For the last 30 years, Suresh would rise up early in the morning, take his long knife, and go out to the rubber plantation nearby. At a time when most of the people are still comfortably between the sheets, Suresh would start his work – slowly and carefully slicing away the outer skin of the rubber trees to get the latex flowing. His labours at those unearthly hours rewarded him well, helping the rubber tapper from Kanam to take good care of his family. It was a story repeated across most of central Kerala, where money from rubber helped boost the lifestyles of several generations to a comfortable orbit that was the envy of any farmer in India.
But natural rubber prices that have been on a free fall for the last few years have made those days more of a distant, fond memory. And brought Kerala's rubber farmers face to face again with the unpredictable and harsh ways of a life dependent on agricultural income that they had long forgotten.
From an April 2011 peak of Rs 243 per kg, natural rubber was trading at Rs 94 a kg on January 30.
The nose-diving rubber prices have decimated the agricultural economy of Kerala and is having a ripple effect across the state as families cut back on spending and learn to adjust to tighter incomes. Suresh, who has stopped going for work in the rubber plantations, puts it starkly: “I have never come across such a terrible situation. We have cut down on the daily portions of food that we eat, but we have to make sure that we provide for our children,” he says in a forlorn voice.
The father of two children has run up a heavy debt and is left worrying about how he can provide for them, or even pay for their education. “I have a daughter who is studying for B.Tech in Pampadi and a son in the eleventh grade. I don't know how I am going to pay their fees,” he says.
The family would already have been pushed over the brink had it not been for the earnings from a single cow they keep.
“I have been tapping rubber trees for the past 30 years, I don't know any other work apart from this. Most of the tappers here are clueless as to what to do,” he adds.
Suresh's story is being repeated across Kerala, but more so in the central regions that had rode to prosperity on income from rubber plantations. The crisis couldn't have come at a worse time. The oil price crash has knocked off another major prop of Kerala's economy, which is also heavily dependent on remittances.
About 12 lakh small and medium rubber farmer in Kerala have been affected by the rubber price crash, says N Dharmaraj, President of United Planters Association of South India.
Natural rubber production has fallen by more than a fifth in India, causing a loss of Rs 7,000 crore.
Many have started to desert rubber farming itself and look at other income sources, says Mathew Kulathumkal, President of Kerala State Co-operative Rubber Marketing Federation Limited.
He says the Centre's recent ban on on rubber imports is not helping as big businesses have stocked up enough imported rubber.
The ripple effect on the state's economy is unmistakable. Biju, a cabbie from Kanam, Kottayam, says his incomes have been affected as people cut back on leisure trips and long drives.
As the Assembly elections approach, political parties have started taking up the issue. But Suresh doubts their sincerity. “They come only when the elections approach. Ruling party leaders send us back, asking us to come another day; Opposition parties say they will set things right when they come to power. But here we don’t even know how we will survive tomorrow.”