A seat at a vantage point aboard a descending aircraft under a resplendent sun or an unhurried glide over the blue lagoons on the ubiquitous houseboat is sufficient to bring home to the uninitiated why the south western State of ‘Keralam' (translating into ‘land of coconut trees') answers so fittingly to the dynamics associated with this nomenclature in Malayalam, and, importantly, not lend itself to being called by any other whatsoever.

So there!

As you touch down or cosy up to the shore, the golden palm topped with its brimming fullness grows on you even as the trunk sways to the prevailing low-level breeze along with the heavily endowed top giving the nod - with lag of a tad, though. Till not until sometime ago, had the coconut tree and its varied products - notably coconut oil, coir, copra, coconut shell charcoal, to name a few - provided the very trunk of the plantation economy of the State, a predominantly agrarian-oriented one.

GOD'S OWN PANTRY

The coconut tree-lined rivers, lakes and backwaters associated with the image of ‘God's Own Country' has a top-of-the-mind recall even internationally across, something put across beautifully and creatively in the latest award-winning documentary on the State titled, ‘Your moment is waiting,' by Kerala Tourism.

This is as far as it could likely get, as coconut farmers would vouch. Not any more, they aver. For, not only is the coconut tree now being shaken root, trunk and top by head winds that roar ‘adapt or perish' but also getting rendered asunder by cross winds triggered by patently unfavourable market conditions whipped up by rival edible oil lobbies and other vested interests.

So much so, the coconut farmer would like to think that the State has been reduced to being a ‘God's Own Pantry,' with dirty linen being washed day in and day out by those who are arraigned against the marketing of numerous earthly but worthy products of everyday use from this wholesome tree - not to mention the multi-national lobbies who have cooked up a ‘lifestyle hazard' campaign from use of coconut oil, the staple of the average Keralite for as far on can recall, based on what the humble farmer believes are as yet unfounded facts.

TURNING CORNER

This state of affairs enrages and unsettles the sprightly septuagenarian and articulate Mr M. Sukumara Pillai, Chairman of the coconut farmers' cooperative, Kerala Kerkarashaka Sahakarana Federation, or Kerafed.

The federation may have managed to turn the corner under his command and with assistance from the able and suave Managing Director, Dr K. Prathapan, and could be making a dividend payout to the Government for the first time since its inception.

But this required lot of creative thinking, single-minded effort and a lot of hard work mainly focused on the marketing front during the past four years since the duo was put in command.

The going was far from being easy given the baggage of Rs 70 crore in accumulated losses left behind by predecessor managements, Mr Pillai and Dr Prathapan told Business Line.

The federation seems to have lost direction right from 1987 when an ambitious financial and technical tie-up was announced with the European Union. Inept management at the helm ensured that the tie-up goes to waste and attempts at reviving the cultivation, diversification and commercialisation of various products draw an inevitable blank. These efforts ended up at best as a ritualistic academic exercise, lacking any sense of purpose or practical approach, Mr Pillai recalled.

ECONOMY ‘FELLED'

Dwelling on a couple of factors that ‘felled' the coconut-led plantation economy of the State, he said a major issue was that the palm was not allowed to shift roots from being a purely homestead tree to the status of a cluster-based farm crop that would have given it the badly needed collective ownership, concomitant attention and assumed responsibility from a community. Coconut trees have continued to grow as ‘individuals' on small holdings that dot the landscape, denying themselves the collective bargaining power and social appeal that would have accrued from a cluster or group-based farming.

Mr Pillai also faulted the land-use pattern in the State that was at variance with the avowed principles of food security.

Large tracts of land have either been usurped by the so-called mafia for nefarious purposes or been reclaimed by the builders or the construction lobby.

The practice of putting land to fallow cannot be condoned any more.

The 11th Finance Commission has observed that only 40 per cent of cultivable land in the country is used for productive purposes with the rest being left to fallow.

The State of Kerala is no exception to this rule, and this cannot go for ever. Land reforms should be initiated in a result-oriented fashion in order that traditional crops get the required boost and revive, with cascading impact on rural livelihood in a State whose narrow strip of land along the coast has hardly any spare space to house factories or industrial units.

ADAPTING ‘INSTANTLY'

Tuning in to the changed times and market dynamics is the only way out for Kerafed, Mr Pillai and Dr Prathapan say, a fact brought to bear in no small measure by successful culmination of their drive for ‘adapting.'

This was reflected in the rise in turnover from Rs 29 crore to Rs 111 crore and end of the loss-making streak (Rs 70 crore in accumulated losses) to turn the corner with a profit of an expected Rs 11 crore by the end of this financial year.

The federation had also been granted a one-time reprieve by the State Government that proceeded to write-off Rs 38.50 crore of its outstanding debt as a goodwill gesture, Mr Pillai said.

As for the future, ‘instant' is the way to go for Kerafed, Mr Pillai said, in reference to the flooding of market by instant or convenience food and food ingredients as a result of the growing ‘automation' of kitchen leaving womenfolk to pursue their due share of limelight in the world outside.

The demand for instant food and preparations would only grow, and the time has come for Kerafed to find its own niche for its purely natural items and ingredients in the crowded market shelves teeming with what Mr Pillai called ‘synthetic' and often carcinogenic packs churned out by domestic and multinational giants out to make a fast buck.

Kerafed would position itself as the preferred supplier to the kitchen with its natural offerings with obvious implications for health as against the ‘synthetic' solutions thrown up by the dog-eat-dog competition among multinational rivals with unpredictable side-effects to public health.

WIN SOME, LOSE SOME

Dr Prathapan said Kerafed would make its best forward in this direction with the scheduled commissioning of a modern plant at Karunagapalli in Kollam district for coconut oil and other diversified products including desiccated coconut. Efforts are on to take up marketing of other natural products such as the ‘Neera,' the equivalent of the cola variants, to piggyback on selling the State as a destination to tourists. Diversification efforts will be taken up based on the models available in Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Malaysia where prospects of the palm tree-based economy have revived, boosting the respective economies as well, Mr Pillai said.

But Kerafed was disappointed that a prestigious diversification proposal that would put to use the coconut tree trunk for making durable wood panels and similar products would not go all the way. The intention was to make maximum use of the tree trunk being made available on a large-scale ‘felling' and replanting exercise taken up in the interregnum.

It was imperative that the huge quantity of wood generated under this programme was put to effective use for high-end products to generate additional income for the farmer and also minimise the threat to the environment by indiscriminate felling of valuable forest reserves.

A project was to be taken up by the Government-owned Forest Industries Travancore Ltd with the blessings of the Coconut Development Board (CDB).

The project would develop joineries out of treated coconut wood and it was expected that the success of the experimental project would help popularise the use of coconut wood in mass housing programmes.

The CDB had also sponsored a project for making particle boards out of coconut wood, which was also likely to open up a new window for the use of the material.

The use of the entire biomass of the palm for production of green (non-conventional) energy was another possibility. A demonstration centre for processing of coconut wood was also consideration.

The fine grains and the natural beauty of coconut wood made it highly suitable for wall panelling, floor tiles, furniture and curios. With the short supply of hardwood and the need to conserve scarce forest resources, the time was opportune for a rediscovery of the advantages of the use of coconut wood, it was felt.

But the project has failed to take off as yet for reasons what were beyond Kerafed or of its management, Mr Pillai and Dr Prathapan said.

(This article was published on February 7, 2011)
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