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Tobacco growers in dire straits

C. S. Narayanan Kutty
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Plagued by shrinking market, mounting cost of cultivation, coupled with threats posed by vagaries of weather and acute labour shortage, the tobacco growers in parts of the district, known for its quality produces, are virtually left in the lurch with no support coming to their aid from any quarters.

The mid-term crop cultivation, which once fetched lucrative income in shorter gestation period of four months, is appearing to become part of history if the disturbing situation continues to hit the tobacco growers who spent dedicated hours in tendering the highly delicate crop.

The cultivation of the seasonal crop, which requires higher investment, adequate labourers to provide delicate tendering, has come down to one-third in recent years with sustained anti-tobacco drive leading to market shrinkage even as the cost of cultivation has increased many-fold over the years, says Moideenkunhi, a resident of Kunia, near Kanhangad.

“I was about to suspend the cultivation this year. But a few of my trusted labourers persuaded me to try luck this time,” said Mr. Moideenkunhi, who owns a farm close to the National Highway 17.

Unlike in the past, the market for dried tobacco leaves which are used for chewing with betel leaves has considerably shrunk thanks to other alternative products flooding the market.

The major demand for the product comes from Karnataka, he said.

Hostile scenario

“We used to get better market in the previous years with first quality dried tobacco leaves (which forms the upper leaves of the nearly 3-ft-long plant) fetching up to Rs.800 a kg.

The second quality leaves, which are seen in the middle part of the plant, fetch only Rs.100 to 200 a kg.

However, the market, in all probability, is likely to fall drastically with low quality tobacco leaves, said to be flooding from Vijayawada, hitting the Karnataka market leading to sharp fall in prices,” he said adding that it would be quite difficult to predict the market for the produce this season in view of the hostile scenario.

The cultivation of tobacco, which gets ready for harvesting in over three months, after the saplings are planted during December, requires highly dedicated tendering – timely irrigation, adequate sunshine and dews – to ensure its healthy growth.

However, the scarcity and higher price tag of the choicest fertilizers made from rotten fish and organic manures have made things even more complex.

Added to this, the withdrawal of subsidy on chemical fertilizers has doubled the cost of cultivation rendering it economically unviable.

Besides, the cultivators face acute shortage of traditional labourers. The steep hike in the wages also proved detrimental to the growers.

Bleak prospects

Unlike other crops the tobacco plants needed to be irrigated before 9.a.m. to clear the overnight mist spread in the leaves. And for that one has to begin irrigation works right from early hours, K. Kumaran, an expert worker, who has been in the job right from his childhood.

Besides, each plant and its leaf needed constant monitoring to ward off attack from pests. An unseasonal rain could dash the hope of the grower as the leaves would become worthless, he says.

The harvested leaves should be kept for drying in a thatched roof shed without getting them exposed to the sun and the process takes another three weeks. A few more days are required for stocking them to ensure that the product looks softer fetches available market price.

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