COVID-19: Spice growers of Tamil Nadu, Kerala face looming crisis

With roads leading to plantations shut, spice cultivation has been badly hit

By S Rajendran
Published: Friday 01 May 2020
Pepper cultivation. Source: Flickr

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the prolonged lockdown have made thousands of farmers, labourers and traders feel the pinch of a falling agriculture yield and sale. 

Farmers have been at the receiving end of heavy losses as they are unable to harvest, process and transport farm products. Among them, spice growers have been one of the largest hit.

Tamil Nadu is one of the major growers of spices such as chili, pepper and cardamom in India. While pepper and cardamom are raised in hilly terrains on Western Ghats, chili is cultivated on semi-arid plains of southeastern districts.

Black gold (pepper) is cultivated as intercrop with coffee plantations in Kanyakumari, Thirunelveli, Virdhunagar, Theni and Dindigul districts. The first harvest starts in March-April and second season comes during June-July.

While cyclone Okhi affected the pepper economy in Kanyakumari district, Gaja uprooted lakhs of tall trees along with pepper plant creepers in Dindigul.

Pepper production took a hit in the last three years due to poor rainfall; this year, however, good agro-climatic conditions favored flowering and better growth of pepper. But the lockdown meant there was room for trouble.

Farm workers travel in trucks from plains in the morning and are brought back to mainland in the evening. But all roads from plains to hills have been shut in view of the lockdown.

Pepper-plucking needs special skills as the plant grows on tall trees. Only trained male labourers are allowed to pluck the white and black pepper varieties to sun dry and grade them. Women labourers, on the other hand, collect and process the seeds before drying.

Non-availability of skilled workers has forced family labourers to harvest the seeds, which is a time-consuming process.

On the hill ranges of Kodaikanal and Sirumalai in Dindigul alone, farmers sell around Rs 30 crore worth of pepper to traders, who in turn export it to neighbouring states such as Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, besides the local market. This year, however, the situation has been bleak.

Cardamom is grown mainly on the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district and Kerala’s Idukki district.

Tamil Nadu farmers took cardamom plantations on lease from Idukki district, besides owning these estates. Here, more than 1.25 lakh acres are under cardamom cultivation and 10,000 farmers raise crop from Issuki’s Vandiperiyaru, Peermedu, Devikulam and Udumbancholai taluks.

To carry out farm operations, around 15,000 laborers are taken to plantations every day in trucks and jeeps from Theni district.

Immediately after the first COVID-19 case was reported, however, Kerala state borders were closed for traffic except transport of fruits, vegetables and animal products on the border.

Blocking of labour transport and other inputs has adversely affected cardamom cultivation to a great extent. Crops are wilting in some gardens due to poor rainfall in Idukki.

 Though the Union government exempted all agriculture activities the lockdown on March 29, 2020, the movement of labourers and transportation of farm inputs was a challenge. Farmers were unable to transport irrigation pump sets and other accessories and other inputs like organic manure and chemicals.

Among other problems is the closure of banks in Theni district that has hit the weekly wage payment to labourers.

Cash-stripped farmers are unable to buy crucial inputs for protecting and sustaining the crop. Therefore, the cardamom growers and traders have demanded that Idukki and Theni district administrations facilitate an uninterrupted movement of agriculture workers, farmers and traders.

Trade and sale of chili, too, has been severely affected. Southern districts like Thoothukudi, Ramanathapuram and Virdhunagar are famous for cultivating red chili. Among common varieties of chili are Mundu (stout) and Samba (long). They used to be sold at Rs 14,000-Rs 15,000 per quintal every year. However, local traders bought them for Rs 8,000-Rs 9,000.

Meanwhile, heavy rains this year dropped yield from four quintals to three quintals an acre. Local farmers in the region expressed that earlier, chili prices never dropped below Rs 14,000 per quintal.

Though chili is a non-perishable spice, farmers are unable to hold and store them in state-regulated agriculture marketing godowns — because they need cash to pay wages to workers.

Local farmers suggested that the state marketing authority directly procure from farmers on minimum support price. In fact, the state government should facilitate direct procurement of highly perishable products from farmers for supply in major urban agglomerations.

COVID-19 is on way to wreck every sphere of the economic activity around the world. However, agriculture sector shall get top priority to provide food security to consumers to protect the interest of the farmers welfare.

Considering these, in consultation with the local authorities, efforts should be made to arrange for smooth flow of transport for supply of goods.

Efforts should also be made to open farm support service outlets to sell seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. Service personnel for machineries and other farm equipment should be allowed to carry out repairing. Financial institutions should be allowed to function, at least in major towns, for enabling monetary transaction for cash flows.

To prevent exploitation of middlemen, marketing facilities need to be ensured that they get support price for various farm products and reduce distress sale.

Adequate crop compensation under Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana to eligible farmers should be initiated to mitigate the crisis.

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