WAYANAD (KERALA): Over 500 years ago, Vasco da Gama, so goes the story, asked the King here if he could take home some Malabar pepper, the best in the world. The monarch consented. Were they around today, neither Vasco da Gama nor the King could certify that the pepper found here is from the Malabar.

"This place is drowning in third-rate imported pepper," says E.M. Samad. He is a young trader shuttling between Wayanad and Delhi. "Cheap, low grade imports are killing our pepper. This stuff is from Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other places." This massive inflow has savaged the growers here and knocked the bottom out of the district's economy. "Wayanad farmers have lost Rs. 1,500 crores on pepper alone since 2001," says P.A. Muhammed, convenor of the South Indian Farmers Coordination Committee. "Disease and drought have sharpened the crisis."

Cheap imports

The cheap imports have proved costly. "The import lobby brings in these large amounts of bad pepper," says Mr. Samad. "It mixes this with Wayanad pepper (which is premium grade) and exports it to Europe and elsewhere for huge profits. This triggered the price crash and killed the farmers of Wayanad." The district saw 150 farmers or more take their lives in 2004. Most of them pepper and coffee growers, all of them deep in debt. The spice of life now carries a whiff of death.

"As it is, production costs quadrupled in the past few years," says K.M. Thomas. His five-member family works a four-acre plot in the worst-hit region of Pulpally. "This was our mainstay. Now we earn less from each acre than we invest in it." Pepper prices - Rs. 27,000 a quintal a few years ago - fell to just over Rs. 5,000 a quintal by 2004. Or Rs. 50 a kilo. Debts rose as prices sank. And credit dried up. In Pulpally, thriving farmers once owned hundreds of motor vehicles. Now many of these are off the roads, sold or lost in debt repayment.

"Import duties needed"

V. Baby was famous as the district's "model farmer." Indeed, he had won the "Best Farmer Award" from banks here happy with his prompt loan repayment. Then came the price crash.

"Pulpally pepper is the best in the world," says Mr. Baby with pride. "But this inferior Sri Lankan product is hurting us like anything." As prices slipped, the model farmer found himself over half a million rupees in debt. Deeply hurting for a man proud of his fine record. And without credit, it is hard to come out of it. "The Government should impose duties on these imports," he says. "And there should be a five-year moratorium on loan repayment."

However, much of what passes as "Sri Lankan pepper" is really from many nations. It just comes via Sri Lanka. That country's output at the time the price slide began in 2001 was just around 7,800 tonnes. About half of this was locally consumed. Yet, Indian "imports from Sri Lanka" in the same period were almost higher than that nation's production!

"There is zero duty levied on such imports from SAARC countries," points out M.P. Veerendrakumar. He is the Lok Sabha member from here and a former Union Labour Minister. "So all this third rate pepper is routed through Sri Lanka. How can they export more than they produce? Multinationals and cartels are rigging both the flow and the price of pepper."

Drop in output

With prices smashed by the imports, output sank. Adding to the crisis was the onset of Quick Wilt disease and other problems. "Four years ago, I harvested 70 quintals of pepper," says farmer K.I. Matthew in Mullankolly. "In 2004, that fell to seven quintals."

Locals believe much damage might have been caused by inferior imported species entering the production chain. And by the reckless use of dubious seed varieties that crowd the market.

There is no relief. "Because ours are cash crops, there are no concessions," says K.N. Subramanian. He is a district leader of the Karshaka Sangham (a unit of the All-Indian Kisan Sabha) and himself a small farmer. "The compensation levels are crazy. A dead banana tree gets Rs. 50. A destroyed pepper vine fetches Rs. 40, though pepper is a long-term crop. One you can earn from for half a century."

Pepper from here has long been a big foreign exchange earner. Kerala accounts for 90 per cent of India's production. During 2003, Indian exports fell to 17,200 tonnes, a fall of 31 per cent from 2002. But black pepper remained the most favoured spice in the globe. The world consumes more of it than perhaps all other spices combined. Yet India's share of the trade has dived. And its imports have soared. Vietnam has emerged the globe's unlikely top producer.

Kerala's response has been to bureaucratise everything. "The idea was that the government would buy pepper at Rs. 75 a kg from distressed farmers," says Kozhikode-based journalist K.A. Shaji. "For this, farmers wishing to sell pepper must now have the local village officer certify that it was grown on their own land. This could take weeks. And sometimes the officers demand bribes. Then the government procurement agency has to verify it too. Next, the agency appoints an `expert' to conduct a `pepper vine census' on the farmer's land.

"Only farmers with two hectares or less will get help. And only those who have got no government aid in four years. Which rules out the families of those who committed suicide in despair! It would be far simpler to check the imports at the port of entry than to try and police thousands of farms. But this is the system now in place."

"It's a mess," says Mr. Veerendrakumar. "The government's approach has failed totally." He points to the need for "geographical indicators," which would specify where the pepper is from. And "the regulation of imports. This re-mixing of Wayanad pepper with low quality stuff is ruining our export markets."

In Wayanad, the King of Spices is now a pauper.