ADDICTED TO PLANTATIONS
Kerala's shift from seasonal food crops to cash crops is a recent phenomenon
Today, Kerala is the only state in India, and probably the only region in the world, which is so much dependent on cash crops that are vulnerable to the vagaries of the market, points out Tharian George, joint director of the Rubber Research Institute of India based in Kottayam. The state Agriculture Department’s data shows that eight perennial cash crops—rubber, cardamom, tea, coffee, pepper, coconut, areca nut and cashew nut—account for 65 per cent of the state’s cultivated area, while food crops, such as paddy, tapioca and minor millets, are confined to just 12 per cent. At any time, the price of any one or more of these cash crops could tumble, pushing growers into deep social and financial crises.
Growing cash crops is not new for Kerala, but it was never so dependent on them.
The state has historically been tied to trade and export.The region’s unique coastal geography shaped this aspect of its economy, while its topography and climate encouraged a diverse mix of crops.The spice trade from the west coast can be traced back to as early
as the 3rd millennium BC. By the late 1930s, the state was exporting coffee, rubber, tea, coir and coconut along with spices. At that time paddy dominated the state’s cultivated area. The present shift in the cropping pattern towards cash crops became evident only in the past four decades.
A major reason behind this shift was Central government policies introduced in the 1970s to promote cash crops. Rubber, being a commodity with strategic importance in defence, transport and health sectors enjoyed policy protection. Tea, cardamom and coffee were promoted as foreign exchange earners. Rubber Board, Tea Board, Coffee Board and Spices Board, which are under the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry, undertook promotional activities to expand area under the crops. Kerala was told that the Centre would look after its food needs if the state grew cash crops. Policies were introduced to protect the crops from competition in the international market.
Take the rubber sector, for example. After 1970, the responsibility of imports was entrusted to the State Trading Corporation, a Central government agency. Rubber was imported in tandem with the domestic supply-and-demand gap and import duty was set as high as 75 per cent. The sector was protected from price fluctuations through measures such as fixing maximum and minimum prices, notifying buffer stock and procuring rubber at remunerative prices whenever prices fell. Rubber Board offered an incentive of ` 19,500 per ha to growers. Homesteads with multi-crops and different types of trees changed into rubber plantations.