Come elections, and natural rubber shoots into the spotlight in the central Travancore belt in Kerala. Once Parliament elections were declared, all the major parties have assumed the role of saviour of lakhs of rubber farmers.

Usually, once the results are out, the topic is forgotten by the winning candidate, and the situation goes back to square one. It appears that the rubber growers have become wiser and are not likely to fall for the spiel of the politicians this time.

Natural rubber is closely linked to the economy of Central Travancore districts of Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, and Idukki, where it is grown most. Hence, the vicissitudes of rubber production have a bearing on the victory of the candidates in these regions, prompting the political parties to bring up the topic during elections.

Price Promises

This time, however, rumblings have emerged from the north of Kerala, where there is large-scale cultivation now. Mar Joseph Pamplani, Archbishop of the Thalassery Archdiocese, fired the opening salvo in December last year by declaring that the Catholics will vote for any party, including BJP, if they provide a price of ₹300 per kg for rubber at a time when the commodity’s average price in Kerala was hovering around ₹146.

BJP, trying hard to woo Christians, was enthused by the bishop’s demand considering that there are about 1.2 million small and medium rubber growers among the 2.35 million strong Syro-Malabar Catholics. More than 8 lakh families in the State depend on the commodity for a living.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front, CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front, and even smaller parties like Kerala Congress (M) and Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a key ally of BJP-led NDA, have also jumped on the bandwagon.

BDJS, contesting from Pathanamthitta, has demanded a floor price hike for rubber to ₹250 per kg. Jose K Mani, Kerala Congress (M) chairman, has sought the PM’s intervention to obtain a better price for domestic rubber on par with the international price, which is now ruling much higher.

The Central government too chipped in by announcing ₹15 per kg incentive for rubber export and raising the subsidies for re-planting. The Kerala government, which had raised the support price for rubber by ₹10 to ₹180 per kg in the last budget, has recently cleared arrears due for several months. But so far, there hasn’t been any assurance on the minimum support price for rubber, as demanded by politicians.

‘Mere eyewash’

Babu Joseph, General Secretary of the National Consortium of Rubber Producer Societies, dismissed the effort by political parties to take up cudgels for rubber farmers as a mere eyewash. He said ideally, the incentive declared for exports should have been for one year instead of three months now for the farmers to benefit from it, and there should be a joint effort by the Central and State governments to boost rubber shipments.

“It is a usual practice of political parties in the rubber belt to take up the cause of farmers for their survival during the time of elections with protest marches by holding rubber sheets. However, this time, the political parties were forced to take up the case much earlier in the wake of the support extended by the Thalassery Archbishop before the election announcement,” said Pius Scaria, former president of Kottayam Rubber Dealers Federation. “We all know that the government has no role in determining the prices of NR in the domestic market due to FTA and it all depends on the overseas demand when there was a scarcity for the raw material abroad,” he said, adding that the response of political parties is only for the sake of reacting for a cause. 

According to informed sources, making promises of making it ₹250 and above at one shot will only create an atmosphere of competitive offers that the exchequer may not be able to afford. Small periodic revisions will be practical as well. If MSP is not possible, it can be through schemes for rain guarding or protecting from diseases, insurance or quality upgrading This may prove to be more substantive in the long run.