21 Feb 2009, ET Bureau
KOCHI: If Vasco da Gama’s voyage in 1498 in search of Indian “black gold” or pepper was to happen today he would, in all probability, anchor at the Karnataka coast, not Calicut in Kerala. Yes, one of the oldest monopolies in history, Kerala’s leadership in pepper, is under threat. Karnataka is fast emerging as a major producer. The noteworthy aspect of this phenomenon is that it is happening not just in pepper. The agri-commodity economy of resource-rich Kerala is shifting its base to other states.
A host of factors like low productivity, ad hoc policies, lack of investment, diseases etc have combined to undermine the leadership position that the state has in a number of agri-commodities such as coconuts, pepper, seafood, cashew and others. And, the state has already started experiencing the negative fallout of this in its income, exports and employment.
Three years ago, Kerala had 44.6% share in total production of coconuts in the country. The share of Tamil Nadu was just 25.3% in that year. However, by 2006-07 Kerala’s share declined to 38.2%, while the share of Tamil Nadu increased to 34.2%. The area of cultivation declined slightly in Kerala, while in Tamil Nadu it showed an increase. It was the huge increase in productivity that Tamil Nadu achieved that led to its fast growth in production.
In 2001-02, the pepper production in the country stood at 80,000 tonnes. Of this, Kerala’s share was 75%, while Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had a share of 18.8% and 6.3%, respectively. The official estimate of total production in the country this year is 50,000 tonnes. The decline is mainly due to the fall in pepper production in Kerala. The share of Kerala is around 56%. Karnataka accounts for 40% of the total, while the rest is the share of Tamil Nadu.
Karnataka’s production increased from 10,000-15,000 tonnes to 20,000 tonnes in the past one decade. On the other hand, production in Waynad district in Kerala declined from 20,000 tonnes to 4,000 tonnes in the past one decade. “We need higher investment for replanting in Idukki and Wynad, the two main pepper producing districts of the state,” said VJ Kurien, chairman, Spices Board. With respect to the production of raw cashewnuts, Kerala’s number one position slipped to 4th in the past 15 years. On the other hand, the cashew processing industry in the country, which was almost fully located in and around Kollam, started moving to other states during the 1975-1980 period. Today, Kanyakumari and Mangalore account for 35% of cashew processing.
“Earlier, if you take five major seafood exporters, four of them would be from Kerala,” said Sando Joseph, secretary, Seafood Exporters Association of India. “Today, the list would contain just one or two,” he added. The export industry shifted out of Kochi due to the raw material shortage on the one hand, and due to the development of aquaculture on the other. The port-wise data show that Kochi’s share in total exports fell to 17% last year from 25% in 1995-96. “There was a time when it used to be around 35% to 40%,” he said.
Other commodity brands like Alleppey ginger and Cochin turmeric have almost disappeared due to the shortage of planting material. Coir industry has started taking roots in other places and in coir pith and Tamil Nadu accounts for 60% production. Kangayam in Tamil Nadu has emerged as the major centre of coconut oil with most of the upcountry buyers now deserting Kochi. Thus the ambience that the state provided for commodities is gradually eroding. When chilli and mint became the main export earners in spices the commerce minister Jairam Ramesh commented in lighter vein that the Spices Board should be moved out of Kerala!