Beneath the Bark

With elections looming, Kerala's iconic but faltering rubber industry pins its hopes on political promises.

Words by:

Shawn Sebastian

Photos by:

Joe Paul Cyriac

April 26, 2024

BEFORE THE FIRST RAYS of the sun pierce through the dense canopy of Marady village’s sprawling plantations in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, Shashi VK—a sixty-five-year-old seasoned rubber tapper—has already begun his day. Armed with a headlamp, a steel bucket and a sharp knife, he navigates the rows of Hevea brasiliensis—trees that bleed the white latex destined to become everything from aeroplane tyres to surgical gloves to little girls’ hairbands.

Drip, drip, drip… No matter how fast-paced and motorised the natural rubber industry may become over the decades, the collection of latex cannot be hurried. It can take up to four hours for a coconut-shell or plastic/rubber container to be filled with liquid rubber.

As the plantation awakens, Shashi briefly stops before each tree spaced fifteen feet apart. With surgical precision, he carves the barks in a semicircle, and the  latex begins dripping into a coconut shell-shaped collection box. This process is known as rubber tapping. 

At 8.30 am, as Shashi waits for the latex to fill the cups, a jeep mounted with a high-decibel loudspeaker passes by on the road abutting his workplace. It blares a call  for voters to support the incumbent Member of Parliament from Kottayam, where Shashi is a voter. In the throes of the 2024 general elections, with Kerala voting on 26 April, the fate of the latex—and, by extension, the local economy—is a hot topic. All major political parties are vying for the support of rubber farmers and their allies, hoping that the flow of votes will mirror the flow of latex.

“In the days leading to the election, rubber is always a central topic of discussion,” Shashi, a veteran of forty-five years in various plantations, told me. “Candidates in this part of Kerala need the support of people like us who are integral to the rubber economy.” 

While the roots of rubber cultivation in the country can be traced back to Assam in the nineteenth century, it picked up pace in Kerala when the expansion of railway networks during the British era created a demand for rubber. After several trials, J. J. Murphy, often called the 'Rubber Man of Kerala', found success in Idukki’s Yendayar, marking the beginning of India’s first commercially successful rubber plantation in 1915. This initiated widespread cultivation across Kerala, propelling the rubber economy and providing economic and social mobility, particularly to the Christian community in the hilly regions.

Today, Kerala accounts for over eighty per cent of India’s natural rubber production—a critical component of both national security and industrial development.

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According to the Rubber Board, which comes under the Union ministry for commerce and industry, India has 850,000 hectares of area under rubber cultivation, of which Kerala and southern Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari region account for more than 85 per cent. Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China are the other major rubber-producing countries. 

From his apprenticeship days to now, Shashi has witnessed the introduction of genetically modified plants that produce more latex and the shift from hand-operated to motorised sheet-making machines—a response to the dwindling pool of skilled labour. “Many natives are not keen on taking up tapping anymore,” he said. “Planters might have to bring in outsiders soon.” 

The past decade has been harsh for the rubber industry. India's natural rubber production, which stood at 9,13,700 metric tonnes in 2013, dropped to 8,39,000 metric tonnes in 2023. Stagnating prices, escalating costs, and intense global competition have heightened concerns among veteran planters regarding the potential decline of a once-thriving industry.

With political parties competing for their support amid these challenges, rubber farmers find themselves with some fleeting leverage. But is it enough to reverse their declining fortunes?

BY 9.30 AM, Shashi is busy collecting the thick latex accumulated in the cups attached to the rubber trees. His next task is to transform this raw material into thick rubber sheets, the final product that farmers deliver to local collection points. In the shade of the clay-tile-roofed sheds, known locally as “rubber sheds”, Shashi pours the latex into rectangular steel boxes and adds a small amount of formic acid, which triggers a chemical reaction that solidifies the latex. After a few hours, the solidified latex is formed into sheets, which Shashi then feeds through a rolling machine to thin them out. This machine often bears the imprints of the planter's name—an old security measure against theft. 

Once processed, the rubber sheets are sun-dried and later moved to a “smoke house” for further drying before they are ready for sale. This meticulous process reflects not only the labour-intensive nature of rubber production but also the deep-rooted traditions that have sustained this industry through generations.

The adoption of neo-liberal economic policies and India’s participation in international trade agreements have significantly impacted rubber pricing within the country.

An active rubber plantation in Kerala today may soon look like a theatre stage without actors. With the younger generation not keen on taking up rubber farming, many plantations are being converted to pineapple cultivation or being land-filled for construction activities.
Shashi VK, a rubber tapping worker from Marady in Kerala; Joy Varghese, the owner of the rubber plantation we visited in Marady, says that climate change has singificantly brought down tapping days over the years. Sometimes, it is as low as eighty days per year. After tapping for fifteen to eighteen years, the lifespan of the tree comes to an end. Here, Shashi is seen transferring latex in to a larger pot, which will then be taken to the rubber shed, where motorised roller machines will be used to flatten the latex; Latex collected in buckets is brought to the processing area, filtered, and coagulated as early as possible to make good-quality sheet rubber. For coagulation, the filtered latex is mixed with water and formic acid, and laid on trays. Here, it is being sieved to get rid of the impurities collected during tapping.
After using the first roller to thin out the sheet, Shashi is about to use the second grooved roller to make it even thinner, ready to go to the smoke house.

The import of rubber—particularly from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region—causes fluctuations in the domestic market prices, leaving smallholder farmers in Kerala vulnerable to this unstable pricing mechanism. Over the past decade, countries like the Philippines have emerged as strong competitors in the rubber market, further influencing the price dynamics. 

The Rubber Board, headquartered in Kottayam and operating under the aegis of the Union government, has repeatedly assured farmers that their grievances will be addressed. However, the farmers contend that the government often capitulates to powerful manufacturing lobbies, particularly the tyre-manufacturing giants who benefit from lower rubber prices. This issue came to the forefront in February 2022 when the Competition Commission of India imposed a fine of 1,788 crore rupees on five premier tyre companies—Apollo Tyres Ltd, MRF Ltd, CEAT Ltd, JK Tyre & Industries Ltd, and Birla Tyres Ltd—for colluding to depress rubber prices.

The surge in synthetic rubber production in India—from 4,11,830 tonnes in 2010-11 to 4,85,165 tonnes in 2020-21, according to figures from the Rubber Board of India—suggests a potential replacement of natural rubber. Additionally, local rubber farmers are concerned that domestic rubber prices are not aligned with rising international prices; for example, on 7 April 2024, the price of rubber in Kottayam was 184 rupees per kilogramme for a low-grade rubber category, while it exceeded 200 rupees per kilogramme in Bangkok for the same category.

The life cycle of rubber begins with the farmer purchasing saplings from designated nurseries, which now offer the latest genetically modified varieties. “It was common for farmers to bud the plant ourselves in the past; now we just get it from the nursery,” said Joy Varghese, a long-time rubber farmer from Marady. 

Approximately 200 to 220 saplings can be planted per acre, and it takes about six to seven years before the first tapping can occur. A farmer typically manages about 120 days of tapping a tree annually, although Varghese notes that excessive rain has reduced this number to as few as eighty days in some years. After fifteen to eighteen  years, the lifespan of a rubber tree ends, and the trees are cut down en masse in a local process known as “slaughtering”, which provides a bulk financial return to the farmers. If a farmer decides to replant, the cycle begins anew.


Pass the Rubber

The production of synthetic rubber in India has gone up from 411,830 tonnes in 2010-11 to 633,975 tonnes in 2017-18, (according to official data). This has reduced the demand for natural rubber—, a worrying concern for the farmers of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. These two states together account for eighty-five per cent of the country’s rubber cultivation.

Inspectors hold smoked sheets up to bright light to scrutinise them for any remaining impurities. The sheets are then assigned one of five grades based on factors like colour, transparency, mould presence, bubbles, and cleanliness. As of now, there's no single universal standard for grading.
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Varghese pointed out that unfavourable pricing has resulted in very thin profit margins, especially given the scarcity of rubber-tapping labourers and the  labour costs in Kerala which are one of the highest in the country. “Stagnating prices coupled with high input and labour costs make this occupation challenging for existing participants and less appealing for new entrants,” he said.

In the broader context of sustainability, natural rubber is gaining new significance. Innovations in the fashion industry, such as full-body latex suits introduced by the French luxury fashion house Balmain and inflatable garments by designers such as Harikrishnan and Fredrik Tjaerandsen, illustrate latex’s potential as an eco-friendly alternative to polluting materials such as leather and plastic. As latex is biodegradable and the trees are not felled during harvesting, its production is considered sustainable and carbon-negative. This evolving perspective on rubber underscores the complex interplay between local agricultural practices and global environmental trends.

Meanwhile, at Marady village's plantation, Shashi completes his routine tasks. After sorting the dried rubber sheets, he embarks on a fifteen-minute journey to Sharon Rubber. This family-run business has been processing rubber and spices from local farmers for several decades. The company has flourished under the management of CV George, becoming the top supplier of rubber for JK Tyres in Kerala, with a turnover of 125 crore rupees in the  financial year 2023-24.

At the collection unit, the processed rubber sheets are sorted according to the quality standards stipulated by JK Tyre. George explains that his business, which deals predominantly with tyre manufacturers, dispatches an average of 25 tonnes of rubber sheets daily. “The rubber business is akin to trading in the stock market; one must be able to predict market trends and act accordingly,” he said, highlighting the precarious position of rubber farmers who suffer the most from price volatility.

With global rubber production decreasing in 2024, leading to higher international prices, George expresses concern that this uptick has not been reflected in the Indian market. He welcomes the recent decision by the Communist Party Of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front government to set a base price of 180 rupees a kilogramme for rubber. He also notes that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government has made only marginal price adjustments in the lead-up to the election, targeting voters in Kerala and the North East.

Once the latex is coagulated, milled on rollers into sheets, and washed, it has to be dried in the smoke house. However, to save the consumption of firewood, the milled sheets are first let out to dry through a process called dripping. The sheets are hung up to drip off the surface moisture for four to six hours in the shade. After dripping, the sheets can either be sun-dried or directly taken to the smoke house. Scissors used for removing impurities from rubber sheets, resting on a shelf. Every scissor has a special number so that it doesn’t get lost.
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He also observes a shift in rubber cultivation from Kerala to states like Assam and Tripura, where government support and lower labour rates ensure more profit. 

Yet, he believes many companies still prefer the latex from Kerala for its “superior quality”.

KERALA’S POLITICAL LANDSCAPE has traditionally been dominated by two alliances: the CPI(M)-led LDF and the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Although the state usually alternates between these two fronts in assembly elections, the general election mood often varies, recently favouring the UDF. In the 2019 general election, amid a strong anti-incumbency wave, Kerala’s electorate handed the UDF a resounding victory, with the alliance capturing nineteen of the twenty available seats. 

Despite rigorous campaigns, the BJP has struggled to establish a foothold in the state’s parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, the significance the party places on Kerala is evident, as several local leaders have been appointed to Rajya Sabha positions or as central ministers and governors of other states. Leading up to the 2024 general election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made numerous visits to Kerala, engaging in election rallies across targeted constituencies. Meanwhile, the LDF government, which secured a rare consecutive term in 2021, is confronting visible anti-incumbency. Under the leadership of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the LDF is campaigning vigorously to defend the Indian Constitution’s democratic and secular values against what it describes as the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

During election seasons, rubber farmers, predominantly Christians from the high ranges, become a crucial interest group for political parties. These farmers have been key stakeholders in constituencies, particularly in districts along the Western Ghats, where most rubber plantations are located. Since the 2011-12 price boom when rates soared to 250 rupees per kilogramme, the subsequent years have been less prosperous, with prices often dropping as low as 130 rupees per kilogramme.

“Raising the price of rubber is a poll promise made by all parties,” said Varghese.”But no one is really keen on implementing it.” There was a time when Varghese used to manage about 4,000 rubber trees on his eleven-acre farm. This has now reduced to around 2,000. The financial viability of rubber plantations is dwindling, he said. 

In the politically charged atmosphere of Kerala, all major fronts portray themselves as champions of rubber farmers. The LDF government included a promise in the 2024 budget and later implemented a base price of 180 rupees per kilogramme for rubber—which many welcomed, but others like Varghese found insufficient, continuing to demand at least 250 rupees a kilogramme. Tensions escalated when Thalassery Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplany, advocating for high-range farmers, threatened that the LDF government would be ousted in the next election if the base price wasn’t raised to 250 rupees per kilogramme.

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“We are not opposing any government... If the Union government decides, it can raise the price of rubber to 250 rupees per kilogramme. A protest that does not translate into votes is futile in a democracy,” declared Pamplany. 

The bishop sparked a political storm in March 2023 when he declared at a Catholic farmers’ conference that if the Union government raised the rubber price to 250 rupees per kilogramme, the BJP would secure its first Lok Sabha MP from Kerala. This statement also signalled a potential thaw in relations between the church leaders in Kerala and the BJP, from whom the Christian community has traditionally kept its distance.

The BJP maintains that it is addressing the farmers’ needs with rubber prices ranging between 170 and 180 rupees a kilogramme as the election nears, asserting that true relief for rubber farmers can only come from policies enacted by the Union government, which controls trade policies. In 2019, the government introduced the National Rubber Policy to address the industry’s challenges and proposed strategies for strengthening the supply chain, protecting small-holder farmers, and expanding cultivation into non-traditional areas like East India and the North-East.

The Congress-led UDF remains the preferred choice among rubber farmers, largely due to its long-standing ties with the Christian community, which forms a significant part of its base. The UDF’s elected representatives have advocated for better support for rubber farmers in Parliament, reinforcing their need to get the political backing of this vital agricultural community.

As the day winds down at the Marady village plantation, Shashi returns from the collection unit, his routine unchanging but his future uncertain. The election results, on 4 June, will reveal which party the significant rubber-interest groups supported.

Yet, farmers like Shashi and Varghese remain less than optimistic. “This could be the end of an era,” Varghese said, noting the disinterest in rubber farming among the younger generation, including his sons, who have pursued different careers in the UK and Kochi.

“Soon, the plantation will most likely be like a theatre stage without actors,” he added.

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Shawn Sebastian

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