Kochi: The Union government last week approved a Rs200 crore programme with a subsidy component of Rs137 crore to push replantation and rejuvenation of pepper orchards in Idukki district in Kerala. The package is expected to cover 65,000ha over the next five years, and includes the supply of planting material and standards or poles on which the pepper vines will grow.
At a meeting convened by T. Nandakumar, agriculture secretary, on 25 February, it was decided to entrust the Spices Board, the government trade promotion body, with the pepper replantation programme with support from the horticulture mission.
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Pepper production has remained stagnant at around 50,000 tonnes per annum in the last few years, dropping from a high of 80,000 tonnes in 2002. Between April 2008 and January 2009, pepper exports from the country have been 21,600 tonnes, valued Rs356.1 crore, against 29,700 tonnes worth Rs433.76 crore during the same period in the previous year.
The average export price has gone up to Rs164.86 per kg against Rs146.05 last year. Pepper has an 8% share of India’s spice exports worth Rs4,275.11 crore.
V.J. Kurian, Spices Board chairman, admits that replacing old pepper vines has become imperative, and that it will raise productivity, which now averages round 500kg per ha. The board will ensure that the farmers get high-yielding varieties for replanting. It will have the support of the Indian Institute of Spice Research at Kozhikode and the Kerala Agriculture University’s pepper research station, which have developed new varieties.
Downtrend: Pepper production has remained stagnant at around 50,000 tonnes in the last few years, dropping from 80,000 tonnes in 2002. Namas Bhojani / Bloomberg
The Spices Board has been successfully implementing cardamom replantation and with the necessary staff in Idukki it could go ahead with the pepper programme too with support from the state horticulture mission, he added.
The Rs200 crore package is expected to cover 65,000ha over the next five years. The government will provide a subsidy of Rs136.95 crore.
The replantation scheme includes digging of pits, planting of live standards or poles on which the pepper vines creep, planting of vines, plant protection and tending measures till the fifth year when the yield starts.
It is estimated that 1,000 vines can be planted in 1ha of land. The subsidy spread over the five-year period will to an extent offset the loss of income suffered due to replantation.
But since it is not a mono-crop and is grown alongside other crops in the farms and needs very little labour, except at the time of harvest, the loss of income will not be severe.
With pepper cultivation declining both in area and production in the two main districts of Idukki and Wayand, the Spices Board had earlier proposed a Rs400 crore replantation scheme for these two districts. However, this did not come through as the board has the mandate only for cardamom, and other spices, including pepper, come under the agriculture ministry.
In November, Jairam Ramesh, who was then Union minister of state for commerce and power, had proposed to Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar that while replantation had already begun in tea, coffee and rubber sectors, it had failed to take off for pepper since the Spices Board only has responsibility of cardamom.
He had stressed on raising productivity, especially with competing countries such as Vietnam and Sri Lanka having a major say in the global pepper market.
The proposed free trade agreement, or FTA, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, provides for a progressive reduction of 2% duty annually, which will bring down the duty from 70% to 50% by 2018.
But after a series of deliberations, it was agreed at a meeting on Wednesday that the replantation exercise could start in Idukki with the Spices Board initiating the programme.
Graphic by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint