On verge of closure, plantations seek government support

Low price realisation, soaring production cost, labour shortage push the sector to the edge with several plantations facing financial crunch
KOCHI: Low price realisation, soaring production cost and labour shortage have pushed the plantation sector in the state to the edge. Several plantations are reportedly facing financial crunch and are on the verge of closure. With drastic cost-cutting measures failing to bring respite, they are forced to opt for input reduction which is expected to hit production and employment.
According to the Association of Planters, Kerala (APK), the production cost of tea is Rs 190 per kg, but the average auction price of South India CTC is Rs 111.99 per kg. The average price of rubber is Rs 142 - Rs 145 per kg, but the production cost is Rs 195 per kg. The Rubber Board has pegged the production cost at Rs 220 per kg. 
“How are we expected to survive? The sector can break down anytime. Go on a drive through the high ranges, and you can sense the gloom in the tea sector. Many have closed down and many are on the verge of closure,” said APK chairman Prince Thomas George.
“We have urged the Tea Board and the government to announce a financial support package for the tea sector. A minimum support price should be declared for tea, especially the orthodox variety. We have been pleading with the government to take over the social costs, which are the responsibilities of the local bodies. But people judge us going by the extent of land holdings,” he said.
According to planters, social responsibility has been adding to the burden of the plantations. “Which other industry provides free accommodation, medical care, workmen compensation, gratuity and other benefits? We provide free medical care to the workers and their families,” said a planter.
“You complain about the dilapidated labour lanes in some estates. But do you care about the finances of the plantations? In 1985, the average wage of a worker was Rs 67, and the price of tea was Rs 85 per kg. Now the wages have gone up to 476,  but the price of tea lingers around Rs 110 per kg. How do you expect us to bear the expenses?” he rued. 
In addition to wages,  the plantations provide paid holiday wages, sick leave, maternity leave, free medical treatment, bonuses, provident fund, gratuity, free housing, water supply, free schooling, dearness allowance and protective clothing to their employees, the planter said. 
“People are criticising plantations for low wages, but they forget about the 57% benefits we provide. If the daily wage of a worker is Rs 500, he will get benefits which comes to around Rs 300,” said Prince.
“The average yield per hectare of tea estates in Tamil Nadu is 2,638 kg while that of Kerala is 1,683 kg. This is the lowest in the country. The productivity has gone down due to the ageing of the tea bushes. The age for replantation of tea bushes is 60-70 years, but the bushes in Kerala are more than 100 years old. We cannot afford replanting as there will not be any yield for the next eight years,” said Poabs Plantations chairman Thomas Jacob.  
The climate change has badly impacted the plantation sector and many areas in Wayanad and Idukki districts are no more suitable for tea cultivation. Change in the pattern of monsoon, delayed onset, high intensity - low duration rainfall, extended drought period and high diurnal temperature have adversely impacted plantations, Jacob said. (To be continued)
part 1 -The plantation sector, the second largest in terms of employment in Kerala, is in deep crisis due to soaring production cost and declining commodity prices. The sector lends direct jobs to 3.5 lakh people and provides livelihood to another 10 lakh indirectly. TNIE probes the constraints and challenges plaguing the ailing sector in a two-part series.