World Coconut Day on September 2 brought good cheer for the coconut sector in our country. India has become the largest coconut producer pushing the Philippians and Indonesia, who had the envious first and second positions for long, back. India produces 1,694 crore nuts now. And its productivity also has been increased (8,900 nuts/ha). Looking back, in 1951, our production was 328 crore nuts with productivity of 5,200 nuts/ha. The area of cultivation also tripled (626,000 ha to 1,895,000 ha) during this period.
Though India has become the global leader in coconut production, it has not yet achieved much in the diversification of the produce. ASEAN countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam have been adding value to this agricultural product tremendously using the state-of-the-art technologies in the food processing industry. They have made a big dent in our foodshelves too. But 80 per cent of our production is still routed through the traditional low-valued copra-oil route, while out of the 61 billion nuts produced globally, only 50 per cent go through this way.
Among our states, Tamil Nadu has made big strides in production and productivity of coconut. Its average productivity is nearly double than that of the traditional leader—Kerala (7,900 nuts/ha vs 15,000 nuts/ha). In Coimbatore, well-managed coconut farms are getting 30,000 nuts/ha which is, no doubt, to be acknowledged internationally. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh also have improved their production. According to the Coconut Development Board sources, even in the north Indian and Northeast climates, appropriate coconut varieties have shown good yield results.
Diversification of coconut produce is a complex process. State has to hand-hold small and medium entrepreneurs engaged in food processing industry using coconut as a raw material. Coconut milk and powder can move fast in the market. ‘Neera’—the sweet toddy tapped from the palm entangled in the labyrinth of excise laws—is slowly coming out of the legal eclipse in states like Kerala. This drink with zero per cent alcohol can make a big difference in the income of coconut growers. Fortunately, last year, the Kerala Agricultural University released the technology of keeping Neera intact for several weeks in the shelf. The palm sugar extracted from Neera is valued high. Coconut wine and brandy have made considerable space in the global beverage market. But India is still hesitating. Wood technology is yet to progress for utilising coconut wood for too many uses. (Our engineering colleges have not being offering courses in appropriate wood technology in general).
The hybrid varieties of coconut palm released from our research institutions have been adopted by the farmers in their greenfield ventures of coconut cultivation. The traditional tall varieties like the west coast tall crossed with Chowghat dwarf, popularly called TxD, is one of the major reasons for the success of coconut cultivation in some parts of Tamil Nadu. The tedious coconut palm climbing can be replaced with plucking the nut using simple tools if ample quantity of short variety coconut is available.
The allocation of Central government to coconut sector is meagre. Comparing the extension of rubber cultivation by the Rubber Board with the coconut extension by the state, the gap is too large. Being a horticulture produce, the thrust given to it by the Centre is much lower than the commercial produces. In the new context the Centre, state and local governments have to make a concerted move to plant coconut in the greenfields and replant the obsolete palms in the traditional coconut farms. (Labour of MGNREGS workers can be utilised by proper amendments in its guidelines.) The funds of the three tiers are to be properly augmented for maximising the result.
Coconut palm can be a plant in focus in the food nutrition security search. It will be a sure bet in the development of our national agricultural economy if we draw the right road map.