Thiruvananthapuram: It was Mathew T Thomas, the former water resources minister who had just stepped down from office, who articulated the rubber paradox in the Assembly on Tuesday.
“While the price of rubber is falling at an alarming rate, the price of tyres and other rubber-related products are shooting up,” he said during Question Hour, and offered a solution. “Is there any possibility to set up tyre-related industries in the public sector? This way we can use the profits from the tyre industry to alleviate the suffering of rubber farmers,” he said.
Agriculture Minister V S Sunil Kumar said the government was actively considering the setting up of a 'CIAL' model company with private public participation for tyre and rubber-based industries. “We are looking at a more participative arrangement in which farmers are the dominant partners,” the minister said. Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) was realised using the money of beneficiaries, which in this case was mostly made up of NRIs.
In fact, last September, a meeting presided over by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had decided to constitute a high-level committee to explore the possibility for manufacturing value added products from Kerala rubber. The minister said the committee will soon come up with a report. The committee has been asked to study the possibility of forming a cooperative of rubber producers on the lines of Gujarat's Amul cooperative.
Higher support price ruled out
The plight of the rubber farmers was the major point of discussion during the Question Hour. LDF members Suresh Kurup, Raju Abraham, Veena Goerge and C K Hareendran wanted to know whether rubber would be taken out of commercial and made an agricultural crop. The minister said that it was up to the Centre to take a call. “The first recommendation of the 'Task Force on Rubber' is about maknig rubber an agricultural crop,” Sunil Kumar said. Being a commercial crop, rubber is denied the immunity enjoyed by agricultural crops from international trade treaties.
The Task Force, the minister said, had also recommended that the production incentive of rubber should be raised to Rs 200 a kg from the existing Rs 150. “The report has also recommended that the incentive should be equally shared by the state and the centre,” the minister said. As it stands, the incentive given under the 'price stabilisation scheme' is fully borne by the state government.
When Kerala Congress (Mani) member Mons Joseph wanted to know whether the government would increase the support price by at least Rs 10 to Rs 160 a kg, the minister said that there were no immediate plans to enhance the support price of rubber.
The minister said the Centre's neo-liberal policies, especially its move to reduce import tariffs, were hurting the rubber sector. “To help rubber-based industries, the Centre had reduced import duty to 35 percent for the highly in demand smoked rubber sheet. As for latex, whose demand is low, the import duty is 75 percent,” he said.
George's doomsday prediction
While members cutting across party lines were speaking about ways to revive the rubber sector, independent MLA P C George made a doomsday prediction. “This sector can never be made profitable. I would urge the finance minister not to grant a single pie as subsidy for the rubber sector,” George said, and added: “The rubber tree sucks up a lot of water and is not environment friendly.”
When the minister said that it was a surprise that a Kerala Congress member himself had made such an anti-rubber statement, George said that he was no more Kerala Congress. “I am a Janapaksham member,” he said.
The minister said that though there are differing views on the suitability of the rubber tree, the government has no plans to ignore the rubber sector. “We cannot turn a blind eye to a sector that is responsible for over Rs 7,000 crore as foreign exchange revenues,” Sunil Kumar said.