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Kerala natural rubber producers 'squeezed', attend to their plight: Govt of India told

By Rosamma Thomas  

Babu Joseph, general secretary of the National Federation of Rubber Producers Societies (NFRPS) at a recent discussion at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, explained that it is high time the Union government paid greater heed to the troubles plaguing the rubber production sector in India – rubber is a strategic product, important for the military establishment and for industry, since natural rubber is still used in the manufacture of tyres for large vehicles and aeroplanes.
Synthetic rubber is now quite widespread, but styrene, which is used in making synthetic rubber and plastics, and also butadiene, another major constituent of synthetic rubber, are both hazardous. Prolonged exposure to these even in recycled rubber can cause neurological damage. Kerala produces the bulk of India’s natural rubber. In 2019-20, Kerala’s share in the national production of rubber was over 74%. Over 20% of the gross cropped area in the state is under rubber cultivation, with total land area cultivation of rubber second only to coconut.
Since rubber is a cash crop that falls under the purview of the commerce ministry of the Union government, it is not regulated by the state agriculture department. In 1963, the Kerala Land Reforms Act of the EMS Namboodiripad government imposed a ceiling of 15 acres on the possession of agricultural land; plantations were exempted, because it was understood that involves not just more capital but also a high volume of labour, and was under the purview of the Union government.
Addressing an audience of mostly young students, Babu Joseph explained that tyre manufacturers have been making profits; these profits flow, in part, from squeezing the producers, who are relatively small farmers with little power for collective bargaining – also, more recent changes in the Rubber Board have made the producers weaker. Niti Aayog had earlier recommended that the Board be abolished, but was faced with stiff resistance as the livelihoods of nearly 13 lakh cultivators in the state are tied to the functioning of the Board.
Babu Joseph of NFRPS said the Rubber Board was constituted under the Rubber Act, 1947, for the overall development of the country’s rubber industry. In the years after independence, amendments were made to the act in favour of farmers.
However, the Rubber (Promotion and Development) Bill, 2022, was introduced to repeal the Rubber Act of 1947 and reorient the Rubber Board. The board’s composition would be changed, and farmers were to get less representation. Provisions of the Act that required the Union government to consult the Rubber Board ahead of issuing policy directives were also to be done away with. 
The Rubber Board has played a crucial advisory role since independence, and this role would have ceased to exist. The changes would make it possible for the Union government to control the industry. There would be Constitutional implications to bringing rubber estates under Central government control; the cap on rubber prices would benefit industry, while there was no provision in the proposed law for the government to buy rubber in case price fell.
Although this Bill has not passed, what Babu Joseph presented at Kottayam made clear that the Rubber Board has already been undermined, and that rubber growers now face a squeeze, with prices of their produce falling and not enough support from government – a rubber plant takes about seven years to mature so tapping can begin, and rubber plants can be tapped over about 35 years. In that period, it is not possible to grow other crops in the plantation, so long-term planning is necessary to support these growers.
The Rubber Board’s budget has seen steady decline, from Rs 208 crore in 2014 to Rs 146 crore in 2018-19. Wages have plunged, and changes introduced since the 2017 introduction of the Goods and Services Tax has meant that the Board can no longer collect cess. While in 2019, there were 1,649 staff members on the Rubber Board, by 2023, it reduced to 905.
Rubber imports are on the rise at a time when local producers are hit hard, unable to work at full capacity
The state government has in the past offered a subsidy for planting and other stages of the cultivation of rubber; even this support has shrunk in recent years. Field officers who earlier engaged with the planters have now been transferred in large numbers to the northeastern states, where too rubber has begun to be cultivated.
Productivity of plantations in Kerala has seen high growth, Babu Joseph said, from 200 kg per hectare at the time of independence to 1800 kg per hectare in recent years. Yet, rubber imports are on the rise, at a time when local producers are hit hard and unable to work at full capacity.
Climate change too has hit rubber producers – tapping is usually in the time when there are no rains; with unpredictable weather and longer spells of rain, the number of days when rubber can be tapped has shrunk. The trees also shed more leaves with the intensity of the rain, and the number of weeds too is higher. 
While rubber prices have declined, farmers spend more on pesticides and fertilizer than before. Rain guards, needed for the trees, are also more expensive. In such conditions, it is hard for the growers to offer regular work and security to the over four lakh workers engaged in this sector in the state.
The corporate social responsibility funds that many of the tyre companies are meant to set aside for social spending is spent instead on securing their own profits, often by starting their own plantations in the northeast, Babu Joseph said.
After the discussions were open to the audience, it was disappointing to note that the concerns of the audience were mostly about the need to get young people interested in rubber growing – one teacher of economics wondered if students would stop pursuing higher education abroad and opt for a course in rubber cultivation at a university in Kerala instead. 
That narrow professionalism is itself a problem was obvious – Babu Joseph of NFRPS said he was seeking an MBA graduate to help with work, but found that few young people showed any interest, given that the Rs 30,000 per month salary was not seen as attractive, and the job of chasing for permissions and licences etc. was something that such graduates are often not equipped to perform. 
Why, one might wonder, should a university offer a course in rubber production? Not too many of the planters currently engaged in the cultivation of this cash crop have educational qualifications in the sector. If indeed all jobs required such specialized training, what career options might a University scholar of philosophy, pure physics or literature be left with?

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