A heavy monsoon shower had given a group of ten tribal women a long break from their work in the rubber plantation at Rangmala Block of Tripura. A bamboo shed not only protected them from being soaked in the heavy downpour it also provided them a space to share their moments. The smiles on their faces and gold ornaments on their earlobes showed how far they have come - from penniless shifting cultivators to moneyed rubber growers.

These women, belonging to Tripuri tribe, form part of 72 tribal families in the block, which abandoned jhum, the traditional slash and burn cultivation, and took up rubber cultivation for a livelihood way back in 1992. The Rubber Board in the state, and the Department of Tribal Welfare had initiated rubber plantation on 140 hectares in the local block, and these women were among the first to sign up. They were initially apprehensive, and restless during the seven years it took for the plants to grow into mature trees, but when the day for tapping the latex finally arrived, they were overjoyed, and satisfied about the wisdom of their choice. Birendra Debbarma, former president of the Rubber Producers Society (RPS) of the block, was standing nearby as I watched the women at work, and was happy to share with India Together how rubber cultivation has brought changes they could once never imagine.

"Think of the days when we had to starve half of the year as our traditional jhum cultivation could not meet our demands. Earning little as daily-wage workers during the lean periods was the only alternative. Then, these people [the officials] brought the concept of rubber cultivation. The crop has entirely changed our life. We are not only economically sufficient, but we can also plan for luxury and savings now. We have a TV set under our tin-roofed, concrete structure house. We are sending our grandson to Don Bosco, a private English medium school for education. We have a savings account in the bank. All these, just we could not dream of while we were practicing jhum," Debbarma says.

The women were in whole agreement with him, happily showing me their gold ornaments and gesturing to indicate - they speak only Kok-Borok, which I do not understand - that rubber has brought the luxury of wearing jewellery. These families now earn between Rs.7000 and 10,000 each month, almost triple what they used to earn from their traditional cultivation. A Rubber Board presentation before the Third Sectoral Summit and Special Meeting of North Eastern Council in Guwahati in March this year claimed that monthly incomes were even higher, between Rs.13,000 and 25,000.

Jitendra Choudhury, the state's Minister for Tribal Welfare, says that of all the schemes thought up by the government to draw people away from slash-and-burn practices, rubber cultivation has been by far the most successful. Tripura is now the second largest producer of Natural Rubber (NR) after Kerela, with 33,000 hectares of plantations, and about 1500 hectares are added to this each year. About half the acreage - 16,000 hectares - contains mature trees that are already being tapped, producing 17,000 million tonnes of latex annually. Even this, says Choudhury, is only about 30 per cent of the state's total potential, as according to Rubber Board and as per the estimates of National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, 100,000 hectares of land in the state are suitable for rubber plantations.

Rubber plantation in the state

The history of rubber plantation in Tripura dates back to 1963, when the state forest department initiated rubber plantation as a soil conservation method. The agro-climatic suitability of the plantations and their potential for producing high volumes of quality latex made the government further extend the effort all over the state.

Being the single largest rubber plantation unit in the country, the TFDPC also took up rubber plantation in 3784 hectares of degraded forest lands along the Indo-Bangladesh international border, for 'national security reasons', in 2005.
Considering the potential of rubber in degraded forests, the scope for permanently settling the semi-nomadic tribal jhum cultivators, as well as generation of employment for rural poor, the state government set up the Tripura Forest Department and Plantation Corporation (TFDPC) in 1976 with equity participation from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Tripura Rehabilitation Plantation Corporation (TRPC) Limited was also formed in 1983, to rehabilitate tribal families.

By 2004, the TFDPC had raised rubber in 7550 hectares of land. Additionally, 2762 hectares of rubber plantation have been raised for rehabilitation of tribal shifting cultivators, scheduled castes and other socially backward people. It has also provided permanent employment for around 6500 families. According to the annual report of TFDPC, prepared in 2005-06, the company has rehabilitated 2700 tribal families, and these families earn between Rs.10,000 to 20,000 each month from one hectare of rubber plantation. For its part, the TRPC has raised 5094 hectares of rubber plantation rehabilitating an additional 3977 tribal families permanently. The Rubber Board also set up its regional office in Agartala in 1979, and introduced cash subsidies for new plantations in 1980. Originally set at Rs.10,000 for the gestation period earlier, this has been increased to Rs.50,000 per family by now.

In January 2006, the Tripura Rubber Mission was formed at the initiative of the state government, following the recommendations made by V K Bahuguna, Managing Director, TFDPC. The primary objective of the Mission is to build the capacity of various stakeholders to achieve the targeted expansion of rubber in the state. Up to 85,000 hectares of land have been identified for rubber plantation, as the state pursues its target of 100,000 acres for the crop. The project aims at generation of 41,200 permanent jobs through TFDPC and TRPC and another 35,000 jobs in private sectors. It also aims at permanent settlement of 30,000 tribal families on rubber.

While the economic sustenance efforts are impressive, N R Sarkar, Deputy Project Adviser of the World Bank-aided rubber project in the Tribal Welfare department, says these are not the biggest catalysts. Instead, the empowerment of growers, in particular by forming societies of their own, has been the most important step. These societies hold regular meetings at certain intervals to discuss decisions regarding plantations, nurturing of the estates, tapping, processing and other challenges. This has minimised the role of government officials to merely act as facilitators - to provide technical know-how through training and workshops, and to assist in marketing. Even the cash subsidies are given directly to the societies, without any intermediaries. The entire process has resulted in tremendous confidence building among the beneficiaries.

A number of rubber based industries have come up in the state, including a latex processing unit in Takmacherra, a rubber timber processing unit in Anandanagar, a number of rubber products manufacturing units in Agartala, and a large rubber-wood factory in Dharmanagar.
Agencies implementing these programmes have had to face many challenges, points out Sarkar. Tripura is a small state, and a large part is forest covered; there are also other areas that are wooded but not officially declared forests. This leaves only a limited amount of land for plantation programmes. Therefore the main thrust of the rubber plantation plans so far has been on planting in degraded forest lands, in lands on either side of National Highway 44 and the state highways, replanting of older plantations, replacement of teak monoculture in reserve forests, and plantation of unclassified government land for further rubber plantation and increasing the productivity.

The yield per hectare in the state, 981 kilograms, is also far below than the national average of 1796 kilograms. The state's climate is highly variable, and the number of days available for tapping is lower than elsewhere in India, as the winters are longer. The rainy season too is longer here.

Still, the missionary attitude adopted by the leading agencies to expand the plantation network will boost the rubber sector, says Indraneel Bhowmik, Research Adviser of Tripura Rubber Mission. Efforts are on to increase productivity as well as quality, plantations are being insured to cover risks, and growers and tappers are receiving more training. The rubber market is especially strong; a status report on rubber plantations in the state estimates that the industry would be viable even at Rs.60 per kilogram, and the prevailing market prices are much higher, around Rs.90 per kilogram. With the overall scenario remaining bright, there is every reason to believe that what began as a state-aided, deliberate effort will transform into a vibrant and independent industry in the coming years.