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

Kerala Congress (M) faces stiff challenges as the protector of the interests of rubber farmers of central Kerala.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jan 09, 2024 | 10:00 AMUpdatedJan 09, 2024 | 10:00 AM

Kerala farmers crop insurance for rubber coconut

Thomas Chazhikadan, a senior Kerala Congress (Mani) leader and the party’s lone Lok Sabha member, raised a genuine concern at the Nava Kerala Sadas, the state government’s mass outreach programme, at Kottayam —  and got admonished.

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

The grievance Chazhikadan raised at the sadas almost a month ago was about the falling price of rubber, a common concern of the planters. 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.

The KC(M), previously with the UDF, switched its allegiance just before the most recent Assembly election to the LDF by promising to ensure a minimum support price of ₹250 a kilogram of unprocessed rubber.

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

He blamed Chazhikadan’s ignorance for raising “complaints” in such a meeting.

“The entire state has come to understand why we are organising such an outreach programme. But the person who spoke about the constituency’s issues seems to need to learn. What we saw was his ignorance. He was heard saying as if we were out to receive complaints. Complaints are only an incidental part of the programme. The discrimination shown by the Union government against Kerala needs to be brought before the people. It was unfortunate that the honourable Chazhikadan did not understand it,” the chief minister said.

Also Read: Kerala farmers welcome weather-based crop insurance for rubber

Chazhikadan’s humiliation — farmers’ too!

The hurt and humiliation suffered by Chazhikadan, who was the face of many intense protests by rubber farmers in Kerala in the past, was quite visible.

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

Several bishops across the state, too, raised their concern that the state government was continuing to disregard the genuine worries of the rubber cultivators, among the more affluent farmers of the state.

The Lok Sabha election is approaching, and central Kerala’s politics have started concentrating on the vexed rubber issue. 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 the Union and state governments continue to ignore them.

Lapses in the distribution of the Rubber Production Incentive Scheme (RPIS) have been another tool for the KC(J) to mount a fresh attack on the KC(M) in particular, and the LDF in general.

Under the RPIS, the government provides rubber growers ₹170, the difference between (the guaranteed price) and the actual market price.

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

In the case of KC(M), it has not yet developed counterstrategies and has been focusing on assuaging the bishops’ resentment over Minister Saji Cheriyan’s contentious remarks about their attendance at the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-hosted Christmas party.

“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 the rubber price stabilisation fund. We will highlight this to the people,” Mani told South First.

The party, which has been looking forward to retain 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.

Also Read: Will Kerala’s much-hyped rubber politics take the Christian community closer to BJP?

Govt cites financial crisis

Citing the financial crisis, the LDF has been saying it was preventing it from declaring the promised support price of ₹250.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of farmers in the area claimed that the RPIS, which the state government launched with much fanfare, had gone awry.

The website on which the bills were to be uploaded, has been down since 6 December.

Official sources attributed the glitch to a delay in the state government clearing the dues of the National Informatics Centre (NIC).

The farmers fear that the abrupt closure of the website was not a mere technical glitch but a calculated attempt to sabotage the scheme that provided them a safety net, ensuring a minimum price for their produce.

“The website was up for just 40 days, and the suspension came even as small-scale growers were about to upload their claims. Over three lakh bills are estimated to be pending clearance at the different RPS units,” explained Babu Joseph, the general secretary of the National Consortium of Rubber Producers’ Societies (NCRPS), a farmers’ collective.

Under the RPIS scheme, farmers must submit bills from rubber dealers to the RPS in their respective areas. Once verified by the field officers of the Rubber Board, the RPS authorities upload these bills to the state government’s website, and the amount would be credited directly to growers’ bank accounts.

In a recent press statement, Vijayan blamed the Union government for the farmers’ sufferings.

“The Union government has not been paying the subsidy 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. The Centre is also not ready to consider rubber as an agricultural product and continues to treat it as an industrial raw material,” Vijayan said in the statement.

The chief minister accused the Centre of keeping rubber prices low for the benefit of the country’s tyre manufacturing monopolies.

Also Read: Kerala producers say Rubber Board of India partisan to tyre manufacturers

Congress upbeat

Meanwhile, Archbishop of Tellicherry (Thalassery) Mar Joseph Pamplany, who earlier courted controversy by promising to back the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls if it increased the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of natural rubber to ₹300, now accused both the central and state governments of sabotaging the interests of the farmers.

He said the farmers’ anger would be reflected in the Lok Sabha election, giving high hopes to the UDF.

The main cash crop in Kerala is rubber, and because of diseases, climate change, and falling global prices, the cultivators are currently in a severe crisis.

The rubber cultivators contribute 2.5 percent of the GST to the state finances 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.

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

The Congress gained political dividends from the Christian community for a long time through central 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 of rubber piling up in central Kerala, devoid of major takers, indicated a decrease in domestic consumption as cheap import alternatives were chosen over locally cultivated products.

As rubber prices continue to decrease to a several-year low, rural Kerala now has plenty of anxious small-scale rubber growers looking at various alternatives to the cash crop.