as do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional prices of cash crops crash. The cri­sis ex­poses the pe­cu­liar na­ture of Ker­ala's econ­omy. With two-thirds of its cul­ti­vated area ded­ica

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

I when al­most all other crops were N 2005, in se­vere cri­sis, driv­ing farm­ers to com­mit sui­cide in Ker­ala, rub­ber grow­ers in the state were count­ing prof­its. They were wit­ness­ing a price boom af­ter six years of dis­tress. The price of the most pre­ferred and traded va­ri­ety in In­dia called ribbed, smoked rub­ber sheet (rss-4 grade) jumped from ` 39 a kilo­gram in 2003 to

` 66 in 2005.The grow­ers did not ex­pect the price to stay high for long. How­ever, it not only stayed but started gal­lop­ing, touch­ing ` 240 in April 2011.It was an un­prece­dented peak in the his­tory of rub­ber.

“I had never thought I would be able to get such a high price for rub­ber in my life,” says 44-year-old Robin Au­gus­tine, a res­i­dent of Kadanad vil­lage in the Pala re­gion of Kot­tayam dis­trict. Kot­tayam and some of the neigh­bour­ing ar­eas in south­ern Ker­ala, known as Cen­tral Tra­van­core, con­sti­tute the most fer­tile rub­ber belt in the coun­try. Au­gus­tine’s fam­ily has been grow­ing rub­ber for three gen­er­a­tions. “Dur­ing the boom, I used to get a profit of ` 2-3 lakh a year,” says Au­gus­tine, who has two hectares (ha) of plan­ta­tion.

Busi­ness in the Kot­tayam mar­ket, the big­gest rub­ber trad­ing cen­tre in the coun­try, was thriv­ing. A spend­ing spree was ev­i­dent in Kot­tayam.New houses, luxury apart­ments, big shops, ho­tels and re­sorts mush­roomed. Costly cars hit the road. Chil­dren were sent to ex­pen­sive board­ing schools. Land trans­ac­tions went up even as land value sky­rock­eted.

Then came the crash. Since 2012 rub­ber prices started spi­ralling down­wards.On De­cem­ber 18,2014, the price of nat­u­ral rub­ber (rss-4 grade) in the Kot­tayam mar­ket was ` 113,a five-year low (see ‘Rise and fall of rub­ber rate’ on p34). The global price of rub­ber (rss-3 grade) at the Bangkok mar­ket stood at even lower, ` 95.

To­day, a cloud of un­cer­tainty en­velops Kot­tayam and other rub­ber-grow­ing ar­eas. A num­ber of deal­ers have shut shop. Many small units mak­ing rub­ber­based prod­ucts have closed down. “The cost of pro­duc­ing one kilo­gram of dry rub­ber comes to

` 150-160.It is not prof­itable to pro­duce rub­ber when price goes be­low this level,” says Binny Mathew, pres­i­dent of a rub­ber pro­duc­ers’ so­ci­ety in Kadanad, which has 300 small grow­ers as its mem­bers.

Small grow­ers and farm labour­ers, who con­sti­tute a large seg­ment of the state’s plan­ta­tion work­force, are the hard­est hit by the down­turn. Just like Au­gus­tine there are over one mil­lion rub­ber grow­ers in Ker­ala, the coun­try’s rub­ber cap­i­tal. Bar­ring about 320 large grow­ers with more than 10 ha of plan­ta­tions, all oth­ers are small cul­ti­va­tors with a land­hold­ing less than 0.55 ha, as per of­fi­cial data. Th­ese plan­ta­tions em­ploy about half a mil­lion skilled labour­ers for tap­ping the milky fluid, called la­tex, and pro­cess­ing it into rub­ber sheets.

Dur­ing the boom, the cost of ev­ery­thing from in­puts to labour­ers went up, says Mathew. Tap­pers, who ex­tract la­tex, were paid ` 26 for tap­ping 100 trees in 1999.Now they charge ` 150-200 in Kot­tayam.To tap a tree in mon­soon, rain guards are fixed on its bark to pre­vent wa­ter drops from fall­ing into the co­conut shell in which la­tex col­lects. This costs about ` 50 a tree. “I sent away all the four tap­pers I had for 25 years when rub­ber price fell be­low ` 150 in Jan­uary last year,” says Kurien Vergh­ese, a rub­ber pro­ducer with 6.8 ha in Thodupuzha in the high ranges of Idukki dis­trict.In many places rub­ber trees are left un­tapped. Nor is there any en­thu­si­asm for re­plant­ing aged plan­ta­tions whose pro­duc­tiv­ity has de­clined. Vergh­ese

Af­ter rub­ber price slumped in 2012, a cloud of un­cer­tainty has en­veloped Kot­tayam and other rub­ber-grow­ing ar­eas of Ker­ala. "For Sale" boards have ap­peared in front of some farms in the land-starved state

says he was wise enough to in­vest in other busi­nesses but a ma­jor­ity of rub­ber grow­ers in his vil­lage are mar­ginal farm­ers, who, he says, are in deep dis­tress.

While small grow­ers are in panic, big pro­duc­ers watch the price trend in anx­i­ety. “Rub­ber tree is a peren­nial crop with a re­pro­duc­tive pe­riod of 30 years,” points out Mathew Mathew K, physi­cian and planter at Kan­ji­rap­puzha in Palakkad dis­trict. “In­vest­ing in rub­ber is just like in­vest­ing in a 30-year busi­ness. If it is an an­nual crop you can switch over to some­thing else. But in the case of rub­ber it is not pos­si­ble,” he says. Small won­der, “For Sale” boards have ap­peared in front of some rub­ber farms in the land-starved state.

In­dia's sheet rub­ber is mostly pro­duced in the grow­ers' backyards

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