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Why rubber price is a key election issue in Kerala

Why rubber price is a key election issue in Kerala

In December last year, Mar Joseph Pamplani, archbishop of the Thalassery archdiocese, issued a statement that Catholics in Kerala will vote for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections should the party guarantee an increase in the selling price of natural rubber to Rs 300 a kilo, from the average Rs 146 a kilo in the state then. He added that the Congress could promise the same and earn this crucial vote.

Pamplani's declaration of electoral support of the 2.35 million-strong Syro-Malabar community coincided with the BJP's overtures to the 18 per cent Christians in Kerala. It turned out to be a clever move, with the BJP leadership rushing to holding discussions with the archbishop and putting rubber prices on its election agenda in the state.

Political promises aside, it is known that natural rubber prices are subject to market dynamics. The central government can perhaps intervene only when the prices fall drastically. Nevertheless, Pamplani's offer caused a buzz among rubber farmers. Three-fourths of the 1.2 million small and medium rubber farmers in Kerala are Catholics. They together cultivate over half a million hectares in the hilly regions. Rubber prices determine the livelihoods of almost 800,000 families in Kerala, and they tend to vote for political parties that promise better prices for their product.

Kerala produces 600,000 tonnes of natural rubber every year. The state is the highest producer of rubber in the country. As on March 12, the average selling price of natural rubber in Kerala was Rs 167 a kilo. The price of rubber is a matter of concern not only in the high ranges of Malabar but also in the Idukki, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Chalakudy Lok Sabha constituencies.

"Most rubber farmers in Kerala are poor or from low-income groups. They sell the rubber sheets on a weekly basis in the local market. The local merchants offer them less than the government price," says Joseph Augustine, a rubber planter from Thodupuzha in Idukki.

Augustine adds that high farm worker wages have made rubber farming less lucrative. "If rubber is listed as an agricultural commodity, we may get a better price. Unfortunately, it's listed as a commercial commodity."

Kerala finance minister K.N. Balagopal, in the state budget for 2024-25, increased the minimum support price for rubber by Rs 10 to Rs 180 a kilo, but what farmers actually earn is far less.

The Union ministry of commerce and industry recently rejected the rubber lobby's demand to cut import duty from 25 per cent to 15 per cent—a move seen as aimed at protecting the interests of rubber planters in the country. The demand had been raised by the All India Rubber Industries Association.

Rubber price has been integral to Kerala politics and will be a hot Lok Sabha poll issue when the campaign gathers momentum. On March 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to arrive in Pathanamthitta, a constituency with hundreds of small-income rubber farmers. Come elections, and rubber planters in the state are wooed by parties with tall promises. The BJP, then, understands that mere assurances may not work.

"We are doing everything possible to protect the interests of rubber growers. The prime minister has taken special care and directed the Rubber Board to submit a detailed report to support rubber planters," said BJP state president K. Surendran. "The Congress did nothing while in power and rubber prices crashed to the bottom."

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