A 2000 batch IAS Officer of the Sikkim cadre, D. Anandan took over charge as Chairman & Executive Director of Rubber Board, India, at a time when the domestic as well as the global rubber industry is passing through one the worst crises in recent times. Rubber production the world over has fallen owing to a host of factors including prolonged low prices, rising production costs, climate change etc. Unprecedented rains and floods and low rubber prices have wreaked havoc on both new planting and replanting in India as well. As per statistics, 22% of the tappable area in the country remained untapped last year.
In a recent interview to Rubber Asia, the Rubber Board Chairman says that the definitive target, therefore, is to enhance NR production on account of the growing deficit for the material from domestic sources. In order to catch up with the increasing demand projected in the coming years, a corresponding increase in production is essential, he points out. He describes, among many other things, the measures the Board is focusing on to improve production. EXCERPTS:

As the Rubber Board’s Executive Director, what would be your specific initiatives to enhance domestic rubber production, new planting and replanting as compared to the previous year?

The policies and programmes of the Board are formulated not on a year-to-year basis but designed with a near/medium term perspective based on the emerging trends. However, there are programmes scheduled for a given year within the overall policy framework. The definitive target is enhancement in NR production taking into view the growing deficit for the material from domestic sources. As is well-known, price is the best incentive to motivate growers and price trends determine production and planting of rubber. The policies and programmes of the Board have only a supplementary role.
When the price of rubber declines, farmers skip cultural practices resulting in crop loss. Yield from holdings can be improved by adopting cultural practices recommended by the Board and by adhering to scientific tapping. The Board focused on the following measures to improve production.
• Statistics show that 22% of the tappable area remained untapped last year. The annual campaign this year in traditional area is focussed on getting the maximum holdings rain-guarded.
• Took the initiative to form Farm Field Schools (FFS) and Common Interest Groups (CIGs) under Rubber Producers Societies (RPS) with the objectives of getting the holdings rain-guarded so that tapping can be done throughout the year without interruption and promote low intensity tapping.
• Campaign meetings were conducted in non-traditional areas for improving productivity.
• Promoting 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.
• Skill upgradation programmes conducted under the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) project under Pradhan Mantri Kaushal VikasYojana (PMKVY) on correction of tapping defects and other cultural practices.
• Continuing the implementation of Rubber Production Incentive Scheme (RPIS) of the Government of Kerala ensuring a price of Rs. 150 per kg to smallholders through the RPS sector.
However, as you are aware, the State of Kerala and nearby districts of Karnataka had experienced unprecedented rainfall and natural calamities which caused setback on the NR production through loss of tapping days and incidence of abnormal leaf fall. The excessive rains and prolonged low prices had a dampening effect on both new planting and replanting.

What are the targets set for rubber production for the short, medium and long terms?

NR consumption in the country for 2018-19 is projected at 12,00,000 tonnes and for 2021-22, at 13,70,000 tonnes. NR consumption is expected to reach 16,30,000 tonnes in 2025-26. In order to meet the increasing demand, a corresponding increase in production is essential. The projected NR production in 2021-22 and 2025-26 is 10,20,000 tonnes and 12,60,000 tonnes respectively. But actual production of NR would depend on prevailing prices, weather conditions and other factors.

What are the schemes to help growers increase their income, especially in the context of long-term price fall? Will these also include diversifying into multi-crop system, fish-harvesting etc.?

As rubber prices are determined by a range of domestic and external factors, regulating prices is not practical. Hence, the focus of strategies shall be enhancing the economic viability of rubber cultivation by adopting cost-minimising, productivity-improving and income-augmenting cultural practices. Replanting senile plantations with high-yielding varieties is a focus area. One of the primary tasks of the Board is to develop and promote high-yielding varieties of planting materials. The Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII) has the largest number of pipeline clones in the world. The RRII is also in the process of developing rubber-based business systems with the combinations of other farm and non-farm enterprises.
The extension set-up of the Board, coupled with the network of RPS and SHGs, is being utilised to promote appropriate cultural practices. Strategic advisory and extension services are also provided to growers by way of advisory visits, group meetings, seminars, mass contact programmes and e-extension services. Mechanisation will also help the farmers to reduce cost. Low-frequency tapping methods can reduce cost of production considerably. Modern harvesting practices like Controlled Upward Tapping can increase production up to 50%. Farmers can also practice auxiliary income generation activities like intercropping, bee keeping etc.

How is India expected to fare on the NR export front in 2018? Could you explain briefly the Board’s measures to improve quality of the Indian rubber?

Export of NR from India has recorded a negative trend since 2013-14 (except in 2016-17) owing to relatively unattractive prices in the global market. Though domestic demand-supply position does not warrant massive exports, the Board has been promoting export since 2001, after the lifting of Quantitative Restrictions (QRs) in NR imports. This is done as a strategy to adjust temporary demand-supply imbalances in the domestic market reflected by prolonged low rubber prices. The Indian rubber exporters have the capability to grab market opportunities whenever price situation turns favourable. With a view to distinguishing the Indian NR in the international market with its discerning quality features, the Board has been promoting branded rubber under the brand name ‘Indian Natural Rubber” since 2012.
Improving quality of processed forms of NR has been a key component of development activities of the Board. Apart from the regular programmes, the Board is organising Entrepreneurship Development Programmes in association with National Institute of Agricultural Marketing (NIAM) in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for promoting prospective entrepreneurs in commercial rubber sheet making. It is decided to provide consultancy to prospective entrepreneurs who wish to venture into commercial sheet processing units.

The Rubber Board has of late initiated a series of training programmes for NR growers, tappers, processors etc. How successful are these? Please elaborate?

The Rubber Board started training programmes under Pradhan Mantri Kaushal VikasYojana (PMKVY) in November 2016 to upskill rubber tappers and processing technicians initially. Phase-I of the programme was undertaken in Kerala, targeting 10,000 candidates. Phase-II of the programme was launched in a massive way during May 2017 covering Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and the North Eastern States of Tripura and Assam besides Kerala. Phase-II targeted 22,000 persons. Job roles other than latex harvest technician were also included in this programme. Both the programmes were implemented successfully and the Rubber Board was adjudged the “Champion PIA” (Project Implementing Agency) – the best among the Government organisations in the country – by the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship.
A new RPL project in collaboration with Rubber Skill Development Council (RSDC), to upskill 6,700 labourers under various job roles will be launched in December 2018. Preparations are underway to launch a ‘New skilling’ programme for Latex Harvest Technicians (LHTs), with the support of Tripura Skill Development Mission during the current fiscal. In this programme, 2,500 persons will be trained in 25 batches at 10 training centres (accredited as per the PMKVY guidelines) identified at different vantage locations in Tripura.
The training programmes have definitely helped the sector to fulfil the objectives of the PMKVY. During the first phase of the RPL programme, the Board had undertaken two job roles of Latex Harvest Technician (Tapper) and Processing Technician. The selection of these job roles was mainly to address the shortage of skilled manpower in the plantation sector to carry out scientific tapping and processing of the produce. Though the Board had Tappers Training Schools and also short-term training camps organised all over the rubber growing areas, the number of people getting trained was limited in comparison to the demand for trained tappers in the country. Most of the tappers have acquired the skill in an informal way traditionally, either by inheritance or by taking up tapping from early life. Such people have only practical experience and lack technical knowledge. The RPL programme helps these tappers to upgrade their knowledge and skill.
The Rubber Board considers training under PMKVY as an opportunity to make available skilled manpower on all fronts of the rubber plantation sector. We have enlisted the successful candidates of the RPL-Phase I. The list will be published on the website and social media shortly. Training such a huge number of people within the stipulated period has been a big task indeed. Collaboration between the Rubber Board and Rubber Skill Development Council (RSDC) has been helpful to the Board in accomplishing the task. This mode of execution of the project is a good example for Public Private Partnership.

How much is the contribution of India’s non-traditional regions, especially the North-East, to the country’s total NR production? What about the productivity level and quality of rubber in the non-traditional regions?

India produced 6,94,000 tonnes of NR in 2016-17. Of these, 1,32,000 tonnes were from the non-traditional areas. NR produced in the North East was 90,630 tonnes which accounts for 13% of the total NR produced in the country. NR produced from the non-traditional area in 2017-18 was 19% of the country’s total NR production.
The Board has been implementing productivity enhancement measures in all rubber growing areas. The release of a location-specific clone, RRII 208, for planting in North East region was a part of the Board’s initiative to increase productivity level in the region. Natural rubber buyers in the North East region have been mainly from the non-tyre sector. Currently, the companies in the RPS sector are promoting sale of good quality rubber in North East region to tyre companies also. The Board is also giving technical support for quality upgradation.

Is there any plan to set up more Rubber Parks?

Rubber Park India (P) Ltd at Irapuram in Ernakulam District and Tripura Industrial Rubber Park in Bodhungnagar are the two Rubber Parks established in India. The third Rubber Park proposed at Piravanthoor, Pathanapuram is being delayed due to pending environmental clearance from the departments concerned. Rubber Park India (P) Ltd is a joint venture company promoted and established by the Rubber Board and Kerala Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (KINFRA) with equal equity partnership. Tripura Rubber Park is promoted by Tripura Industrial Development Corporation (TIDC) and the Rubber Board. Since the Rubber Parks are joint ventures of Central and State Governments, setting up of new Rubber Parks requires interest and participation of the State Governments too.

Domestic natural rubber (NR) growers, plagued by long time price fall, had looked up on the last Union Budget with much hope. Do you think the Budget has done them the expected justice?

Policy decisions in NR sector are outside the Union Budget. Revision in import duty of NR and restriction of ports for import are the decisions of the Central Government outside the Budget to regulate import of NR, taking into due consideration the influence of import on domestic prices. The basic Customs duty on dry forms of NR is kept on a par with the bound rate. The port restrictions on NR import have been continued, though import under Advance Authorisation Scheme was given exemption recently.

The minimum support price to the extent of one and a half times of cost of production is proposed to all agricultural commodities. Will this apply to rubber too, especially as rubber is considered as an industrial raw material?

Minimum support price (MSP) is applicable mainly to crops under the purview of Commission of Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). NR does not come under the CACP and as such MSP is not applicable currently for NR. However, exclusion of NR from MSP scheme has nothing to do with its status as an industrial raw material. Cotton and jute which are industrial raw materials have been included under the MSP scheme.

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

It is not easy to predict when the price of rubber will go up. The rubber prices in the domestic market may move in tandem with the international price trends. The general expectation among analysts is that the present low rubber price phase would end in another three to four years, followed by a prolonged phase of comfortable prices.