As protests by farmers from across the country persist against the three contentious Farm Laws, farmers from Kerala marched to the Thiruvananthapuram regional office of the Rubber Board on Tuesday, demanding that the Centre withdraw from the ASEAN free trade agreement.
The farmers, who marched under the banner of the Kerala Karshaka Sangham – Kerala chapter of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) – have urged the Centre to protect them by withdrawing from the ASEAN treaty. Farmers from the state, especially those growing rubber, coffee and tea, have been the worst-affected due to the ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement which had been signed in August 2009 and later came into effect from January 1, 2010.
Farmers say that when the big corporations got access to import rubber in bulk, cheaper imports from other countries, due to the ASEAN agreement, affected them. The trade agreement with ASEAN countries saw the state’s rubber production slip from an annual 10 lakh tonnes to between six and seven lakh tonnes.
Farmers from the state had earlier been getting around Rs 245 per kilogram of rubber before the treaty came into place. It came down to Rs 110 per kilogram after India started importing rubber from other countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.
Though the farmers’ organisations had conducted a series of protests against the agreement, the then Central Government had gone ahead with the free trade agreement.
“The Left Front in Kerala had organised a human chain from Kasargod to Thiruvanathapuram against signing the ASEAN agreement. The agreement was signed at the time of the Manmohan Singh-led government and the Congress had even campaigned saying that the agreement would benefit the farmers,” said K.N. Balagopal, state secretary of the Kerala Karshaka Sangham (KKS).
“Now, when a BJP government is in power, it is trying to implement laws affecting the lives farmers who cultivate wheat, rice and other crops. Protests by farmers have been ongoing for the past three months. The plantation sector in Kerala had collapsed because of the ASEAN agreement signed by the then Congress government. This ASEAN agreement signed by the Congress government is the base of all anti-farmer laws introduced by the current BJP government,” Balagopal added.
About 82% of Kerala’s revenue from agriculture comes from the plantation sector. Ever since the ASEAN agreement came into effect, plantation farmers were hit with a huge decline in this revenue as well.
According to the rubber farmers, the minimum support price should be at least Rs 250 per kilogram. In 2016, the Rubber Board declared that the production cost of a kilo of rubber was Rs 172. The farmers say that if a 50% production cost is added to the same the minimum support price (MSP) should be at least Rs 258 per kilogram of rubber.
While speaking to Newsclick about the sorry state of rubber farmers in the state, Balagopal had earlier said: “The rubber farmers in Kerala have been struggling and recent years have seen a drastic decline in rubber prices. But, when rubber prices had dropped, prices of the produce from rubber including the tire did not decreased. Then where is this money gone? Only farmers have to suffer.”
According to the Rubber Board’s statistics, RSS4 grade rubber’s price has fallen from a high of Rs 20,805 a quintal in 2011-12 to Rs 12,595 a quintal in 2018-19, even dropping to a low of Rs 11,306 in 2015-16. As per the Kochi market, as of February 23, RSS4 grade rubber costs Rs 16,050 per quintal.
Kerala, the largest rubber producer in the country followed by Tripura, has over seven lakh rubber growers. Of this, the majority are small and marginal growers. Notably, only 4.88 lakh hectares of the total 6.64 lakh hectares under rubber cultivation has been tapped this fiscal year due to various reasons, including the increase in production cost and decrease in prices; a remaining 1.76 lakh hectares of rubber is lying untapped.