Kochi: The viral fever that has gripped Kerala has an unusual victim—rubber production. There is a 15,000-tonne shortfall in rubber production in May and June since tapping in several areas could not happen for weeks as about one lakh latex tappers are down with viral fever. Latex is tapped by slitting the bark of rubber trees. Once it is collected, the most common method is let the latex ferment and coagulate and then make it into sheets. It is the dried latex sheets that are sold in the market. On an average, a single tapper takes care of one hectare of rubber cultivation.
Following the drop in production, the price of rubber per kg has gone up from Rs73 three weeks ago to Rs82 now, almost on a par with international price. While this has hit domestic consumers, it has also led international buyers to look towards other markets as India’s price advantage does not exist any more.
In fact, there has been a drastic fall in rubber exports during the first three months of this financial year. Rubber shipments for April-June this year totalled 9,239 tonnes against 22,612 tonnes during the corresponding period last year. Indian rubber production is estimated at 850,000 tonnes, and exports in the last fiscal came to 56,488 tonnes.
Viral fever has turned into an epidemic in Kerala, killing 180 people and infecting 250,000. The fever manifests in the form of high temperature, ulcers, rashes and inflammation of the joints, making movement difficult for nearly a fortnight. A Union government team completed a tour of the state on Monday and said there has been a 25% drop in incidence of the fever. The Opposition United Democratic Front had called for a statewide bandh over the issue, but did not go ahead with it.
According to James Jacob, director of the Rubber Research Institute—which is run by the Union commerce ministry’s Rubber Board—the board is yet to calculate the loss. It has been making field studies and is expected to finalise a report in a week. The main rubber growing areas in Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and parts of Idukki districts saw a drastic drop in production since in some parts there was no tapping at all for weeks. Health authorities in these districts say that rubber tappers are among the several affected by the fever.
The fever also links growers and marketers, with several rubber merchants also being infected. But of equal concern to the merchants is the reduction in supply.
N. Radhakrishnan, president of the Cochin Rubber Merchants Association, says the arrival of rubber sheets into the market has been dwindling. While the projection for May and June was around 95,000 tonnes, the actual arrivals were only around 80,000 tonnes, including the stock held back by farmers.
Meanwhile, the hike in domestic rubber prices has made it difficult for rubber growers to look at the overseas market. “There was a time when the international price ruled Rs10 more than the domestic prices making it ideal to look at exports. The board is in talks with a few agencies and hopefully, exports should start picking up,” says Jacob. According to Radhakrishnan, the board must take steps to ensure quality and inspect the stocks to step up exports.