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By TA News Bureau

A comparative study on smallholder rubber farming in India and Thailand reveals that integrating rubber with other farming practices will enable small and marginal farmers to cope with market uncertainties and changing policy regimes. Rubber as a single crop is a viable option for small farmers only when prices remain remunerative and marketing arrangements are efficient, says economist Dr PK Viswanathan. Based on a comparative study of the socio-economic structures of rubber growing Tripura in India’s North East and Songkhla province in Southern Thailand, he observes that such integrated farm livelihood systems assume greater prominence given the fact that small producers are highly vulnerable to market uncertainties. It offers the smallholder with ample capability for resilience during crises and ensures a sustained flow of income, his research reveals

A case study of rubber farmers’ livelihood in two regions in India and Thailand has highlighted many economic and social advantages of rubber integrated farming systems (RIFS). The regions were selected for specific reasons, said Dr PK Viswanathan, Professor of Economics and Sustainability at the Kochi (India)-based Amrita University’s Department of Management.
Citing an example, he said that India’s North East is a newly emerging rubber growing region (second largest after Kerala) with a vast majority of the rubber growers belonging to tribal communities. Similarly, the Songkhla province in Southern Thailand has the largest concentration of small rubber growers, who have significantly diversified their livelihoods integrating rubber with other activities following the 1997 global financial crisis that adversely hit the country’s rubber economy.
The rubber farm households in India’s North Eastern region bear some similarities with the Songkhla region in terms of rubber integrated farming systems by which rubber is grown in combination with other farm livelihood systems, such as rice cultivation, poultry, piggery, inland fishery, etc. In Songkhla, rubber is grown along with fruit trees, inland fishery, poultry, piggery, rice, etc as a strategy to overcome the price shocks that might affect a dominant crop like rubber.
Dr Viswanathan found that the rubber integrated farm livelihood systems allowed the marginal rubber farmers to cope with the challenges brought about by market uncertainties and changing policy regimes. His analysis revealed that producing rubber as a single crop was a viable option only if the prices remained remunerative and marketing arrangements were efficient.
He has also observed that from a sustainable livelihood perspective, the socio-economic significance of the rubber integrated farming system assumes greater prominence, given the fact that small producers are highly vulnerable to market uncertainties.
“It has been found that rubber integrated livelihood systems provide the smallholders with ample opportunity for resilience during crises and ensure a sustained flow of income,” he told Tyre Asia. “The two cases demonstrate the need to promote and scale up rubber integrated farm livelihood systems in the smallholder-dominated rubber producing countries in the Asian region.”

Alternative income

Dr. Viswanathan

Dr Viswanathan has observed that rubber growers, who have grown the crop in combination with other farm livelihood activities, could manage the continued low returns from rubber by way of the alternative income sources provided by other farm livelihood activities.
To a considerable extent, the impact on livelihoods turned out to be significantly positive in terms of making the households less dependent on the market for the purchase of items such as rice, fish, chicken, pork, fruits, vegetables, etc.
One of the most explicit positive impacts of the rubber integrated farming systems, as reported from India’s North East region, was that the income from rubber helped avoid the `distress sale of rice’ which they usually resort to in the course of producing traditional crops. They now store rice as a buffer to meet their future consumption requirements.
Since rubber offers a regular income, these farmers engage in other activities such as growing piggery, poultry and inland fishery stock, mainly to meet their own consumption requirements, and sale of surplus, if any.
Experience suggests that farmers growing multiple crops or having alternative sources of farm income could overcome the challenges posed by market uncertainties affecting a particular crop (like rubber in this case), Dr Viswanathan said.
Given the fact that not all crops or livelihood sources simultaneously suffer from market uncertainties, it may be argued that the losses incurred in any particular crop or livelihood activity due to unremunerative prices could be compensated by the gains from others in a context when farm households engage in multiple activities.
“The rubber integrated farming systems as practiced in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and North Eastern India are such cases in point,” he points out.
For instance, the rubber based agro-forestry system in Indonesia is considered to be more efficient and resilient system that generates multiple benefits ranging from nutritious food to bio-energy, clean environmental and ecosystem services and thus enhanced biodiversity.
Dr Viswanathan says “time has come that the Indian Rubber Board takes a relook at its rubber development policy by way of promoting rubber as an integrated crop/agro-forestry and multiple livelihood system, especially in the North East region and the newly developed rubber areas in the states of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, etc.”
He said the economic viability of rubber production is certainly influenced by the remunerative price which should also be stable for a fair amount of time. It is essential, because, rubber is a perennial cash crop involving high initial investment costs and the productivity (gestation) lag of 7-8 years.

Marketing challenges

Growing rubber as a monocrop increases the farmer’s risk further, as he foregoes many other alternative investment opportunities that could be tried in place of growing rubber. The next important aspect is marketing of the product.
In so far as Indian rubber is concerned, the marketing interventions of the Rubber Board seem to be quite efficient to the extent of ensuring the highest farm gate price to the farmer and thereby curtailing the role of intermediaries.
However, the current marketing arrangements should undergo a thorough overhaul by way of introducing a new way of ‘digitized sheet rubber grading system’ in place of the conventional ‘visual based grading system’.
This is very important especially in the context of the North Eastern region where the rubber growers are easily deceived by the marketing agents, especially private small rubber dealers, who try to ‘visually downgrade’ the rubber sheets leading to significant loss of income to the rubber growers in the region, Dr Viswanathan said.
The lack of awareness among the tribal growers about the different grades of sheet rubber as well as determination of dry rubber content (DRC) in the rubber latex are also major concerns there, as they are totally new to growing rubber and marketing, he said.
The tribal rubber growers in North East are reported to have received lower prices for their sheet rubber and latex under the pretext of low quality grade sheet based on visual grading and the low DRC content. Hence, the growers often end up receiving lower prices for a visually downgraded rubber sheet and low level of DRC in latex.
“This reiterates the need for making the rubber grading systems more efficient by way of using automated grading system replacing the conventional system of visual grading,” Dr Viswanathan asserts.
He has also stressed the need for assigning individual property rights for rubber growers, and referred to the land related issues related to rubber expansion in India’s North East.
The institutional arrangements facilitating access to land for growing rubber is still at its infancy in this region in the absence of formal mechanisms.
There is prevalence of communal property rights over village commons, especially in Assam and Meghalaya, which are the second and third largest rubber growing states after Tripura in the North East.
The village commons remain under the ownership of the Nokma (Gaon Bura), the village head, who distributes the land for rubber cultivation to individuals based on the eligible working hands in each tribal household.
An earlier study undertaken by Dr Viswanathan had revealed that under the block planting scheme promoted by the Rubber Board, the proportion of rubber holdings operated under such ‘insecure property rights’ regime was as high as 68 per cent in Meghalaya and 60 per cent in Assam.
“The issue with the existing communal property rights arrangements is that there are chances of conflicts in sharing the benefits realised from rubber cultivation. This is because, there is a strong correspondence between higher rubber yield and the quantity and quality of trees tapped, which is contingent upon the better management of the rubber holdings by individual growers,” he notes.
Since property rights are communal, individual growers may not have the incentives for proper upkeep and management of the rubber plants he said.

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