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Monday, July 2, 2007

Arecanut farmers pushed into debt trap

Kasaragod, July 2 (PTI): Steep fall in prices, poor yield, shortage of skilled labourers and mounting cultivation costs have pushed arecanut growers, who enjoyed a respectable status here in the past, into a deep debt trap.

The Centre's decision to impose a hefty duty on arecanut imports has had little impact, with the price remaining abysmally low in relation to mounting costs, the farmers said.

The arecanut from Kerala's North Malabar region and South Canara district of Karnataka was known for its high quality.

The price, which was Rs 200 per kg in 1999, went down to Rs 50 to Rs 55 a kg in 2001-02 and now fetches Rs 60 and Rs 70 a kg after stringent grading of the nut.

This is quite inadequate in relation to inflationary pressure and mounting labour charges, M Ranjith, a young farmer in the hilly belt of this northern district, told PTI.

"One can sustain only if arecanut fetches at least Rs 100 per kg in view of rising expenses in taking care of trees and spraying of copper sulphate solution to prevent pest attacks," Ranjith, who manages around 5,000 areca trees, said.

Unlike coconut, arecanut trees have to be irrigated regularly and are more prone to natural calamities.

While prices of manure and pesticides registered a steady rise over the years, successive governments have failed to provide adequate subsidy, said Mohammed Kunhi, another farmer.

Charges of tree climbers and extraction of arecanut from the shell have also risen. There was an acute shortage of skilled labourers as new generation shy away from taking up the traditional job, said Ranjith.

While areca climbers' wage is about Rs 250 a day, another Rs 300 per day has to be paid for shell extraction after which the commodity has to be disposed off immediately at prevailing market rate as quality will be hit if exposed to moisture.

Adding to their misery is the 'yellow leaf' disease as several areca trees in hilly tracts of Kannur and Kasaragod districts had to be cut down. Though government had promised that the disease would be contained and adequate compensation paid to the affected, not much seems to have been done.

"Situation continues to worry farmers with no tangible solution at sight," an agriculture research official said as former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy visited the areas.

Stating that fall in prices was due to lack of regulation of import from ASEAN members like Thailand, Sumatra, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, Kodoth Balakrishnan Nambiar, a planter in bordering Kodagu district of Karnataka called for taking stringent steps to check import of low-quality nuts.

Nambiar said the recent decision to impose 100 per cent duty on arecanut imports has not helped growers. Many of them are on the verge of suicide as unscruplous traders resort to under-invoicing to offset impact of additional import cess.

"The authorities seem to be siding and facilitating the commission agents and firms from importing nations by allowing them to mix their low grade arecanut with indigenous produce and help them find easy market in North Indian states, especially, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, where arecanuts are widely used for various purposes," Nambiar said.

The current impasse can be resolved only if the ministries concerned took firm steps to mitigate the sufferings of areacanut growers in the region, he added.

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