There is money not only in natural rubber latex but also in rubber saplings. Rubber nurseries have become a big business in Kerala, the home of natural rubber in India, thanks to rising demand for rubber saplings from planters within the country and abroad.
A drive across the rubber belts of Central Kerala and Malabar would reveal that rubber nurseries are mushrooming in Kerala. The roads are dotted with nurseries, some of which don’t even have a name board. Established rubber nurseries in the state like Cheerakkuzhy Young Bud Rubber Nursery and Kuttiyankal Rubber Nursery have started production in multiple centres to meet the demand-supply gap.
Impact of high NR price
The high price of natural rubber has affected rubber nurseries in both ways. On the one hand, planters are reluctant to cut and replace old trees. This has affected the local demand for saplings. It is only the big plantations that are replacing old trees, but 70%-80% of the country’s rubber comes from growers with small or medium holdings.
On the other hand, the high price has generated interest in setting up rubber plantations in non-traditional regions in India and outside. The owners of rubber nurseries are buoyed by the demand from other states in India and abroad. Many established rubber nurseries in Kerala are flooded with orders from planters in the North East and states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Maharashtra and Assam.
There is also increasing demand for rubber saplings from countries that are now in the process of undertaking a massive replanting/new planting drive. Jomon Augustine, Director of Kuttiyankal Rubber Nursery, Pala, said he is getting a lot of enquiries from countries like Malaysia and Mexico. Planters from Guatemala and African countries like Ghana and Liberia too are in talks with rubber nurseries in Kerala to buy rubber saplings.
The Indian clones have earned a good name in those countries for being high-yielding and disease-resistant. Clones such as RRII-105, RRII-414 and RRII-430, developed by Rubber Research Institute of India(RRII), are not only disease-resistant, but also give at least 30% more latex than conventional varieties. Hence there is great potential for export of saplings from India.
But nursery owners are not able to tap the export market significantly because of lack of infrastructure. Unlike tissue culture plants which are germinated in test tubes, export of rubber saplings would require sophisticated facilities to preserve the saplings in ideal conditions. Otherwise, the saplings would suffer damage. For this reason, most nursery owners are reluctant to export rubber saplings.
Many nursery owners who talked to Rubber Asia are unaware of the legal provisions to export rubber saplings. They are looking up to the Rubber Board to provide necessary guidance and support for export of saplings.
It is time the Rubber Board and research agencies like the RRII looked into this issue and provided infrastructural support to the growers to export rubber saplings. This is all the more important since many countries are expanding rubber cultivation and many tyre and plantation companies are planning to set up captive rubber plantations abroad.
Research should also focus on developing rubber seedlings through the tissue culture method which is relatively a new development. The RRII has developed a system for tissue culture propagation of rubber clones. Some such plants planted at the Institute are now under tapping. But the commercial viability of tissue culture rubber plants can be assessed only after the field trials are completed.
The RRII needs to be complimented for developing root trainers for raising stock seedlings which are now fast gaining popularity among farmers (see box). The Cheerakuzhy Young Bud Root Trainer Rubber Nursery in Palakkd district, particularly its founder
K. C. Kuriakose, also deserves kudos for developing and popularising the unique `young budding’ technique which has several advantages over the conventional method (see box).
Quality of saplings
As rubber nurseries proliferate, quality is a cause for concern. Rubber saplings of inferior quality are finding their way to Kerala from places like Kanyakumari district. Growers don’t have the wherewithal to check the quality as it takes up to seven years for the sapling to reach the yielding phase.
“It’s a free-for-all situation. Anyone can start rubber nurseries in India without any restrictions. There is no quality check. The Rubber Board should issue license for starting rubber nurseries and check the quality of saplings. The Board should also facilitate export of rubber saplings without damage to the freight”, says Raju V Jose, Managing Director of Vadakkel Rubber Nursery, Pala.
The rubber nurseries were subject to regulations by the Rubber Board till 1986 when the Board decontrolled the nurseries owing to practical difficulties in overseeing their functioning. It is very difficult to exercise control over nurseries.
Even if the Rubber Board officials inspect the nurseries and certify the quality of saplings, it is not possible to keep a watch on what they sell. Any effort to control nurseries has to start from Kanyakumari district,” says P K Ramachandran, Deputy Rubber Production Commissioner, Rubber Board, India. There is growing demand from growers that private rubber nurseries should be allowed to operate only with licence from the Rubber Board and the Board should at least undertake random inspection of the quality of saplings distributed through nurseries.
Shortage of skilled labour is a major issue confronting the nursery owners. Most nursery owners hire unskilled labour from states like Bihar and West Bengal and impart training to them in nursery activities like weeding, cutting and budding. But the retention rate among the trained labour is low even after providing them with accommodation, food, medical and leave travel concessions, points out Jose Cheerakuzhy, Director of Cheerakkuzhy Young Bud Rubber Nursery, Mannarkkad, Palakkad.
Josekutty Antony, Proprietor of Thulumpanmackal Rubber Nursery, Moozhoor, Kottayam, and Secretary of All Kerala Rubber Nursery Association, feels that rubber nurseries remain the most neglected sector in the country in spite of the vital role played by them in the development of the rubber plantation industry.
The Association has submitted various proposals to the Rubber Board for the proper upkeep of nurseries. The Association wants the Board to issue licenses to nurseries and insist that the growers will be entitled to subsidies from the Board only if they procure saplings from the nurseries approved by Board. The Board officials should periodically visit the nurseries and check the quality of saplings. The Association further wants the Board to establish budding schools in various regions to impart training to labourers and to extend subsidies for modernisation of nurseries.
Rubber is directly linked to the economic growth of a country. In India, the rubber industry is poised for massive expansion in the coming years. As radialisation picks up further momentum, the tyre industry would require high-quality natural rubber. The production and productivity of rubber depends on the quality of saplings. Almost 98% of the saplings required by growers in India are produced and distributed by private nurseries. This underlines the need for the Government to keep a watch on the functioning of nurseries and extend whatever possible support to them to tap the growing domestic and overseas market for quality rubber saplings.