Like all major producing countries in Southeast Asia, natural rubber cultivation is facing serious challenges in India too, the world’s 5th largest NR producing country, mainly on account of falling prices and a host of other negative non-fundamental
factors such as climate change, diseases, shortage of skilled labour force, currency fluctuations; speculative elements etc. In this context, as a promotional body, the Rubber Board is devising and implementing a host of strategies to improve the net income of growers so as to enhance the economic viability of rubber cultivation.
The Board is also attaching greater importance to research in rubber technology and consultancy services for rubber products making with a view to increasing domestic rubber consumption and making products cost and quality-competitive. The Board
has realised that a robust products making industry is central to the long-term sustainability of NR cultivation in the country.
In an exclusive interview to Rubber Asia, the Board Chairman A Ajith Kumar IAS elaborates on these initiatives while also expresses his views on the future of this vital industry. Excerpts:

On the NR production front, 2017 appears to be quite promising for India and much relieving to domestic growers. What will be its impact on the market?

India has a potential to produce more than one million tonnes of NR with tappable area of 600,000 ha and an assumed realisable productivity of 1,700 kg per hectare, if agroclimatic conditions are favourable and all tappable areas are brought under tapping. However, production of NR declined to 562,000 tonnes in 2015-16 as the extent of untapped area increased to 30% and productivity declined to 1,437 kg per ha. From May 2016, NR production showed a reverse trend and the last fiscal recorded an increase in production to the tune of 23% to 691,000 tonnes. The extent of untapped area declined to 24% and productivity increased to 1,563 kg per ha. The immediate and visible impact of the better performance of the NR sector in 2016-17 was on the import of NR which declined by 7 per cent to 426,434 tonnes. The increase in productivity would enhance the net returns of growers, thus increasing the profitability of rubber cultivation.

What were the specific Rubber Board initiatives that helped India to fare better than the previous year on the production front?

As is well known, price is the best incentive to motivate crop production. The Rubber Production Incentive Scheme (RPIS) of the Government of Kerala ensuring a price of Rs 150 per kg to smallholders, which is being flawlessly implemented by the Board through Rubber Producers Societies (RPS), was a critical factor in raising productivity and production. But RPIS was in operation in 2015-16 as well. Hence, the critical factor behind the considerable increase in NR production was RPIS supplemented by several initiatives by the Board to improve productivity and profitability and reduce the cost of production. The following initiatives need special mention:
• Specific targets were assigned to field-level offices to improve production and productivity.
• Conducted a mass contact programme in traditional rubber belt to popularize low frequency tapping (LFT), especially once a week tapping, as a cost reduction measure to improve profitability of rubber and to extend economic life without reduction in yield.
• Campaign programmeswere conducted in non-traditional areas for improving productivity.
• Inputs, especially rain guarding materials, were supplied through the Board-promoted companies.
• Formed Tappers Banks attached to Rubber Producer Societies (RPSs).
• The first phase of the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) project under Pradhan MantriKuashalVikasYojana (PMKVY) sponsored by Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship with an outlay of Rs. 28 million was successfully completed benefiting 10,000 tappers in Kerala.

The Rubber Board has of late initiated a series of training programmes for NR growers, tappers, processors etc, especially the rubber skill development programme, in collaboration with RSDC. How successful are these? Please elaborate?

Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) skill development programme for rubber tappers being implemented by the Rubber Board under PMKVY has been a success. In the first phase of the project implemented in Kerala, 10,000 persons including rubber tappers and those involved in processing of rubber were trained. A survey revealed that there was around 33% increase in the skill of tappers who underwent training. The monthly yield in the holdings tapped by the trained tappers showed an increase of 16%. Previous studies conducted by the Board have already established that yield could be increased by more than 30% by adopting scientific tapping.
In the second phase, 22,000 persons will be trained under the job roles of Latex Harvest Technician (Tapper); Processing Technician-Rubber Sheeting; General Worker – Rubber Plantation and Rubber Nursery Worker in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and the North-eastern States. The Rubber Board has initiated this programme with an objective to increase production and profitability and to address the issue of shortage of skilled labour. The Board is aiming at certifying the majority of the tappers in India by 2020.

Is there any plan to revitalise the functioning of Rubber Producers’ Societies and encourage them to foray into rubber products manufacturing?

Rubber Producers Societies (RPS) are the main extension channels of the Board, functioning as links between the Rubber Board and the growers. The main purpose of RPS is to increase profitability of rubber cultivation through all possible means and improve the living standards of small growers in a collective manner. Improving the functioning of RPS has been a regular activity of the Board. Implementation of a massive scheme like RPIS of Government of Kerala through RPS substantiates the capability of the RPS sector. The skill development programmesunder PMKVY are also implemented through RPS. The Rubber Board, in association with the Department of Agriculture of Government of Kerala, has recently launched a project to promote intercropping in immature rubber plantations through RPS. The objective is to transform RPS into a service centre for the on-farm and off-farm needs of rubber growers in the service area.

What are the new initiatives of the Board/RRII on the R&D front?

Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII), the research wing of Rubber Board, has made several seminal achievements in the recent months.
Web-based online fertiliser recommendation for rubber deserves special mentioning. Termed Rubber Soil Information System (RubSIS), this information and communication technology (ICT) tool combines principles of Agronomy and Soil Science with Geospatial technology. RubSIS provides site-specific and need-based fertiliser recommendations for rubber holdings according to age and extent. This avoids indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers, helping farmers to reduce cost of cultivation. This will also help in preventing pollution and soil degradation.
Another significant achievement is the release of RRII 208, a cold-tolerant, disease-resistant and high-yielding hybrid clone, for exclusive cultivation in the cold-prone Northeastern region of India. This is the first time, a high-yielding Indian hybrid has been recommended for any non-traditional rubber growing region in the country. This clone was released after conducting field trials in different parts of the North East for over 25 years. This clone is fairly tolerant to powdery mildew disease that is common in the Northeastern States.
State and region-specific recommendations of the clones released by the Rubber Board have been formulated. This will help in selecting the clone best suited for a particular region. Developing high-yielding, disease-tolerant and climate-smart clones for traditional and non-traditional regions is being given top priority by the Rubber Board. It takes almost a quarter of a century to develop a new rubber clone. This is because of the long gestation period and economic life span of rubber. Research in this direction cannot be slowed down because there are new challenges and threats such as declining soil health, changing climate, new pests and diseases, need to increase farm productivity etc. that need to be addressed. The long breeding cycle (more than 25 years) is a major barrier for developing better clones quickly.
This issue is being addressed by the RRII team, which is in the process of elucidating the entire genetic sequence of rubber (whole genome sequencing) and searching for specific and reliable genome markers associated with useful agronomic traits such as high yield, disease tolerance, fast growth rate, climate resilience etc. This will not only reduce the time required for developing a new clone but also help to evolve much better clones. This work is in the final stage and we hope to complete it by the end of this year.
Another immediate priority is to develop rubber-based homestead farming system for small and marginal growers wherein multiple cropping, animal husbandry and fisheries will be integrated into the farm. This will benefit growers when rubber prices are low, even as the ecological sustainability of the farms will improve.
Quality of water in different land use systems dominated by rubber and other crops, socio-economic and ecological impact of NR cultivation in India, level of adoption of various recommendations of the Rubber Board by growers, functioning of RPSs etc are some other important projects.
We are attaching greater importance to research in rubber technology and consultancy services for rubber products making. It is important to increase the consumption of rubber in the country and make products cost and quality-competitive for the benefit of the end users. A robust products making industry is central to the long-term sustainability of NR cultivation in the country and in this sense both NR cultivation and products making are mutually inclusive and not exclusive. We are conducting a major national level technology workshop at RRII on July 28 and 29, 2017, in association with KSIDC which will also assist to set up a technology innovation centre at RRII later this year.

What are your demand-supply projections for the year 2017?

NR production and consumption for 2017-18 are projected at 800,000 tonnes and 1,070,000 tonnes respectively with a deficit of 270,000 tonnes. With an opening stock of 264,000 tonnes and duty-free import entitlement of around 100,000 tonnes, the total availability of NR would be 1,164,000 tonnes. However, there can be import of NR to take advantage of the lower price of block rubber in the international market and due to irregular market arrivals in the domestic sector.

How do you expect India to fare on the NR export front this year?

Export of NR is primarily influenced by volume of NR production in the domestic sector as well as differences in the prices between domestic and international markets. NR prices generally was higher in the domestic market from the end of 2013 to October 2016 and hence export of NR during the period was low. However, from November 2016 onwards, the situation changed with international rubber prices staying above domestic prices. The total export of NR during 2016-17 was 20,920 tonnes worth Rs.2,210 million. It may be noted that export of NR during April to November 2016 was only 1,290 tonnes as compared to 19,630 tonnes during the remaining part of the year. The projection of NR export for 2017-18 is at 20,000 tonnes. As mentioned earlier, export of NR will be ultimately determined by the price trends in domestic and international markets. However, I would like to highlight that domestic NR production sector has the capability in terms of quality standards and business relations to export rubber whenever there is a price advantage. Branded Indian NR promoted by the Board also has positively contributed to the situation.

When do you expect the NR prices to turn around? Please substantiate.

This is a question which is being raised to experts in all the gatherings in the rubber sector and no clear answer is seen. The fluctuations and conditions in futures markets indicate that the speculators also do not have a clear perception on near and medium-term price movements. In the present context of globalised market, the major factors influencing rubber prices are trends in world GDP growth; situation in major consuming countries, especially China and India; developments in tyre and vehicle sectors; crude oil price; weather conditions in major producing areas; currency fluctuations; speculative elements and other geopolitical situations. All these factors may vary influencing NR market and price trends. In this context, what is more relevant as a promotional body for Rubber Board is to devise strategies to improve the net income of growers so as to enhance the economic viability of rubber cultivation.

How are re-plantation and new plantation drives progressing in India?

The Board has been continuing its efforts to promote replanting and new planting in the country. However, one of the factors key to new planting is the price trends of NR. During the four years from 2008-09 to 2011-12 when rubber prices were relatively high and increasing, average annual new planting was around 26,000 ha. But annual average new planting declined to around 19,000 ha in the subsequent four-year period from 2012-13 to 2015-16, marked by low and declining prices. Replanting is mainly determined by age composition of the existing stock of rubber plantations as well as price trends. Annual average replanting was around 10,500 ha during the period from 2008-09 to 2011-12 and around 14,000 ha during the period from 2012-13 to 2015-16. The new planting and replanting trends will have definite impact on the future production potential of NR. The Board is continuing its extension and research support for rubber planting and upkeep.

There are media reports that Government of India has abandoned the plan to have a National Rubber Policy and instead is thinking of framing a common national policy for all commodities together. What’s your take on this?

The Department of Commerce had constituted an Expert Committee for formulation of National Rubber Policy under the Department of Commerce. The task assigned to the Board was to coordinate the activities of the Expert Committee. Accordingly, the Board coordinated the activities of the Expert Committee by servicing its meetings and preparing draft documents. Any further remarks on this can be given only by the Department of Commerce. However, I would like to add that several recommendations emerged in the meetings of the Expert Committee and related consultations have been implemented in a phased manner.

How are the call centres of the Board doing? How helpful are they to the growers?

The Rubber Board call centre is a centralised contact point for attending to telephone calls from rubber growers and other stake holders seeking technical advice on all aspects of rubber cultivation and also details of various services of the Board. At present, there are two call centres, one functioning at Head Office, Kottayam and another at Zonal Office, Guwahati. The telephone number of the Call Centre at Head Office is: 0481-2576622 and in Guwahati is: 09435196358.
The Call Centre at HO also arranges special phone-in programmes in relevant topics on weekly and fortnightly basis. Technical experts on the concerned subjects answer the queries from the stakeholders. Important questions and their answers are published through the Board’s Rubber magazine regularly.

Ever since you have taken over, there is an added focus on extending rubber cultivation to the non-traditional areas, especially in the North East. Please provide us an update?

Focus on new planting in the North East in the context of the saturation in planting in the traditional regions has been a focus area from 10th Five Year Plan. Rubber can grow well in most of the regions in the North East states. Availability of large tracts of unused land and comparatively inexpensive labour have made this area suitable for expansion of rubber cultivation. Currently, there are rubber plantations extending to around 1.80 lakh ha in the North East. The Board is in the process of formulating convergence projects for rubber plantation development with the NE states.