It is expected that as GDP increases, the world will need more natural rubber and this is more true in the case of India as its per capita rubber consumption is very low now and this may go up significantly if its GDP continues to increase 8% to 9% per year. Demand for NR in India exceeds its domestic supply. Deficit projected can be substantially higher if FDI in the rubber products manufacturing sector expands at a higher rate and the Indian economy grows at a faster rate.
Focus on high productivity
High productivity must get top priority; equally important is increasing total production through area expansion. Traditional region has no more area available for NR cultivation.
Non-traditional areas include parts of NE and Karnataka, Northern Konkan as well as parts of Orissa, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh etc. Agro-climatic constraints for expanding rubber cultivation to various non-traditional areas need to be examined and cost of cultivation worked out.
Location-specific clones and farm practices including farming systems that take into account the local crops and nutritional requirement of the people should be developed. This is all the more relevant when we expand rubber to newer areas in the country which is essential if we have to bridge the gap between demand and supply of natural rubber.
Impact of climate change
It is estimated that the rubber yield comes down by 10-15% for every degree rise in temperature. The extent of climate change and its impact on natural rubber growth and productivity should be worked out and climate models should be developed for predicting future supply of rubber in India and other rubber producing countries. Adaptation strategies and economic burden of adapting to climate change need to be worked out.
Improved mechanisation and reduced tapping frequency are needed to reduce labour dependence in the natural rubber sector.
Satellite data can be used to identify and estimate the extent of agro-climatically suitable areas where rubber can be introduced with least conflict with present land utilisation and no impact on biodiversity in various parts of India or outside. Satellite data also can be used for estimating the probability of occurrence of climate
stress in India or any rubber producing country.
Clones of the future
Those who control genes will control agriculture in future. We should aim at developing ‘smart clones’ which should have high rubber and timber yields, faster growth
and shorter gestation period, improved
tolerance to diseases/pests, better adaptability to climate stress and are location-specific.
Do not worship any particular breeding strategy, but select the one which can help to achieve the desired end-goal speedily and surely.
The two scientific disciplines at Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII) that are capable of coming up with research findings that can have immediate and profound impact on society are Gene Technology and Rubber Technology. The RRII should continue its clone-centric approach,
but it should make use of molecular breeding techniques such as marker-assisted selection to shorten the breeding cycle and get more number of agronomically important genes into an elite clone.
Further genetic improvement in Hevea (eg. Breaking the yield ceiling or pyramiding of multiple traits in one single clone etc.) may be difficult through conventional breeding/selection route.
Enlarging the rubber basket
RRII should take up pilot-scale feasibility studies on alternative sources of natural rubber (Guayule rubber, Russian dandelion rubber, Ceara rubber). The latest technologies such as molecular technology, nano technology, information technology, GIS and remote sensing etc. should be
profitably made use of for advancing scientific research in natural and synthetic rubber.
There has to be more emphasis on rubber technology, focussing on providing products and services to the processing and products manufacturing industry. Emphasis on basic science must always be with a conceptual link to applied research for tangible results in the field, both in the
Agricultural and Rubber Technology streams (be it a smart clone or an intelligent tyre).
Several findings in Rubber Technology have not gone beyond lab-level demonstration for want of a collaboration with potential end-users, demonstration of the process
at a scale which can be taken up by the industry for implementation and identification of developmental activities as per user needs
This deficiency should be addressed and findings in Rubber Technology should be converted into tangible products and services of relevance to the country through translational research
Mobilising science and technology
There are many areas where science and technology can be harnessed for the good of the rubber industry. They include setting up a Centre for Tyre Testing and Research and a Transmission Electron Microscopy Centre, Development of flex-resistant
materials for critical dynamic applications in the automobile industry, setting up a Rubber Products Exhibition Centre (museum) and an Online Products Bank, automation in small scale, non-tyre low profit industry to avoid manual
dipping, extrusion method for making good quality rubber bands to compete with imports and developing pilot scale rubber dam (removable check dams) for water harvesting/conservation.
An IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) and Technology Transfer Cell should be
established to take care of technology dissemination, identification of potential end-users and IPR-related matters.
There has to be institutional/departmental-level interactions with the public and private sector establishments like the DRDO, ISRO, DAE, Railways etc to identify products to be developed. An MOU with clear-cut milestones to be achieved has to be signed with them and a mechanism of joint review should be evolved.
There has to be collaboration/outsourcing of minor part of developmental activities in selected cases (where necessary infrastructure and expertise are not available in-house) and scaling-up of processes developed in consultation with the user industry by setting up suitable processing facility and chemical reactors.
No scientific or technological achievement will be sustainable unless the environmental cost is taken into account. Sociological and economic dimensions of natural rubber cultivation and allied activities should be assessed and projected appropriately.
Long-term sustainability of rubber growing soils should be ensured. Energy, emissions, environment concerns should be addressed.
Science goes to the farmer and a two-way communication between scientists and farmers (or other stakeholders) have to be ensured. Let our new slogan be: ‘Lab-to-land and land-to-lab.’