Tapping Up: India is the fourth largest producer and the second largest user of rubber in the world.
rubber
Rubber prices are being pushed up by demand but they are also creating a piquant situation—supply will dip around 2017-20.

What goes up must come down, they say. This need not be true when it comes to the price of natural rubber. Since year 2000, the price of natural rubber (RSS 4 Grade) in the Indian market has increased by 7-8 times, breaching the Rs 200 per kg-mark for the first time ever last November. It has stayed in the Rs 225-235 band in the first eight months of 2011 – a jump of around 60 per cent in the last 10 years.

Interestingly, despite the steady rise in the price of natural rubber over the years, the demand for it has never slackened. While industrial users of rubber—mainly tyre companies—clamoured for the easing of import controls to keep their raw material costs under check, the high price of rubber has had a salubrious effect on rubber farming in India

 
 
This frenzy for rubber growing may help reduce the demand-supply gap in the market over the next three to five years.
 
 
. Farmers in rubber growing states—Kerala, Karnataka, and the north eastern states of Tripura and Assam—are looking at fresh ways to increase acreage under rubber plantation and have intensified tapping efforts. Even farmers in states such as Gujarat, which do not have a history of rubber cultivation, are keen to take to rubber.

This frenzy for rubber growing may help reduce the demand-supply gap in the domestic market over the next three to five years, say experts from the Kottayam-based Rubber Board, a promotional body under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. However, in their effort to cash in on existing plantations, many farmers are postponing the re-planting of new trees. Typically, it takes seven years for a rubber tree to be ready for productive tapping. Experts say the effects of this delay in fresh plantation would be more visible toward 2017-2020 inevitably leading to a price hike

 
 
"The demand-supply gap may narrow by 2015 due to increase in tapping. But it will widen by 2020."
 
 
. Most experts therefore expect the price of natural rubber to hover around the Rs 200 per kg mark in the near future, depending on global cues.

The Rise And Rise Of Rubber

The demand for natural rubber has been consistently exceeding supply. FY2010, the production of natural rubber in the country stood at 831,400 tonnes, while its consumption was at 930,565 tonnes (India had to import 176,756 tonnes of natural rubber). Similarly, in FY2011, the country produced 861,950 tonnes of natural rubber against a consumption of 949,205 tonnes.

Meanwhile, the global rise in demand for natural rubber has kept up the pressure on international prices as well. China, where the consumption of rubber has jumped sharply over the last decade, has emerged as the largest consumer of rubber in the world. In 2003, it consumed 15,38,000 tonnes of rubber, which rose to 36,34,000 tonnes in 2010, a whopping jump of 136 per cent.

Growing demand from within India, the fourth largest producer of rubber and its second largest user, has further put pressure on the supply of the commodity

 
 
"The current level of natural rubber production could meet domestic industrial demand."
 
 
. Major rubber producing countries like Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and India have to cater to internal as well as external demands.

Dr James Jacob, Director (Research), Rubber Research Institute of India, points to something interesting. “There is direct correlation between GDP growth and rubber consumption,” he says. India and China, for instance, have been growing at significant pace in the last three years.

With global auto majors eyeing India as a hub for small car production, auto analysts do not expect any dip in demand for rubber to come from the automobile industry. “The auto industry accounted for 62 per cent of the demand for natural rubber in the country in 2010,” says Alok Goyal, Deputy Secretary General, All India Rubber Industries Association.

Non-Skid Prices

“Rubber farmers are finally getting a fair price,” says Professor P Yageen Thomas, head of the Department of Statistics, University of Kerala

 
 
"Imported rubber, a raw material for tyres, is of better quality and cheaper than domestic rubber."
 
 
. In the ’80s and ’90s, farmers were hit by huge fluctuations in rubber price so much so that many farmers in Kerala—which accounts for 80 per cent of India’s natural rubber production — shifted to other crops such coconut and cashew. But over the last ten years, rubber prices in India have moved in tandem with global rates. It’s the sharp rise in the international prices of rubber that added to its price pressure within India. For example, the price of natural rubber (RSS 4 Grade) in Thailand moved from Rs 9,227 per 100 kg in July 2009 to Rs 28,039 per 100 kg in February 2011.

“Prices in India for commodities like rubber mirror international trends,” says Subhranil Dey, Research Analyst (Commodities-Fundamental), SMC Global Securities Ltd. “They are the price setters, we are the price takers.”

According to an International Rubber Study Group, the global natural rubber demand is set to rise by 3.8% in 2011 and 5.4% in 2012. And, assuming normal growing conditions, global natural rubber production is also forecast to rise by 5.6 per cent in 2011 and 8.2 per cent in 2012. This, says experts, could provide some kind of respite in prices, but Jacob is quiet certain: “I don’t expect to see a slump in rubber prices anytime soon.”

Shrinking Universe

Conversely, the land under rubber cultivation in certain major rubber producing countries has been declining. The total area under rubber cultivation in Malaysia was 13,25,600 hectares in 2003 but it was down to 10,28,840 hectares in 2010.

“Farmers in Malaysia have been shifting to palm oil cultivation over the years,” observes Dr K J Joseph, Chair Professor, Research Unit on Plantation Development at Trivandrum-based Centre for Development Studies.

Geojit Comtrade analyst Anand James points to the age-profile of rubber trees. “Rubber plantations are now ageing in India,” he says. A Rubber Board presentation says that the share of rubber trees above the age of 22 has gone up from 24 per cent in 1990 to 36 per cent in 2009. A rubber tree is most productive between 10 and 25 years of its age.

With ageing trees, India’s production will take a dip unless re-plantation is done in a timely and effective manner, making way for the prices of rubber to remain high, but here’s the catch—farmers may prefer not to replant because the rubber tree is non-productive for the first seven years of its life. “A farmer would think a bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” says Rajiv Budhraja, Director General, Automotive Tyre Manufacturers’ Association. “He doesn’t know what the prices of rubber will be seven years or even seven quarters from now, so he will continue with lower production with an old tree than have nothing for the next seven years.”

This will reflect in India’s production figures of natural rubber, more towards the end of the current decade, in the period 2017-2020, confirms Rubber Board chairperson Sheela Thomas. “The demand-supply gap is likely to increase by 2020,” she says. She hastens to add that by 2015, the current gap in production and domestic consumption may narrow due to increase in tapping although Thomas believes that natural rubber’s price line is likely to hover around the Rs 200 per kg mark in the near future.

Experts from Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries point out that prices are likely to remain high internationally as a large number of rubber producing trees—which were planted during the 1980s—will have to be uprooted between 2012 and 2018, reducing the total area of plantations worldwide.

Another concern among experts is the lower productivity of Indian rubber farms, largely due to the smaller size of holding. About 10% of rubber production comes from large estates. “Many small farms are tempted to turn into holiday resorts and residential homes, in which monetary returns are higher,” says a Rubber Board official. Labour shortage in rubber farms and an approximately 50% jump in cost of labour in the last 12-18 months also have many farmers worried.

The Rub In Policy

Many farmers, such as 62-year-old S Chandrasekharan Nair from Peyad, Thiruvananthapuram, feel the current level of production of natural rubber in the country could meet the domestic industry’s demand. He says the government’s policy of allowing cheaper import of rubber by tyre manufacturers (against their exports obligations) is distorting the market. The government, he says, is using the import route to keep a check on the domestic prices of rubber. “The import policy erodes the price of our product,” agrees Dr SG Churchinben, a medical practitioner from Thiruvananthapuram, who also manages a family-owned 10-acre rubber plantation.

Manufacturers such as JK Tyre Industries meet 15% of their demand for rubber through the import route. With reduced import duty, this rubber is of better quality and cheaper than domestic rubber, points out AS Mehta, Director-Marketing. Nair, who also runs a multi-lingual blog on rubber farming, considers this a missed business opportunity for Indian farmers.

Over time, the Rubber Board plans to reduce farmers’ dependence on a single industry and encourage the setting up of downstream industries like rubber band and balloon making units, units making medical gloves, etc., near rubber plantations and farms. Rubber wood is being promoted for making furniture and crafts.

Given the long gestation period for which farmers have to nurture rubber trees before they start getting productive returns, the Board has advised State governments to incentivise farmers to remain in rubber farming. There is a drive to spread rubber growing among the North Eastern states. Tripura is already second to Kerala when it comes to acreage under rubber plantation. But as long as rubber prices remain perched in the Rs 200 per kg range, not many farmers are overtly complaining. The tyre industry might have to adjust to steep prices.

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