Natural rubber (NR) price has been looking up a tad, with the price of the benchmark RSS-4 grade touching Rs 132 per kg on Thursday. This is after a long slump that has been sending rubber farmers to greener pastures.
After the collapse of RSS-4 price to Rs 94 per kg on January 30, 2016, following a boom that lasted eight years, the confidence of 12 lakh odd rubber farmers had shattered to the level of losing all credibility in plantation business. As many as 85% of the rubber farmers have only small-holdings, making the price-blow all the more crushing.
“One reason for the improvement in domestic price is that the international price has been making a decided recovery. Since it is unprofitable for the consuming industry to import natural rubber, the domestic demand has improved,” says Siby Monipally, general secretary, Indian Rubber Growers’ Association (IRGA). As the tyre manufacturers, who account for 60% of the market of natural rubber, got back to Kochi and Kottayam bourses, the domestic price had made a marked surge.
India is the sixth largest producer after Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Malaysia. Kerala alone accounts for 80% of the India’s rubber, followed by Tripura. Farmers in Kerala feel that the rubber price recovery is temporary and probably in tune with the ups and downs in petro-prices.
Anyone travelling through the rubber plantations of Kottayam, during the early months of 2016, cannot but encounter dismaying sights of lorries gathering the logs of felled rubber trees away as rubberwood for furniture.
Untended plantations leave the air of deserted ghost-towns. The once-prosperous spin-offs of rubber-economy like the string of salesrooms of swanky cars in and around Kottayam, Idukky, Pattanamthitta and Kochi have vanished.
N Dharmaraj, president, UPASI (United Planters Association of South India) strikes the alarm bells, highlighting that the total tapping area in rubber has fallen to as low as 56% of its earlier self. While a good farmers many have migrated to banana, pineapple or nutmeg cultivations, there are some who face agro-climatic and topographical barriers to the crop shift.
Kerala Government had offered a subsidy scheme that guarantees a minimum price of R150 per kg for NR sheets procured from the local market. But the scheme was not sufficiently attractive as it covers only two acres of rubber-land per farmer.
Even as Rubber Board spokesmen try to enthuse farmers of future prospects, quoting ANRPC (Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries) forecasts that NR market will bounceback to its boom-era by 2010, the business buzz has refused to return to the plantations in Kerala. There are even farmers, forced to give out their lands to real estate groups, catering to the ever-increasing demand in residential property business.