June 11, 2023

Kerala's Rubber Farmers Unite: Parliament March Planned for Sept 14

ON May 26, 2023, more than 10,000 rubber farmers from all over Kerala, led by the Kerala Karshaka Sangham (AIKS), marched to the Raj Bhawan at Thiruvananthapuram. The rubber farmers' march began from Asan Square near Kerala University and marched up to the Raj Bhawan.

AIKS president Ashok Dhawale, general secretary Vijoo Krishnan, Karshaka Sangham general secretary Valsan Panoli, president M Vijayakumar, AIKS vice president SK    Preeja, and others marched with the farmers. CITU, AIAWU, AIDWA, SFI, and DYFI also marched in solidarity. The public meeting outside Raj Bhawan was inaugurated by Ashok Dhawale, and it was addressed by AIKS vice president EP Jayara-jan, Vijoo Krishnan, reception committee chairman V Joy (MLA), and by Valsan Panoli. The meeting was presided over by M Vijayakumar.

All the speakers vehemently criticised the pro-corporate policies of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the centre, holding them responsible for the dire situation faced by farmers, especially rubber farmers. They attacked the Congress party, whose leaders in Kerala supported the Free Trade Agreement with the ASEAN countries, which was signed by the Congress government in 2009. This agreement had disastrous consequences for rubber farmers and farmers of other cash crops in Kerala and other states.

In light of a Bishop promising two members of parliament for the BJP from Kerala if the Union Govern-ment procures rubber at Rs 300/kg, the AIKS general secretary said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP, should first acknowledge their wrongdoings, apologise to the farmers for pushing them into distress through unequal Free Trade Agreements, and make amends by procuring rubber at Rs 350/kg with retrospective effect (based on the promise made by Narendra Modi in 2014 of providing C2+50 per cent as the price for all crops), only then should they seek the votes of farmers by entering their houses. The Congress, including people like Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, AK Antony, Oommen Chandy, and others, were equally responsible for pursuing policies that had disastrous implications for rubber farmers.

This historic march was preceded by a day-and-night dharna a day before, with over 1,000 chosen volun-teers. The dharna was inaugurated by Vijoo Krishnan. Despite heavy rain, the volunteers continued the dharna throughout the day and night. The dharna was addressed by veteran AIKS leader S Ramachandran Pillai, S K Preeja, CKC Members Gopi Kottamurikkal, M Swaraj, Omalloor Sankaran, M Prakasan, and other leaders. AIAWU leader Anavoor Nagappan, CITU leader Jain Raj, DYFI leader Shiju Khan, and others also addressed the dharna.

To comprehend the current crisis, it is essential to examine the state of the rubber industry in the country. Rubber, once referred to as white gold, held great significance in Kerala, where it was believed that a hun-dred rubber trees could sustain a person without hunger. Kerala has substantial cultivation of rubber, cover-ing over 22 percent of agricultural land, second only to coconut plantations. In 1950, India had merely 75,000 hectares dedicated to rubber cultivation. However, that number has soared to 8.27 lakh hectares, and the annual production has increased from approximately 16,000 tonnes to about 9 lakhs.

In 1955-56, small cultivators (those cultivating less than 2 hectares) accounted for only 21.8 percent of rubber cultivation. Today, almost 90 per cent of the cultivation is carried out by small and marginal farmers. The perception that rubber is exclusively a crop for the wealthy no longer holds true. Productivity in Kerala witnessed a significant rise from 323 kg/hectare in 1954 to 1903 kg/hectare in 2013. However, it has experienced a drastic decline, dropping to 1472 kg/hectare in 2022-23. In 2013, Kerala contributed 84 percent of the total rubber production in India, but that figure has now diminished to 72 per cent.The livelihoods of more than 12 lakh small, marginal, and middle farmers, over 2 lakh tapping workers, more than 30,000 smalltraders, and numerous allied industry workers depend on the rubber sector.

In April 2011, farmers were able to sell rubber at a rate of Rs. 236 per kilogram. However, over the years, the market conditions have undergone significant changes. On May 26, 2023, the price of rubber expe-rienced a considerable drop, plummeting to only Rs. 124 per kilogram. This sharp decline in rubber prices highlights the challenges faced by farmers as they grapple with the fluctuations in the market, impacting their livelihoods and economic stability. The LDF Government in Kerala, which has been implementing al-ternative policies, allocated Rs 1807 crores for price stabilization. They also set a base price of Rs 170/kg for rubber and promised a gradual increase to Rs 250/kg. In stark contrast, the BJP Government has re-duced fertilizer subsidies and did not allocate any funds in the recent budget for price stabilization or mar-ket intervention.

The collapse of the rubber sector can be directly attributed to the implementation of neoliberal economic policies and trade liberalisation. Under this regime, Indian farmers were exposed to the uncertainties of the volatile global market.

In 1999, during the BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India entered into a Free Trade Agreement with Sri Lanka, which became operational in 2000. The experience for farmers in Kerala was unfavorable. The influx of tea, pepper, cinnamon, and other spices into Kerala without import duties led to a crash in prices, loss of income, increased indebtedness, and a rise in farmer suicides between 2000 and 2006. De-spite these adverse outcomes and protests against Free Trade Agreements, the Vajpayee-led BJP govern-ment went ahead and negotiated the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, with the Initial Framework Agreement being established in 2003.

As a result of the Free Trade Agreement, there has been a significant increase in duty-free imports of rubber from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other countries. While we imported 45,285 tonnes of rubber in 2005-06, the figure rose to 5,46,369 tonnes in 2021-22, almost a twelve-fold increase in imports. Importing 5 lakh tonnes would require at least one lakh crore of foreign exchange. Indian farmers now face competi-tion with countries like Thailand, which produces 49 lakh tonnes, Indonesia producing 31 lakh tonnes, Vietnam producing 9.5 lakh tonnes, and the quickly growing rubber industries in China, Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, and others.

In comparison to the subsidies received by rubber farmers in neighboring countries, a rubber farmer in Ke-rala receives about Rs. 25,000 per hectare as a subsidy, whereas the subsidy is Rs. 2,08,000 per hectare in Thailand, Rs. 1,57,800 per hectare in Malaysia, and Rs. 64,200 per hectare in neighboring Sri Lanka. Al-most all imports from ASEAN countries enter India at zero import duty. Furthermore, there has also been a significant increase in the import of compound rubber.

The ruling class is implementing these policies under the influence of corporate tire companies that engage in illegal practices to obtain cheap raw materials. Recently, the Competition Commission of India imposed a cumulative penalty of Rs 1788 crore on five tire manufacturers for forming a cartel. These companies hold a dominant position in India, controlling over 90 per cent of tire production. MRF, CEAT, JK Tyre, Birla Tyres, and Apollo Tyres raised the prices of tires and tubes by citing an increase in the prices of natu-ral rubber and other inputs. However, they did not reduce prices when the prices of raw materials de-creased. The highest fine of Rs 622.09 crores was imposed on MRF, whose sister concern Malayala Mano-rama publications staunchly advocates for free trade and neoliberal policies.

Under the current BJP government led by Narendra Modi, there are efforts to amend the Rubber Act of 1947. These proposed changes include reducing Kerala's representation on the Rubber Board and contem-plating the relocation of the Rubber Board's headquarters from Kottayam to a location outside of Kerala. Furthermore, the Niti Aayog has recommended that rubber no longer be given any preferential treatment or benefits.

The Congress party, in competition with the BJP, also implemented similar neo-liberal policies. Congress leaders like AK Antony, Vayalar Ravi, Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala, and others accused the Left of opposing the agreement to safeguard China's interests. The then chief minister, VS Achuthanandan, even led a delegation to the prime minister to express their concerns against entering into the Agreement. The  Karshaka Sangham, AIKS, and the Left Democratic Front were the only ones to protest, organising a massive human chain spanning over 600 km from Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram, which even earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. In response to this deliberate attack on rubber farmers, the long marches and protests before Raj Bhavan were organised. This protest stands as one of the largest demonstrations by rubber farmers in history. They have issued a warning that their struggle would intensify, and on September 14, 2023, thousands of rubber farmers from Kerala and other rubber-growing states will march to parliament to assert their rights.