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India Needs a National Plantation Policy

The author is a Director at Harrisons Malayalam and a former president of the United Planters’ Association of Southern India
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For sustainability in agriculture as well as business, Kerala’s plantations need to achieve economies of scale

The plantation industry occupies a fair part of Kerala’s land mass in the Western Ghats. Climate change is real: Erratic rains, changing rain patterns, extreme variation in temperatures and humidity have all thrown the plantation calendar of operations out of gear, affecting crop production and pest and disease aetiology.

I believe plantations are being unfairly treated with regard to legislation binding plantations and forests, because the favourable harmony plantations have shared with the environment and forests have not been articulated. There is a close nexus between plantations and the environment. They were first established in forests—in evolution vegetation precedes human development. So the proclamation ‘once a forest, always a forest’ must be examined. That plantations exist in and around forests should not be held against plantations.

Plantations play a significant role in the sustainability of environment and forests. They are a strong buffer between habitation and forests, support a huge range of biodiversity (varied flora and fauna), support fragile ecosystems, and, with shade trees and intercrops, present a multi-layered carbon sequestration system. The last point has been documented in crops like rubber, known to sequestrate upto 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare. Moroever, plantations have zero tillage as use of cover crops ensures adequate soil tilth. Plantations also help manage man-animal conflict.

In other words, plantations in and around Western Ghats in South India, one of the top biodiversity spots in the world, are part of a biological cycle. We need to link laws on environment and plantations.

Consumer preference for safe food will drive the future of agriculture. Our food regulator norms are weak in dealing with pesticide residue standards, rampant in fruit and vegetables. In organised agriculture such as plantations there’s a systematic approach to ensuring product safety by ensuring plant protection residues conform to national and international standards . Eventually, organic farming and strict certification standards may ensure food safety and ecological health. However the transition needs to be handled carefully since yields will drop significantly. The key issue will be to create market access of a sufficient degree, especially based on product differentiation driven by product safety network and supported by unique biodiversity features to seek higher prices among national and international clientele. This requires a phased and modular approach.

Plantations conform to Good Agricultural Practices, especially with regard to soil and water conservation. It is appropriate to point out here that plantations suffer little soil erosion because of their soil binding and scientific system of planting, notwithstanding the ills of mono-cropping . Use of slopes must be well thought of in agriculture as in construction. Guidelines will be required to match type of cropping to degree of slope, so that soil binding gets priority.

Soil and water conservation measures on farms are labour-intensive and expensive and will be typically beyond the capabilities of the average farmer. Fragmented land holdings will prevent economies of scale that mechanisation can bring. Land reforms legislation in Kerala was a watershed event and served a huge socioeconomic purpose. Without abandoning that spirit, it must be examined how economies of scale can be achieved with all their attendant benefits such as higher productivity. Production companies, co-operative farming and so on need to be given good thought. Plantations were exempt from the land ceiling laws because of the organised nature of this form of agriculture, supporting huge employment and rural economies. Inclusion of other crops, planted in rotation, within the purview of this exemption will facilitate biodiversity and boost financial sustainability of plantations. All legislations are time-bound and must be subject to re-examination for their contemporary relevance.

The major concerns are the following:

Plantations are long-term business. Security of land holdings is therefore fundamental to sustaining long-term interest of investors. One key business strength of the plantation industry, which is more often than not under pressure for margins because of its number-centricity and fluctuating commodity prices, is the value of land as an asset. We therefore need clarity with respect to exclusion of plantations under forest areas with reference to a cut-off date. The fact that forests are in the Concurrent List currently adds to the ambiguity of application of concerned legislations.

Environmentally sensitive areas that having bearing on future development in plantations need to be notified. Though that has been done in Kerala and Karnataka, Tamil Nadu still lags behind. Ecologically fragile land, particularly relating to ancillary areas such as fuel areas, should be notified too.

 

Plantations need to be exempt from animal buffer zones. Tamil Nadu has already gone forward on this and specified that buffer zones will be confined to reserve forest boundaries without spilling over to plantation areas.

Possibly, a cess for access and benefit-sharing could be levied as done by the Kerala State Biodiversity Board on certain agricultural activities for use of natural resources like air and water. Access and benefit-sharing deals with benefit-sharing of traditional knowledge.

Last but not the least, usage of herbicides and weedicides need to be regulated better.

What’s the way forward for providing plantations much-needed security of land holdings? I am not going into the many laws or committee reports. I know for one the documentation on the Godavarman Thirumulpad case over the definition of a forest will put epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata to shame. The Indian Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 has been legally torn apart. The Kasturirangan and Gadgil and Justice Subramaniam reports have all been tossed around enough and more. Times such as these when one is embarking on reviving plantations after a natural disaster, one would be tempted to come up with knee-jerk reactions and quick-fix solutions. The challenge is to balance human development with environmental protection. Promotion of forest management in a public-private partnership model involving planters would make eminent sense.

The definition of a plantation in terms of its activities is important—as different from that of forests and protected areas. This calls for a national plantation policy. Recording ecological services rendered by plantations measured on a scientific basis perhaps supported by a certification could help settle these issues.

The word ‘sustainability’ is bandied around much too often. But financial sustainability is the prime mover of business. For the plantation business, security of land holding will promote sustainable investor interest and investment support—the latter fundamental to this long-term industry. Investors continue in this business because of the social ramifications of closing a business and their benevolence must be duly supported by all stakeholders.

A greater price burden on the end consumer is a fundamental priority that will have to drive agricultural economy in general. The use of information technology platforms is increasingly creating awareness of achievable product values and becomes a liberator for the farmer, especially if done collectively. However value addition and its monetisation must rest with the producer and not with anyone else in the value chain. The producer, the underdog in the agricultural value chain, needs to be enabled and supported to move up the value chain. All producers must be equipped in every possible way to reach the end consumer or nearabouts to reap a significantly higher share of the value than what he is getting now.

Huge sums of money have been apportioned for the agricultural sector and we have set visions of doubling farm income in the medium term. If issues like improving productivity through balanced aggregation of land holdings to achieve economies of scale and quality of farm management and greater value realisation for the farmer are not addressed pragmatically, one may find the huge government funding ill-directed.

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