December 9: What are the images that come to mind when one hears the name – Kerala? Beaches, backwaters and… coconut trees. Rows and rows of coconut (kera) trees swaying in the breeze along the coastline, a picture perfect sight in this coastal state in South India.
But this image might be in danger of disappearing. A very poor demand for coconuts combined with an all time low price for the fruit, is ruining the thriving coconut business in the state.
The Malayalee dependence on the coconut is legendary, even more than their dependence on the abundant fish that can be found in the backwaters. The fruit is used to make oil and edible items including an alcoholic drink called toddy. The leaves are used to cover the roofs of huts in the countryside, the tough fibrous coir is used to make ropes, art and craft items…the list is endless.
Kerala produces about 6,665 million coconuts every year. Out of this, 30 per cent is used in the state and the rest moves on to other parts of the country.
A famous Malayalee joke was that owning five coconut trees is like having a government job. The earnings ensured security for life.
But no longer. These days neither a government job nor a coconut tree is a coveted possession. The Hindustan Times reports that the Kerala government’s import policies over the years is the main culprit responsible for the poor business in coconuts in the state. The import policies refer to the rules governing the buying of merchandise from another state or country.
Every country has a set of rules for trading (sale and purchase) of goods from other countries. After independence in 1947, the Indian government was fairly strict about allowing foreign goods into India. The idea was to nurture indigenous industry, which at the time was still developing.
But following the liberalisation of world markets in the ’90s, when countries across the world started welcoming goods from abroad, India too relaxed many of its trade norms.
The result has been that coconut-based products from Malaysia, Philippines and Sri Lanka (all of whom produce coconuts) have started flooding Indian markets. These are available in cake, powder and copra forms. Soon, major soap and detergent factories switched their loyalties from Kerala’s home-produced products to the cheaper imported ones.
As the demand for coconut went down, the prices of oil crop became lower than ever. And coconut farmers were hit hard as a result. They were forced to take debts which they have not been able to pay off. In desperation, they are planning to fell their lovely coconut trees and take up farming of other profitable crops.
Meanwhile the State government is blaming the Central government for the crisis as it says that the policy to open up the market was a Central government initiative. In turn, the latter has placed the responsibility of rescuing the farmers on the State government.
So what about the coconut trees? So far no one has come forward with any proposal to put the kera tree back into the prominence it enjoyed in the state, not very long ago.