Agri Business

Immediate concern is to enhance productivity of rubber, says Chairman

Aravindan Kottayam | Updated on April 01, 2011

Ms Sheela Thomas, Chairperson of Rubber Board   -  Business Line

In her first interview since the assumption of office as Chairman of the Rubber Board, Ms Sheela Thomas explores new areas where more rubber could be brought under cultivation as the shortage of rubber would be a global phenomenon in the future.

Enhancing production is her first priority and she also gives equal importance to a remunerative price to the grower, equivalent to international price. She also intends to have an external evaluation of the current plan schemes. Calm and composed, she unfolds her action plans to Business Line during her tenure in Rubber Board. Excerpts from the interview:

Having taken over as the Rubber Board Chairman recently, what are your priorities?

Recent statistics show that we would face shortage of natural rubber (NR) in the country in the near future. Indications are that we will not be able to depend on imports as the shortage will be felt the world over. So our immediate concern should be increasing production of NR through large scale expansion of area and enhancing productivity.

My first priority will be this. Everybody knows that vacant land for new planting is not available in the traditional rubber growing areas of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. We have to look east and northeast. Large tracts of cultivable land have already been identified in the seven North-East States and the Board will concentrate its efforts to increase new planting in these States.

Equal priority will be given in ensuring fair price to the existing producers, on par with the international price. Also, NR has to be promoted as an environmentally friendly material. Synthetic alternatives to NR depend heavily on non-renewable petroleum feed stocks and their manufacture will contribute to global warming. Production of NR, on the other hand contributes to the health of the environment.

NR production also provides livelihood to millions of people. Equally important is the need for establishing a synergy with the NR consuming industry in the country. Production and consumption should go hand in hand, and the health of one sector is dependent on the other.

The Board will always keep in mind that a happy co-existence of all the stakeholders, like producers, processors, dealers, manufacturers and exporters, is the precondition for inclusive growth of the sector. Rubber is a long gestation crop. It takes six to seven years to reach the productive phase.

Growers, the majority of whom belong to the small and marginal categories get no income from their holdings during these years. Therefore activities to generate income from other sources should be promoted.

Already growers resort to intercropping, beekeeping, collection of rubber seeds and cover crop seeds, etc, in immature plantations. These activities are to be further strengthened. More research will be done to identify hitherto unexplored avenues for generating ancillary income.

How far have the Board's efforts for export promotion been successful?

The Indian NR sector had been, for historical reasons, evolved with an orientation for domestic market as rubber was promoted as a crop for import substitution. Till the turn of the century, India had been a net importer of NR.

But with the lifting of quantitative restrictions on import posed a serious threat to the domestic NR producing sector and export had to be promoted to neutralise the adverse effects of tactical import. To reverse the domestic orientation the market traditionally had, it was essential that our produce meet international standards in terms of quality, packaging, delivery schedule and price.

The Board took several measures right from the early 90s to strengthen the domestic NR sector and to equip it to face the challenges thrown up by the world market. The Board launched several schemes for quality upgradation of the produce and to cut production costs.

We gave financial support, not only to growers, but also processors. Short term and long term productivity enhancement schemes were introduced for growers. The processors were helped in modernising their factories to improve product quality, to cut costs, to produce more and also in switching over to systems less dependent on fossil fuels to improve packaging and presentation of the product were also extended.

This exposure to international market itself has been instrumental in enhancing the quality standards of Indian NR. The Board extends financial help to the processors to participate in international fairs and attend buyer-seller meets abroad. All these have helped Indian NR to establish its own niche in the world market.

Has the Indian NR logo helped exports?

The scheme for branding of export rubber with logo was launched very recently. Several exporters have registered for the logo and a few consignments of branded rubber have already been shipped. It is believed that the logo, which is actually a guarantee by Government of India, would increase the acceptability of Indian NR overseas.

Recently, there was a controversy about genetically modified rubber. What is the Board's stand on this?

Research in genetic modification of rubber plants is intended to develop clones which can resist climate change and also tapping panel dryness. The trials were approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).

We applied to the State Governments of Kerala and Maharashtra for permission to start GM rubber trials in our experiment stations in these States. The Kerala Government has not yet responded to our proposal. We, intend to start the trials in Maharashtra, where we have got the green signal.

Having taken over towards the fag end of the current fiscal, you have a crucial role in formulating the forthcoming 12th Plan proposals for rubber. What do you intend to do?

The 12th Five Year Plan will be a ‘people's plan'. Starting from April, we will have a series of consultations with all the stakeholders of rubber to have their suggestions for the next Five Year Plan.

We will, early on, arrange for an external evaluation of the current plan schemes which are ending in 2011-12. A National Committee, comprising experts from different fields, headed by the world renowned agricultural scientist Dr M. S. Swaminathan, is constituted to evaluate the implementation of 11th Plan schemes and to generate inputs for the formulation of schemes for the future.

Those stakeholders who cannot personally attend the consultations can give their views online through the suggestion box provided for the purpose on the Board's Web site (www.rubberboard.org). All the suggestions we receive will be considered, subject to the guidelines fixed by the Government of India.

Published on April 01, 2011

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