For ages the Malabar region has been famed for its spices, pepper and cardamom and has attracted traders from Arabia and later Europe to its coast. Thus did Vasco da Gama arrive here and the rest is history. But that does not seem to be so anymore because India is likely to become a net importer of pepper, if the present neglect of this cash crop is allowed to continue, according to farm and trade circles.
According to exporters, black pepper prices have registered a sharp fall in the last seven weeks and the MG 1 price, at Rs.50, 400 a quintal on August 19, had dipped to Rs.44, 600 on September 25.
This fall, they say, could be attributed ‘to availability of cheap imported pepper in the consuming markets as well as in the producing centres all over Kerala and Karnataka. Large imports of the spice are being carried out at Nava Sheva, Chennai and the Bangalore ICD.’
The Centre has fixed 70 per cent import duty on black pepper to protect the domestic farmers, but the Indo-Sri Lankan pact permits import of 2,500 tonnes of the commodity from Sri Lanka without any duty.
Likewise, the SAFTA agreement permits pepper import from Sri Lanka at a concessional rate of 8 per cent, under which any quantity can be imported, said an exporter.
Many unscrupulous importers, exploiting this loophole, are indulging in importing Vietnamese pepper, for which import duty is 54 per cent under the ASEAN agreement, via Sri Lanka by just 8 per cent duty.
They also pay 1,000 dollars a tonne to the agency to get a Certificate of Origin from Sri Lankan authorities; this is a clear breach of trust between the two governments. This phenomenon has led to the fall in domestic prices, he pointed out.
According to Sunil Kumar, a major grower from Sakhleshpur in Karnataka, if the pepper growers’ interests are not protected there will be no other alternative for them except to switch over to other crops like cocoa, nutmeg, fruits. Such a scenario would steer the nation to become a net importer of pepper.
Panicky farmers in the four Southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have made several representations to the Union Government, the Commerce Ministry and the Spices Board, farmers based in Chikamagaluru and Sakhleshpur said.