India’s natural rubber plantations are facing sapling shortages

A shortfall in the supply of natural rubber (NR) saplings to replant the crop in Kerala is causing concern, even as rising NR prices after a prolonged slump have been bringing cheer to India’s rubber sector.

COVID-19 related lockdowns and the subsequent labour shortage has played a part in this shortfall since many workers returned to their villages and there was an insufficient supply of labour during the replanting season in 2020. Nurseries were forced to dispose of most of the stocks raised for the season.

By the time lockdown lifted, the replanting season was delayed by at least five months. Due to the continuing uncertainty amid the ongoing pandemic regarding the next replanting season, growers reportedly cut their production next season by almost 50 percent.

The rubber plantation sector in Kerala has faced tremendous challenges: the slump in NR prices since 2012 forced more than 50 percent of the nurseries operating in Kerala to close shop over the last decade. Then, the losses sustained due to the coronavirus-related lockdowns led to half of the remaining surviving nurseries going out of business.

The price of rubber saplings, which fell from Rs 250 ($3.40) per plant to a record low of Rs 60 ($0.81) in 2020, has risen again but at a low rate of Rs 100 ($1.36) in August 2021.

It is being stated that the shortage of saplings has been caused due to the Rubber Board-led planting initiative in the North East of the country, which is being promoted as a second rubber-growing area.

However, the Rubber Board has refuted this and has said that it has sourced saplings for the North-Eastern states through advance bookings, leaving nurseries with sufficient time to prepare for local growers. Meanwhile, the Rubber Board has also said that the surge in NR prices is driving demand for replanting, however, it will take some time for the supply of planting materials to catch up.

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