Shorn off their green canopy, the rubber trees stand as mute testimony to the heavy showers received during the first three months of the current south-west monsoon season from June. In Kerala’s main rubber belt, the rains — which were heavier than in most other parts of the state — have reduced vast swathes of plantations into gardens of trees with long trunks and naked twigs that resemble deer’s antlers.
The trees, mainly grown in the midlands of central Kerala covering Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts, have physically weathered the worst floods that the state has seen in nearly a century. According to the state agriculture department, out of the 56,439 hectares of crop area across Kerala to have suffered devastation, only 702 hectares is accounted for by rubber.
However, the abnormal leaf fall from trees due to unabated rains through June-August, coupled with the sudden rise in temperatures this month, is threatening to impact rubber production via lower latex yields. “It (leaf fall) takes place normally when you have continuous rains for 45 days or so. But this time, we started getting heavy showers in May, even before the monsoon’s onset. Most plantations have, therefore, been denuded of green cover, which is bound to show up in lower yields and production,” stated a senior Rubber Board official. He placed the likely loss in rubber output for 2018-19 at one lakh tonnes (lt).
Last year, Kerala produced 6.14 lt of natural rubber, out of India’s total 6.94 lt. The state’s output had plunged from a peak of 8 lt in 2012-13 to 4.39 lt in 2015-16, before recovering somewhat over the subsequent two years. “We were, prior to the floods, anticipating a slight increase this year too. Instead, we now seem headed for a one lt decline,” added the official.
But why should there be production loss from leaf fall?
“For any crop, yields are a function of photosynthesis — the process through which the plant uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates. Photosynthesis takes place in the leaves, without which there will be no carbohydrates. In the case of rubber, the carbohydrates synthesised in the leaves travel down to the tree bark, where they get stored in special cells. The conversion into latex (the milky sap, which is extracted from the bark and coagulates into rubber) also happens in these cells,” explained James Jacob, director of the Rubber Research Institute of India at Puthuppally, near Kottayam town.
Farmers harvest the latex by creating a groove in the bark, using a specially designed knife. Such collection, also called tapping, is done every alternate day. The number of tapping days in a year ranges from 120 to 150, with September to December being the peak season.
This year’s production is expected to take a hit, both from abnormal leaf fall as well as loss of tapping days. “That number may not cross 100 in 2018-19. Growers usually tap even during the monsoon season by putting rain guards (polythene shades) over the bark’s slit (from where the latex flows out) and the cup (in which it collects). But this time, the continuous showers from June to August did not allow tapping even with the help of rain guards”, the earlier-quoted Rubber Board official told The Indian Express.
Babu Joseph, secretary of the Rubber Producers’ Society at Pallikkathodu, a village in Kottayam taluk, estimated Kerala’s production in 2018-19 to drop to below 5 lt. “Farmers have lost at least 40 tapping days in the last three months. And with the rains washing away the tree leaves, plus the rise in temperatures now, yields will definitely be low during the peak tapping season as well,” he pointed out.
September is a time when rubber farmers apply large doses of fertiliser in order to boost latex yields. “But if the trees have no leaves in the first place, why would I want to invest money in nutrients and manure?,” noted Shajimon Jose, a three-acre grower from Chirakkadavu village in Kottayam district’s Kanjirappally taluk.
Kerala has about 12 lakh rubber growers, most of them having trees on less than an acre. Their heydays were during 2011-12 and 2012-13, when not only did production in the state touch 8 lt, but even prices averaged between Rs 175 and 210 per kg. Prices collapsed after that, to an average of Rs 113.06 per kg in 2015-16. It made tapping unviable, leading, in turn, to production almost halving to 4.39 lt (see table). The gross income of Kerala’s growers, which amounted to Rs 16,622 crore in 2011-12 and Rs 14,146 crore in 2012-13, crashed to Rs 4,959 crore in 2015-16.
In the process, the country’s natural rubber imports also went up from a mere 77,762 tonnes in 2008-09 to 4.70 lt in 2017-18. While domestic production has shown a mild rebound since 2016-17 — the Rubber Board’s initial projection was 7 lt-plus for the this fiscal — the floods have, however, made a further jump in imports seem inevitable.
The cost of it is being borne by Kerala’s growers, who generally plant 120-130 trees per acre. Josekutty Thomas, however, has only 160 tappable trees on his two-acre land at Chirakkadavu. The remaining 90-odd trees have perished or stopped yielding latex. “Last year, I was getting 7 kg of sheet every alternate day, which was worth Rs 800-900 at the prevailing rates. This year, my production will be much less and the prices, too, may not be significantly better,” said this farmer, who is also rearing a milking cow to make his family’s ends meet.
The Rubber Board official confirmed that the stagnant trend in prices had already brought down the area under “new plants” (rubber cultivation being taken up in land that previously grew some other crop) from 8,000 hectares in 2016-17 to 4,000 hectares last year. There was a similar fall, from 10,000 hectares to 7,500 hectares, in the area that was “replanted” (cutting down old trees and planting the same area with new rubber saplings).
“Many of us have been diverting rubber land to grow fodder for cows or for cultivation of vegetables and fruits such as rambutan. This year’s poor yields and low prices will further accelerate the shift from rubber,” predicted M J Jacob, a grower from Thodupuzha in Idukki district.
That diminishing interest would be shared by many like him.