Lockdown brews fresh crisis for Karnataka coffee growers

Reeling under distress and losses due to rains, floods and landslides over the last two years, the Covid-induced lockdown has been brewing fresh crisis for coffee growers in Karnataka, the land of the aromatic beverage, according to a trade representative, here on Saturday.

“Even as we were grappling with the fallout of floods and landslides on plantations over the last 2 years, the extended Covid lockdown spelt heavy losses for us as it disrupted operations and damaged coffee beans,” Karnataka Planters’ Association Chairman Shirish Vijayendra told IANS from Chikmagalur, about 240 km northwest of Bengaluru.

As plucking of Arabica and Robusta beans was getting over, the lockdown, enforced on March 25 and extended since then to contain the pandemic, prevented growers from trading, curing and exporting coffee in seed or powder form.

“The suspension of public transport and prevention of vehicular movement during the first two phases of the lockdown till May 3 also prevented growers from harvesting beans and pepper inter-crop, as workers couldn’t commute to estates for weeks,” Vijayendra recalled.

With migrant workers from neighbouring states, like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, returning to their native places to avoid coronavirus infection, movement of harvested coffee to curing works was affected.

“As work in plantations came to a grinding halt due to lockdown restrictions, growers had no income as beans couldn’t be processed for sale or curing and trading for domestic consumption or exports,” lamented Vijayendra.

Though many restrictions for the agriculture sector were eased after the 21-day first phase of lockdown, the plantation commodity sectors, like coffee, tea, rubber and spices, didn’t benefit as they are considered commercial crops and not exempted from taxes and other central or state levies.

The prolonged lockdown also held up coffee at the farm gate of growers, curing works, traders and at ports. “Though about 70 per cent of coffee is exported, domestic consumption was affected as roasters, retail outlets, cafes and hotels remained shut and beans couldn’t be processed or sold,” said Vijayendra.

Coffee production declined 50 per cent in 2019-20 and 35 per cent in 2018-19 due to heavy rain, floods and landslides from about 3,00,000 tonnes in the past. Fall in international prices also affected export revenue.

Drought and dry weather for three consecutive years (2015-16 to 2017-18) due to the southwest monsoon’s failure had a cascading effect. The steep rise in input cost, wages and social benefits to workers also shot up the production cost.

“We estimate the overall loss to the coffee plantation sector in Karnataka at about Rs 700 crore due to disruption in harvesting, trading and export because of the lockdown and the coronavirus fallout,” reiterated Vijayendra.

According to the Association, the loss in harvesting Robusta crop is Rs 131 crore, in Arabica and Robusta gleanings Rs 88 crore, in inventory of beans held by growers Rs 144 crore, in harvesting of pepper Rs 78 crore and exports Rs 250 crore.

Exports were also affected as transportation from plantations to ports was delayed due to lockdown and shortage of labour and vehicles.

“As offices of traders and exporters remained shut and operations at Mangaluru and other ports suspended due to non-availability of labour, our export stocks got stuck for several weeks,” said Vijayendra.

As the largest producer of the aromatic beans, Karnataka accounts for about 70 of coffee production in the country, with dozen districts across the central, coastal and southern regions of the state, like Chikmaglur, Kodagu and Hassan, spawning the rich-bio diverse Western Ghats in the Deccan plateau, producing the beans since 500 years.

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