Ker­ala's shift from sea­sonal food crops to cash crops is a re­cent phe­nom­e­non

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

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.

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