Rubber Plantation in Northeast India, hopes vs. concerns

Jan 21 2012

By Achintya Kumar Sinha, IFS (Retd.)

Rubber, a major plantation crop in northeast India, had a quiet entry to this verdant land with the first plantation raised in Tripura in 1963 by Naresh Bhattacharjee, the venerable Forest Chief of the territory. Bhattacharjee had become a legend of sorts and stories grew around him. The one in this context goes like this. He believed that commercial success of rubber plantation in Kerala could be replicated in Tripura. Bhattacharjee advised the Rubber Board accordingly but the Board officials argued against citing the harsh winter and protracted dry season in Tripura. A seasoned forester known for his down-to-earth wisdom and tenacity, Bhattacharjee did not relent. He planted rubber in degraded forestland under a soil conservation scheme and monitored in person every aspect of its management, as if to prove a point. In a queer coincidence, the Soil Conservation Department of undivided Assam had also raised rubber plantations in a few locations soon thereafter, but it was in Tripura that its enormous potential was promptly relaised and pursued. Bhattacharjee's healthy crop of rubber seized soon enough the attention of the Rubber Board, which opened in 1967 its first office in the northeast at Agartala.

Another high point in this rubber story came about in 1976 with the establishment of Tripura Forest Development & Plantation Corporation Limited. The corporation adopted rehabilitation of degraded forestland through rubber plantation as a principal strategy and took up simultaneously a project to wean away a cluster of tribal families of Warangbari village of West Tripura from shifting cultivation by providing wage employment through rubber plantation. Soon after the site clearance had began, the Warangbari community got wary of permanent loss of land for shifting cultivation and an array of other livelihood necessities that the land delivered. On the face of a determined protest en masse, the corporation officials parleyed with the Warangbari villagers, who agreed to allow rubber plantation on condition that those would be allotted to them on maturity. It was amazing that the state government actually accepted the rather unusual demand. The families thus worked on daily wages under the corporation for establishment of rubber plantations in government land which would be allotted to them on maturity.

The Warangbari experience was the precursor to establishment in 1983 of a separate agency, Tripura Rehabilitation Plantation Corporation Limited, solely for economic rehabilitation of marginalised tribal families on rubber plantations. The same model was adopted mutatis mutandis in Tripura by the RD and Tribal Welfare Departments, Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council as well as the Rubber Board in its high profile Block Plantation Scheme launched for the northeast in 1992 but implemented so far only in Tripura. Around 22,000 marginalised tribal families in Tripura benefitted from the aforesaid rehabilitation packages till 2008-09. Beneficiaries earn a handsome income from sale of latex (May, 2011 price of sheet rubber is around Rs.220/- per kg) from mature plantations, which on average produce around 1300 kilograms of natural rubber per ha. The Rubber Board is now firmly entrenched in the northeast excluding Sikkim, considered unsuitable for rubber plantation. The area under rubber and production of natural rubber in the northeast in 2008-09 were 88,865 ha and 37,240 tonnes respectively as against 36,285 ha and 19,420 tonnes for the rest of the non-traditional region comprising of Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Orissa, West Bengal, Andhrapradesh and Chhattisgarh. The 11th Plan target for the northeast was set at 25,000 ha against 2,500 ha for the rest of the non-traditional region; and share of the target for Tripura alone was 12,400 ha. The advent of rubber set off a stunning transformation in the landscape and rural economy in Tripura pioneering in a way the emergence of the northeast as the principal rubber growing region in the country outside the traditional belt. The potential area (National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land use Planning) identified for rubber in the northeast is 4,50,000 ha against the actual area of 5,36,830 ha (2008-09) in the traditional region comprising of Kerala and Kanyakumari district of Tamilnadu. Bhattacharjee, the indomitable Forest Chief of Tripura, did indeed prove his point.

It would be fair at this stage to clarify that the Rubber Board officiials were technically correct in case they really had discouraged commercial cultivation of rubber in Tripura initially. Desired locality factors within the tropics for commercial cultivation of rubber are gently undulating topography with slope between 5 degrees to 15 degrees, well-distributed high rainfall and humidity; no pronounced droughts; winter, if at all, to be mild and short; and no prolonged seasonal winds, storms or cyclones. Evidently, the northeast did not fit the bill ideally. The fact that the country needed more natural rubber - a strategic raw material - to prop up its industrial growth was obviously of paramount importance. India emerged as the second largest consumer of natural rubber next to China since 2009 (in thousand tonnes: China- 3467; USA- 687 & India- 905); and it simultaneously became a net importer (1,28,000 tonnes) for the first time there since then. There was minimal scope for further growth in the traditional rubber belt and the rest of the non-traditional region; the focus as a result was on the newfound northeast.

Fortunately, rubber is fairly adaptable to some deviations from the ideal climatic requirements albeit with consequent impact on growth and productivity. Such adverse impacts to an extent can be moderated through management interventions; but it will be prudent to accept that overall performance of rubber in the northeast cannot match that of the traditional belt. The average productivity of rubber plantation in India is around 1800 kilograms per ha. The traditional belt, which accounted for 93% of production and 81% of area coverage (2008-09), largely influence the national average productivity. As against that the production in Tripura in 2010-11 was 1456 kilograms per ha (Total plantation: 53039 ha; mature plantation: 24520 ha; production: 35693 tonnes).

The national authorities adopted the agenda to double the area under rubber in the northeast over a period of ten years since 2007-08. There is no quarrel with the programme that aims at meeting the rising demand of a strategic raw material like natural rubber for industrial growth in the country. There is, however, need for caution lest there be blunders in this mad rush. The areas of concern are many; and the first and foremost is on the general preparedness in the northeast for this gigantic leap. The present administrative and extension network of the Rubber Board in the northeast under one zonal office for Tripura and another for the rest of the region for issue of permit, release of subsidy, training and technical guidance, insurance, etcetera is grossly inadequate.

Availability of genuine planting material of recommended cultivars is far too short vis-à-vis the demand. The market is flooded with spurious saplings which account for bulk of the planting material used by private growers oblivious of the disastrous implications. Neither the Rubber Board nor the government departments and organizations engazed in the rubber sector in the northeast have adequate nursery infrastructure to support the massive planting programme. To add to the malady, the Rubber Board discontinued regulation, including inspection and registration, of private rubber nurseries since 1986.

Rubber is grown in the northeast in uplands degraded and impoverished as a result of shifting cultivation. A generous input of fertilizer is therefore essential for its commercial viability. The requirement of fertliser is between 400 to 500 kilograms per ha per annum both for immature and mature plantations. Shortage of fertilizer has even otherwise been a perennial problem in the northeast due to unreliable communication links, inadequate storage facilities and inefficient distribution network; and with the priority that agriculture enjoys, rubber ends up as the worst victim.

Almost the entire rubber latex in the northeast is processed in to sheets for sale as a large majority of the plantations are in small holdings. About four cubic meters of fuel wood is burnt to produce one tonne of dry and smoked rubber sheets. Use of biogas in addition from latex processing facilities to reduce fuel wood consumption for the purpose, though introduced by the Rubber Board in a few centres, were almost totally ignored due to lack of confidence or awareness, high cost of installation, absence of local implementing agencies and reliable post-installation services. In Tripura alone a stock of wood corresponding to around 1000 ha of forestland would have been burnt to process 35693 tonnes of rubber produced during 2010-11. Vast tracts of the countryside in certain parts of Tripura are almost devoid of any tree other than rubber. Tripura forests too are under heightened stress.

While most rubber planters might sound happy with the handsome returns from their plantations in Tripura, their women folks often express their desperation in missing the bamboo shoots, delicious wild vegetables, tuber crops and medicinal herbs delivered by the erstwhile natural vegetation. Tripura witnessed an extra-ordinary expansion of rubber plantation in recent times (2005-06:- 31673 ha & 2010-11:- 53039 ha); and many in the villages and the civil society now blame the large-scale substitution of indigenous vegetation by rubber for the drying hill streams and village wells. They express concern about the foul-smelling effluent from rubber sheet processing units that pollute the soil, water and the air they are to live on. Remedial measures are often listed but hardly ever put in place and practiced. These concerns, real without a doubt, will grow in enormity with time and there is seemingly no serious action plan or endeavor in sight for remedies.
It is appropriate under the circumstances to explore, identify and implement alternative farming models for commercial rubber cultivation in the northeast that meet the livelihood needs and other aspirations of the ethnic communities, who depend a lot more on the land with its indigenous biodiversity, compared to those in the traditional rubber belt in Kerala. There is an urgent need for dedicated trial in the northeast to promote rubber in pure blocks of one acre or more separated by blocks of existing natural vegetation or new plantations of trees bearing edibles and trees for other utilities chosen by the local communities. The farmers should be encouraged for intercropping under immature rubber plantations with tuber crops, legumes, etcetera to ensure food security and income during the long gestation period by linking subsidy to compliance of this planting model.

It is time one appreciates the reality that rubber, despite its apparent acceptance in the northeast, is not a natural choice. It is essentially a subsidy driven programme to meet a national objective that also helps the northeast. There have been other developments in respect of other plant resources. Technology for new generation value-added products from bamboo with a rapidly growing export market has put this tall grass in the center-stage for industrial development in the northeast, home to two thirds of the growing stock of bamboo in India. Economic growth based on bamboo will suit the social and cultural milieu and will be a prudent option for the ecologically fragile region. There would be other worthy farming and non-farming options suited to this region; and to write them off in favour of the alien rubber would be irrational.

In fine, there remains, with due regards to the great potential of rubber, a strong case for drawing up an inclusive futuristic land use plan for horticulture and plantation crops in the northeast by an expert group constituted by the NEC with members from the ICAR, Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, the Rubber Board, National Bamboo Mission, National Medicinal Plants Board and the Spices Board. Meanwhile, the present target for ten years for creation of rubber plantation in the northeast may be downsized right away by the Rubber Board in view of the constraints illustrated and to explore alternatives for optimal utilisation of uplands in the northeast for sustainable benefit.

State wise area under rubber in the northeast as in 2008-09 (Source: The Rubber Board):


State

Geog. area (km2)

Area suitable for rubber (ha)

Area planted (ha)

Arunachal Pradesh

83743

25,000

720

Assam

78438

200,000

23705

Manipur

22327

10,000

2380

Meghalaya

22429

50,000

7740

Mizoram

22081

50,000

735

Nagaland

16579

15,000

3515

Sikkim

7096

0

0

Tripura

10486

100,000

50070

Total

263179

450,000

88865


The author can be reached at achintyaksinha@gmail.com

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