The delicious laddoos from one of the world’s richest temples may soon help India’s only communist chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, revive the fortunes of the state’s ailing cashew industry, which has been bleeding for years.
The laddoos, distributed among the tens of millions of pilgrims visiting the 5,000-year-old Sri Venkateswara Swamy Temple in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, are a delicacy. The ingredients include gram flour, sugar, flour, ghee and spices. More importantly, they are stuffed with cashew nuts, which is turning out to be a blessing for Kerala.
For five months, the Kerala government has been in talks with the Andhra Pradesh government, which runs the hill shrine through a board of trustees, for an exclusive deal to supply cashew nuts to the temple. The Tirupati temple usually sources ingredients through a tendering process involving private players. It needs about 3,000kg of cashew nuts every day to prepare the laddoos.
The talks have entered its final stage and an agreement will be signed soon, said Kerala’s minister for fisheries and cashew industry, J. Mercykutty Amma. Once the agreement is signed, Kerala will start supplying more than 90 tonnes of cashew nuts every month, or at least, 1,000 tonnes every year, she said.
Kerala’s Kollam, a southern port city, was once recognised as the cashew industry headquarters of the world. It was first introduced by the Portuguese spice traders in the 16th century. The fortunes from Kerala’s cashew trade helped the state reach several major milestones—the money went into funding some of the earliest public libraries and hotels in Kollam, and funded the movies of Dadasaheb Phalke Award-winning director Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
Then, crisis struck—labour unions resisted automation despite rising competition, besides a fall in prices and export trade restrictions. Kerala’s cashew industry is now in the red, having lost out to Vietnam, which increased production through automation. Today, more than 300,000 cashew plantation workers, mostly women, are threatened with job losses.
If the deal with the hill shrine goes through, the biggest beneficiary will be public-sector giant Kerala State Cashew Development Corp. Ltd (KSCDCL), headquartered in Kollam, which employs 12,000 people but has been making huge losses. The firm, according to an earlier internal audit, loses more money than it makes everyday, amounting to ₹2 crore for every 10 days.
“This deal will be a huge relief," said Rajesh Ramakrishnan, managing director, KSCDCL. “Entire industry is going through a very deep crisis. Some 800 private cashew factories have shut shop in three-five years. We are the last big company."
After coming to power in 2016, the Left Democratic Front government has been charting a way out to revive the state’s cashew industry. The latest and the biggest move by the state government was a revival package announced in the 2019 budget. It proposed one-year interest-free loans for private factories, and schemes to restructure their existing default loans with banks.
Many private factories could not open shops as they had already defaulted on loans and could not borrow more. At least 173 such entities were declared as non-performing assets and are facing recovery procedures, according to the minister’s office.
The revival package has an additional outlay of ₹30 crore for the state-owned cashew board and a guarantee of another ₹250 crore as loans from cooperative banks.
Kerala, like other cashew-growing states in India, is also facing a major threat from Vietnam, which sources a large share of raw nuts from West Africa at a higher price than Indian processors, but sells the processed product at a cheaper rate.