The recent wage-related developments in Kerala’s plantation sector that has triggered concerns among planters in South India could push them towards mechanising more of their operations to keep costs under control.

Labour wages, on an average, account for over half the production costs of plantation commodities such as tea and coffee, planters said.

High costs

C Vinayaraghavan, Chairman, Association of Planters of Kerala (APK), pointed out that the wages have been increased by 30 per cent in tea gardens. Similarly, workers in the rubber, cardamom and coffee plantations will get an increase of 20 per cent, 24 per cent and 26 per cent respectively.

To mitigate the impact of high production costs – even as prices of rubber, tea and coffee continue to remain under pressure – enabling mechanisation may be the answer. However, in the current scenario, Vinayaraghavan said that technologies currently available were only helpful in reducing the drudgery of the workforce rather than replacing it.

Nascent stage Unlike in the North-East, the terrain and climatic factors are major impediments to large scale high-tech mechanisation here as far as field operations of tea were concerned. But the introduction of mechanised harvesters is still in its nascent stage even though some partial mechanisation of field operations has taken place in tea gardens. With respect to other crops, Vinayaraghavan said mechanisation is practically not possible till suitable technologies emerge.

“There is a need for all stakeholders including the government and engineering institutes to come together and deliberate on developing new technologies such as robotics for harvesting that could take mechanisation to the next level,” said N Lakshmanan, a senior tea planter and Director, Golden Hills Estate Pvt Ltd.

Infrastructure Also, there is a need to develop appropriate infrastructure in the plantations that could facilitate the adoption of mechanisation. To develop such infrastructure, the Government should look at facilitating long-term soft loans, Lakshmanan added.

In tea plantations of South India, N Dharmaraj, President, Upasi, cited that almost 80 per cent of the harvesting has been carried out with hand-held shears and about 15 per cent with one man and 2 man-motorised harvesting machines. The use of harvesting machines can go up to 50 per cent of the area. However, he said that there is no scope for mechanisation yet in rubber harvesting, except in collection of latex.

On the need for institutional support for further mechanisation, Dharmaraj said that there is currently a subsidy from the Tea Board for import of tea harvesting machinery. This has to be increased further since the use of these machines will need to be stepped up. But Vinayaraghavan suggested extending supports directly to the grower community under the guidance of commodity boards to carry out R&D. This would help adopt more innovative technologies for field applications. Start-up communities in this sector can do a lot in developing new technologies, he added.

K Kurian, immediate past chairman of Karnataka Planters Association, said in some tea and coffee plantations, where replanting is being taken up, the landscape is being designed to facilitate the easier movement of machinery. On job loss due to mechanisation, both Dharmaraj and Vinayaraghavan answered in the negative, saying “all the plantations in South India are experiencing severe labour shortage at present.”

No job loss “The degree of shortage has been shifted from chronic to acute. Over and above, there is the problem of nearly 30 per cent absenteeism on a day to day basis. Given this scenario, there would not be any job loss due to mechanisation,” adds Vinayaraghavan.

Ruling out a total mechanisation in rubber sector, Sibi Monippilli, General Secretary of Indian Rubber Growers Association, said that it is not possible to fully mechanise the entire operations as the sector requires skilled workforce especially for tapping, which is done manually to get more output. Right now, mechanisation can be extended only in digging for planting trees.

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