Time was when the use of furniture made of rubber wood in affluent homes carried a social stigma. This was because of the misconception that rubber wood was very cheap, not durable and used only for low-end applications like packing cases and firewood.
But public perceptions are changing. There is greater awareness now about the unique qualities, wide range of applications and commercial possibilities of rubber wood than ever before.
Alternative source of timber
Rubber wood is fast emerging as an alternative source of timber in India, says Sheela Thomas, Chairperson of Rubber Board, India. Processed rubber wood is found to be as strong and durable as conventional hardwood like teak and rosewood. The price of treated rubber wood is 40%-50% lower than that of teak wood. It has high environmental acceptability both in domestic and international markets.
Apart from the packaging case sector, rubber wood is now consumed by a number of industries like plywood industry, treated wood sector and safety matches. Treated rubber wood has a variety of high end uses like furniture, furniture components, flooring, panelling, mouldings, doors and shutters, table top, interior decorations, office partitions and household articles. It is
the most preferred wood for kitchen and garden tool handles and brush blocks.
Since rubber wood absorbs moisture more than hard wood, it is generally not recommended for bathroom doors and panels of exterior windows. But rubber wood can be used even for these applications by treating the wood with the chemical copper chrome boron (CCB). Dining tables made of rubber wood coated with polyurethane can be used without table tops or cover, points out C Sabu, Managing Director of Meenachil Rubberwood Ltd.
Tendency to put off replanting
The rubber wood industry got a boost towards the 1980s when there was a boom in housing and rise in prices of conventional wood. Then began a search for other timber and the attention of builders and entrepreneurs fell on rubber wood. Since Kerala contributes to over 90 % of rubber production in India, rubber wood processing units started mushrooming in the state. By the middle of 1990s, about 40 such units were functioning in the state. But for reasons like lack of marketing opportunities, almost half of the units downed shutters.
Rubber trees are normally cut after the completion of its economic life span extending up to 30 years. But, after the recent rise in prices of natural rubber, there is a tendency among planters to postpone replanting of rubber trees aged even up to 35 or beyond. Since replanted trees have a gestation period of seven years, even low yield of latex from the old trees would be more remunerative for farmers than replanting in view
of the high prices. This has affected the availability of rubber wood for the processing industry.
Viju Chacko, Director (Finance), Rubber Board, who is also the Managing Director of Rubberwood India (P) Ltd, points out that there has been a steep increase in the cost of rubber wood over the past few years. The cost has increased from about Rs 3,500 per tonne three years ago to Rs 7,000 now. This has become unaffordable to processing units.
High tax burden
The taxes and levies collected by the Government add another huge burden to processors. Processed wood attracts about 23% tax including 10.3 % Central excise duty and 12.5 % value added tax levied by the Kerala Government. Thus taxes constitute about one-fourth of the base price of the product.
Consequently, most of the rubber wood processing units are in deep financial trouble and many have closed down. The Rubber Board and Rubco (Kerala State Rubber Co-operative Ltd) have represented to the Central Government for tax relief for rubber wood products, but the Government is yet to take a decision in this regard.
Since the processing of rubber wood takes up to a month, the industry needs huge working capital to run the operations. Even the two rubber wood processing units promoted by the Rubber Board — Meenachil Rubberwood Ltd (Metrowood) and Rubberwood India Pvt. Ltd. (Indiawood) — are running at a loss due to rise in price of rubber wood and other operational costs.
Though the industry cannot raise the prices of end products beyond a certain limit, the 25% to 30 % rise in the prices of products made by Metrowood and Indiawood have been accepted by the market, says Sabu.
S Mohanachandran Nair, Joint Director
(Engineering), Rubber Board, who is holding additional charge of Chairman of Pamba Rubbers Ltd, points out that there is no scope for import of rubber wood because rubber wood has to be processed within 24 hours of felling the tree. Even from neighbouring Sri Lanka, it would take at least a week for shipment of timber to India. Alternatively, primary processing centres should be set up for initial processing of rubber wood and seasoning can be done in India. But it won’t be financially viable considering the high cost of transportation and shipment. Since rubber plantations are in the hands of smallholders in countries like
Sri Lanka, the movement of timber from
the plantations to the processing centre will be costly and hence not viable, he says.
Rubco makes great strides
But Rubco, the biggest rubber wood manufacturer in the country located in Kannur, Kerala, is already importing rubber wood from Sri Lanka. Rubber wood is shipped from Sri Lanka to India after chemical treatment at Rubco’s primary processing unit in Sri Lanka. Seasoning is done in India.
To meet the shortage of rubber wood, Rubco is planning to import rubber wood in a big way, says Jacob D Mathew, Managing
Director of Rubco. Rubco also sources
rubber wood from the Karnataka Forest
Development Corporation through auction.
Rubco’s modern plant at Kannur, Kerala, processes the eco-friendly rubber wood, making furniture and finger-jointed panel boards. These products are marketed under the brand name of ‘Rubwood’.
Jacob Mathew says Rubco products are in good demand in India and outside. The company recently increased the prices of its end products by 25%, but it has not affected the sales or demand. Rubco exports good quantities of its products to the UK and the Gulf. Rubco is able to compete in the
domestic and international markets because of the high reputation of its products for their strength, durability and excellent
finish, he says.
Support from Rubber Board
Considering the future potential, Government of India has designated the Rubber Board as the nodal agency to promote rubber wood. Sheela Thomas points out that the Board has been promoting the processing and value addition of rubber wood through creation of infrastructure and quality testing facilities. Two companies — Rubberwood India Pvt Ltd and Meenachil Rubberwood Ltd -- were formed to process rubber wood and to produce some downstream products like furniture, panel boards, furniture components etc. Their products are in great demand in Kerala and outside. Metrowood, which specialises in furniture, has two showrooms, one in Kottayam and the other in Bangalore. In other places, it markets its products through a wide dealer network. The Rubber Board has also set up a wood testing laboratory at Kottayam for testing the quality standards prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of rubber wood in various applications, the Board has been promoting its use in its offices throughout India, offices of Government establishments like the Coffee Board and also in major educational institutions like Kendriya Vidyalayas.
The Rubber Board participates in national and international exhibitions and fairs to promote rubber wood and various products made of rubber wood. Support by way of financial assistance for modernisation of existing factories and for infrastructural development is provided to processing units to face the new challenges at international level.
Shortage of carpenters is a serious problem faced by the rubber wood industry. The Rubber Board makes available the services of members of women’s self-help groups under the Rubber Producers’ Societies who are trained in carpentry. Each group works under the supervision of a carpenter.
Research on latex timber clones
To promote the availability of rubber wood, the Rubber Research Institute of India is in the process of developing latex timber clones that suit India’s agro-climatic conditions and yield mature timber at an early stage. Countries like Malaysia are using such clones extensively.
Since there is limited scope for extending rubber cultivation in Kerala due to nonavailability of land, the Rubber Board will focus on expanding rubber cultivation in the North East. Large tracts of cultivable land have been identified by the Board in the seven North-Eastern states for new planting of rubber, says Sheela Thomas.
To increase the international acceptance of the Indian rubber wood, the Rubber Board is trying for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification for the products using rubber wood.
There is an expanding market for rubber wood products in India and abroad. As such, there is great scope for product diversification as well. As rubber wood is sourced from plantations and has an eco-friendly label, it is widely accepted in the European and US markets. The US, Europe, Japan and West Asian countries are the main consumers of rubber wood in the export market. The demand for rubber products in the Western markets is on the rise as the economy recovers from the recent economic meltdown. But the supply falls short of demand. The existing rubber wood processors, including the two units promoted by the Rubber Board, are flooded with orders; but, in view of the high cost of timber, they are not able to work at full capacity.
The demand for rubber wood may grow very fast in the coming years. Top builders increasingly prefer to use rubber wood in big apartments. From the point of view of national economy, the rubber wood processing industry saves precious foreign exchange by limiting furniture import. Processing and value addition also helps in employment generation and wealth creation in the economy.
Rubber wood benefits nature as well. Rubber wood is an eco-friendly timber as there is no need of any willful destruction of plantations for timber requirement. Rubber wood being a plantation timber source replenishable every 20-25 year cycle, its usage reduces the pressure on the scarce rain forests. Rubber plantations help check the fast depletion of forest cover and minimise the impact of global warming. Thus the promotion of rubber wood serves the cause of both economy and ecology.