If Vasco Da Gama had landed in Kerala now, he would have been disappointed. Even if he scoured the entire stretch of the state, Gama would find it hard to garner enough spices to fill his ship.
The God’s Own Country no longer holds sway in spices, once its biggest selling point. Other states have surpassed Kerala in a big way in most spices, except in cardamom and probably nutmeg. Pepper, turmeric and ginger used to thrive in Kerala. Now Karnataka has overtaken the state in pepper output by a large margin. Ginger cultivation too has moved to Karnataka. Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu together contribute more than half of the turmeric produced in the country. The famous Alleppey Finger Turmeric has become a distant memory.
And the sad part is that it’s not just spices where Kerala has surrendered its top ranking. In many other commodities too, the state has lost its grip.
Kerala doesn’t monopolize cashew as it once used to do; Maharashtra grows more cashew than any other state. Curiously, Kerala doesn't even have dominance in the nut that gave its name, as neighbor Tamil Nadu has edged it past as the top coconut producing state. Coffee and tea production are more or less stagnant.
Even the ever-dependable fish seem to have deserted Kerala. The state once had a fairly large share in India’s seafood exports. Today, sea catch has dwindled in the Kerala shores, and 70% of the nation’s seafood export comprises aquaculture shrimps from the ponds of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
Now the state is in danger of losing its hold in the only commodity it dominates: rubber. Kerala accounts for about 90% of the rubber grown in the country. Hit by persistent plunge in prices in the last two years, natural rubber production has shrunk. From over 900,000 tons, it plummeted to 650,000 tons last year, and the output is expected to be below 600,000 tons this financial year.
Experts say the the slump in output of spices and the crash of rubber prices will hit the state’s economy hard, particularly in light of the looming threat of an exodus of Malayalee workers from the Gulf due to the crude oil price crash. The remittances from West Asia have been a key factor that sustains the state economy.
"The state’s economy is sure to feel the pinch of the flight of spices to other states," said J. Thomas, former research director of Spices Board and former Rubber Production Commissioner. "Small farmers who depend on these crops will be left in the lurch. Growing vegetables will not earn them as much income as from spices."
Kerala never was a large grower of staples like rice and always depended on its cash crops. Blessed with natural conditions for the growth of spices, Malayalees had taken it for granted. Even now large plantations of spices or coconut are rare in the state. In contrast, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have set apart large tracts of land for cultivation of these crops and are now reaping the benefits.
We can argue that Kerala isn't endowed with vast swathes of land to develop plantations like its neighbors do, but the fact remains that even the available land isn’t properly used for most of the commodities, except perhaps for rubber. But rubber estates too are fast getting converted to growing other crops. Small cardamom is still sticking to Kerala only because the climate elsewhere in the country isn’t conducive to its growth.
Sadly, the huge amounts of remittances flowing into state from non-resident Keralites never get funneled into cash crops. Most of such funds go into the vaults of banks or are spent in constructing palatial bungalows or buying sumptuous apartments.
(Photo credit: Pandiyan via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Grey cells via Foter.com / CC BY-NC)