Rubber politics in Kerala: Why planters’ ire over Union, state budgets does not augur well for BJP and CPI(M)

The largely Christian rubber cultivators of central Kerala are unhappy with both the BJP and CPI(M) for doing little for the rubber sector.

ByK A Shaji

Published Feb 06, 2024 | 2:39 PMUpdatedFeb 06, 2024 | 2:39 PM

Kerala rubber farmers

With disease, climate change, and plunging global prices threatening to deliver a mortal blow to the once-thriving rubber plantations in central Kerala, planters were looking to the Union and state budgets for relief — only to be left disappointed yet again.

A day after Kerala’s annual budget raised the support price for natural rubber from ₹170 to ₹180, most planters South First spoke to said the ₹10 increase was meaningless given spiraling costs, especially the rising wages of the rubber tappers.

The announcement, in fact, came on a day when the rubber price touched ₹165 per kg, and, in all likelihood, the modest upward trend would push it past ₹190 in a couple of months, rendering the nominal increase in support price meaningless.

Which is why Congress leader and Kottayam MLA Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan described the ₹10 increase as “humiliation to the suffering farmers”, adding that it would do little to bring back those who have already left rubber farming — or help revive the sector.

How the disappointment of the planters — mostly affluent Christians — will influence the “rubber politics” of the region and impact the upcoming Lok Sabha election remains to be seen at a time both the BJP and the CPI(M), which leads the ruling LDF, are seeking to wean them away from their preferred party, the Congress.

Christians comprise a little over 18 percent of the state’s population, but are concentrated in central Kerala where they influence electoral outcomes.

Related: An MP for MSP: Will Kerala’s rubber politics take Christians closer to BJP?

How rubber politics plays out

Kerala farmers crop insurance for rubber coconut

A woman drying rubber sheets in Central Kerala. (Supplied)

In the last Assembly election, the LDF wrested several seats in Kottayam, Ernakulam, Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Kannur, and Kollam districts from the Congress by promising the plantation owners a minimum support price of ₹250 per kg of procured rubber.

The state unit of the BJP, keen on opening its account in Kerala in the Lok Sabha election by wooing Christian voters, had raised expectations of  a set of announcements in the Union budget — including a drastic cut in the import of natural rubber and an MSP of ₹300 per kg. These steps, it said, would infuse new life into the ailing rubber cultivation sector.

This had found resonance among the rubber planters, and several Christian leaders, including bishops like Joseph Pamplany of Thalassery, welcomed the move, saying that the followers of the Church would not mind voting for the BJP if it delivered on its promises.

However, on 1 February, the farmers were left deeply disappointed as the budget speech of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman did not even have a passing mention of their grievances, let alone any concrete sops.

So far, both the BJP and CPI(M) have got away by holding the earlier Congress-led Union governments responsible for falling rubber prices as they entered into trade agreements allowing “discriminatory imports” that impacted the local growers.

Now, both the BJP-led Union government and the CPI(M) at the state level are targets of the wrath of the rubber cultivators. And the simmering discontent will likely influence voting patterns in the April-May Lok Sabha elections.

Related: Why falling rubber price may hurt BJP, CPI(M) in Lok Sabha polls in Kerala

Mar Joseph Pamplany, the Archbishop of Thalassery, wearing the traditional farmers' cap. (Supplied).

Mar Joseph Pamplany, the Archbishop of Thalassery, wearing the traditional rubber farmers’ cap. (Supplied).

Rubber economics

According to the official data, Kerala has over 18 lakh rubber-cultivating families, and over 14.5 lakh families — mostly Catholic Christians — are solely dependent on rubber plantations.

Peter Abraham, a farmer in Muvattupuzha in central Kerala’s Ernakulam district, told South First the whole rubber growers community was feeling dejected as it had hoped at least the recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Committee, which studied the sector, would be implemented.

The Swaminathan Committee wanted the support price to be calculated as the combination of the exact production cost and half of the production cost. The Rubber Board, which comes  under the Union government, has affirmed that the production cost per kg is ₹210; if so, the support price should be ₹315.

“They can at least ensure ₹250 per kg. What is now happening is sheer humiliation,” Abraham said.

The farmers are also angry with the lack of progress by the state government in establishing the long-awaited Kerala Rubber Limited, which was expected to commercially process rubber to make value-added products.

The budget allocated a mere ₹9 crore to the project against an expected expenditure of ₹250 crore.

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The Christian parties

Along with the BJP and CPI(M), the regional outfit Kerala Congress (Mani) is also facing the heat of the anger of rubber farmers.

The third-largest constituent in the ruling LDF, the KC(M)’s mass base is Christians, mostly rubber planters and agriculturists, in central Kerala.

Thomas Chazhikadan, a senior KC(M) leader and Lok Sabha member from Kottayam raised the issue of a support price of ₹250 for rubber at the recently-concluded Nava Kerala Sadas, the state government’s mass outreach programme, at Kottayam and got admonished instantly by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Jose K Mani

Kerala Congress (M) supremo Jose K Mani being facilitated by party colleague and water resources minister Roshy Augustine. (KB Jayachandran/South First)

While delivering the welcome address, among other things, the MP mentioned the worsening financial condition of rubber farmers and reminded the chief minister about the promise to institute a support price.

Previously with the UDF, the KC(M) switched its allegiance to the LDF just before the the Assembly election in 2021, lured by the ₹250 per kg support price promise.

The chief minister did not like the MP raising the issue. To the surprise of those present on the occasion, Vijayan admonished Chazhikadan in his own speech, saying the speaker before him lacked any idea of the objectives of the outreach programme.

Though the senior Lok Sabha member remained silent, the issue created differences within the KC(M), with a section of leaders demanding that party chairman Jose K Mani rethink continuing with the LDF.

Several bishops across the state, too, have raised concerns about the LDF government disregarding the “genuine worries” of the rubber cultivators — among the more affluent farmers of the state. However, those bishops who supported the BJP, hoping the Union budget would extend help to rubber farmers, have landed themselves in trouble.

Another Christian party, the Kerala Congress (J), a key constituent of the Opposition Congress-led UDF, has started efforts to utilise the prevailing displeasure among rubber cultivators by highlighting how both the Union and state governments have ignored them.

Lapses in the distribution of the Rubber Production Incentive Scheme (RPIS) have been another tool for the KC(J) to mount attacks on the KC(M) in particular and the LDF in general. Under the RPIS, the government is supposed to provide rubber growers with ₹170 per kg.

Farmers said it involved complex procedures, and there was a delay in releasing the approved amount.

Related: Ahead of Modi visit, a new party in Kerala that clubs goals of Sangh and Catholic Church

Blame game

“Policies of the Union government have negatively impacted rubber prices. The country receives ₹7,800 crore from rubber imports annually, but the authorities refuse to allocate ₹500 crore towards a Rubber Price Stabilisation Fund. We will highlight this to the people,” Jose K Mani, Rajya Sabha member and KC(M) chairman, told South First.

The party, which has been looking forward to retaining its Kottayam Lok Sabha seat, has been pressuring the LDF to announce a hike in the base price of sheet rubber under the RPIS scheme from ₹170 a kg to at least ₹190 before the poll notification.

BJP Kerala state president K Surendran

BJP Kerala state president K Surendran. (Surendranbjp/ X)

The LDF has its own grievances with the BJP-led regime in New Delhi.

“The Union government has not been paying the subsidy meant for rubber farmers for the past several months. The Modi government has also not considered increasing import duties to restrict the import of natural rubber, citing global trade agreements. It is also not ready to consider rubber as an agricultural product and continues to treat it as an industrial raw material,” Chief Minister Vijayan said in a recent statement.

Vijayan accused the Union government of keeping rubber prices low for the benefit of the country’s tyre manufacturing monopolies.

The rubber cultivators contribute 2.5 percent to the state GST while setting aside the same quantum of GST for the Union government.

Among the crops in the state, rubber is the only one that pays tax and is second only to coconut in terms of cultivation area.

Whither the Congress?

For the last several decades, rubber and its price have determined the political approach of Kerala’s Christians.

The Congress gained political dividends from the Christian community for a long time through Union government policies promoting rubber cultivation.

Climate change has caused a sharp fall in rubber production, and growers across the state face the tough choice of holding onto the crop or abandoning their generations-old occupation altogether.

When the price of rubber dipped, farmers engaged in its cultivation brought down production to keep their losses at a bare minimum, and when the price increased, they tapped more to capitalise.

The excess rubber piling in central Kerala, without any major takers, points to decreased domestic consumption as cheap and imported alternatives were chosen over the locally-cultivated product.

Rubber cultivation was crucial in developing many districts in Kerala, especially Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, Idukki, and Ernakulam.

Small towns sprouted in this region, new rubber-related business ventures began, and prosperity was visible everywhere. This was not linked to big planters alone; small planters, too, thrived in the boom.

But over the last few years, the scenario has gradually changed as the price of rubber began falling.