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Kerala planters happy with soaring rubber prices

Kottayam (Kerala), July 10 (IANS) Planters in Kerala are a happy lot with the soaring prices of natural rubber which are hovering around an all-time high of Rs.182 a kg as demand from the automobile industry is far outstripping the supply.

K.G. Thomas, a retired state government employee, says this is a moment to cherish. ‘You wait and see, it will soon touch Rs.200.’

‘I own eight acres of rubber plantation, which I inherited from my father. I began cultivation of rubber in 1973. I have never had to look back all these years with my rubber plantation. Even when prices were rock bottom, when many cut down rubber trees and planted coco beans plants, I held on and will do it till the rest of my life,’ said Thomas.

India stands fourth in the list of global producers of rubber with a nine percent share. Kerala accounts for 81 percent of the rubber production in the country.

Production of rubber in Kerala jumped from 580,000 tonnes in 2000 to 691,000 tonnes in 2005. In 2009, it reached 783,000 tonnes.

But the plantation is vulnerable to seasonal fluctuations. At the onset of the monsoon, production slackens, resulting in reduced arrivals of rubber in the market, which boosts prices.

The Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries said in its June newsletter that tight global supplies and strong demand, especially from China, will support high prices.

Rubber prices have been on an upward trajectory over the last five years. Four years ago, when rubber prices touched Rs.100 a kg, it was absolute joy for the growers in the state, because it was the first time that such a thing had happened. Since then it has been going up and up.

K. Manoj, a rubber dealer at Pathanamthitta, said rubber prices would cross Rs.225 a kg in the next quarter.

‘Look at the vehicle sales across the globe, including India. It grew by around 30 per cent. Moreover, China, the world’s largest importer of natural rubber, has announced that it would import more than 1.59 million tones which they did last year. Another favourable aspect is that heavy rains in Thailand, world’s largest producer of rubber, will help the price of rubber go higher,’ said Manoj.

Natural rubber finds its use mainly in tyres, making of beds, rubber bands and other products. In recent years, its appeal as an alternative to synthetic products made from petroleum has been increasing.

‘I have been one of the first rubber band manufacturers in Kerala, way back in the early 1970s and now my main job is to supply rubber latex to these manufacturers. This sort of surge in prices is something unbelievable. Please don’t forget the price was around Rs.26 in 1998. People should be cautious and watchful is all what I would say,’ said Babu Jacob.

Although rubber is grown almost across Kerala, it is concentrated in the central districts. More than 15 percent of the 32 million population are fully dependent on rubber.

Following the rise in prices, the prices of land with rubber plantations have shot up from a mere Rs.2 lakh an acre a few years ago to around Rs.20 lakh now.

Meanwhile, rubber tappers, whose wages always go up when an increase in prices takes place, are demanding that their rate must go up from 70 paise per tree to a minimum of 80 paise per tree. In 2006, it stood at 40 paise per tree.

‘Just look into the mounting expenses of all items in the market. And mind you we start tapping trees as early as 4 a.m and we move in the dark in the rubber plantations. This is a job with a lot of hardship. If you look now you will see many non-Keralites tapping rubber trees. The quality of our workmanship is far better than theirs. We have to be remunerated adequately,’ said Baby, a second generation rubber tapper near Kochi.

(Sanu George can be contacted at sanu.g@ians.in)

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