Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Politics of Coconut

The Kerala Chief Minister's lament that a court order has pushed coconut growers into the abyss and the withdrawal of the judge who pronounced the order from the case prompted me to look at the politics of the coconut.

According to the CM, the court order adversely affected the State’s 3.5 million coconut growers. The State has a total of 6.7 million families. Anything that hurts 3.5 million of them must certainly worry him. But is that really the case?

Going by Planning Board figures, the area under all kinds of cultivation in the State is 2.15 million hectares. Coconut is grown in 900,000 hectares. Last year’s production was 6,013 million nuts. When we try to draw the profile of the average coconut farmer from among the 3.5 million people, this is what we get: he has about 0.25 hectare (about 0.5 acre) under coconut. He gets 1,715 nuts a year. A coconut does not even fetch three rupees now, says the Chief Minister. So the average farmer’s annual income from coconut is about Rs. 5,000. The Chief Minister reminds us of the time when coconut sold at Rs. 6.20. Even if we recreate that golden era, the average farmer’s income can only be pushed up to about Rs. 10,000. That is not enough to make his life secure.

Price rise helps the producer. At the same time it hurts the consumer. Whether a higher price for coconut is good or bad depends on whether one produces it or consumes it. The coconut farmer is not merely a producer of coconut. He is also a consumer of coconut. Keralites can be divided into three groups: those who produce coconut to sell, those who produce just enough coconut for their needs and those who do not produce enough coconut for their needs and so buy it. A price increase will benefit the first group. It will not directly benefit or hurt the second group. It will hurt the last group.

Official statistics do not indicate how many of the 6.7 million families belong to each of these groups. The State, which has a duty to protect the interests of all sections, must have the data. If it does not have them, it must collect them. Precise information is needed to take a just decision. In the absence of such information it becomes easy for an organized group to persuade the government to take a decision favourable to it. Such a decision need not be in accord with wider public interest. Often it will be contrary to public interest.

The government has before it the arduous task of reconciling the conflicting interests of the producer and the consumer. Both the State and the Centre have responsibility in this matter. In discharge of this responsibility the Centre has allowed import of palm oil. The action is intended to keep the price of edible oil in check. Unloading of palm oil at Kochi was banned after Kerala represented that the import was against the State’s interests. This decision came up for scrutiny before the High Court.

As unloading at Kochi was banned, the ship moved to Beypore. If the State protests more loudly, it may be diverted to Mangalore or Thoothukudi. But, then, if there is demand for palm oil in the State, it is bound to reach here by road even if the consignment is unloaded at a port in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu. Kerala has now demanded that it should not be unloaded at any port in the South.

The solution to the problems of the coconut grower lies in making coconut farming profitable. Kerala’s right to rake pride in the coconut palm is shrinking. According to the Coconut Development Board’s statistics, productivity in Coconut’s Own Land is below the national average. In India as a whole, the yield per hectare is 7,608 nuts. In Kerala it is 7,048.

At the time of the first five-year plan, only 626,000 hectares were under coconut in the country. As with some other commercial crops, Kerala had a virtual monopoly over coconut. Now 1,946,800 hectares are under coconut but Kerala’s share is down to 46%. The State still holds the first place. But the other southern States together have almost as much land under coconut (the precise figure is 846,600 hectares) as Kerala has.

It needs to be noted that other States have not only taken to coconut cultivation but are also doing it more efficiently than Kerala. Lakshadweep, which gets 19,630 nuts from a hectare, tops in productivity. It is a group of islands with special characteristics. It will not, therefore, be fair to compare Kerala with it. What about Maharashtra, which gets 15,189 nuts from a hectare, and West Bengal, which gets 12,882 nuts? Maybe they too need to be excluded as they have comparatively small areas under coconut – 24,600 hectares in West Bengal and 18,000 hectares in Maharashtra. But we have to ask ourselves why we get only 7,048 nuts from a hectare when Tamil Nadu, which has 357,000 hectares under coconut, is able to get 13,133.

The Planning Board has the answer to this question. In this year’s Economic Review, it says one-third of the coconut palms in the State are senile and unproductive and the root wilt disease is a cause for concern. This is not the first time the Board has drawn attention to these problems. Instead of solving the problems, the State government is seeking to appease the producer by imposing a burden on the consumer.
Based on column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi of November 22, 2007

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