The Kerala government has, in principle, taken a decision to use more rubberised bitumen for construction of new roads and maintenance of existing ones. The move is aimed at creating additional demand for natural rubber within the state which produces over 90 per cent of India’s rubber. Over one million rubber growers in Kerala are facing difficult times after prices of natural rubber fell over 50 per cent in the last three years. Though the rubber content in rubberised bitumen is just two per cent, if 10 per cent of roads in Kerala take this route each year, the aggregate additional demand would be 60 lakh kg, many times over if the entire country embraces this approach.
Rubberised roads would immediately translate into higher longevity of Indian roads, lasting five-eight years as against about three now. It would mean huge savings for the government, forcing it to be more sympathetic to the woes of rubber grower. The domestic tyre manufacturers are going in for huge imports, lured by low prices, at a time the Indian rubber too is witnessing a historic slump in prices. Ironically, this has come at a time when the demand for rubber in India outstripped production. During the last fiscal, domestic rubber production rule was 8.44 lakh tonnes and the demand, 9.77 lakh tonnes. Despite this, 3.24 lakh tonnes of rubber got imported.
Naturally, the steep fall in rubber prices has led to a growing clamour from the rubber growers that a higher import duty be imposed on rubber—raw or finished. While rubberised bitumen would result in longer lasting roads, there is a flip side to this. Given that almost 65 per cent of rubber produced goes towards the manufacture of tyres, there is an inherent contradiction, as tyres too last longer. Perhaps, the government could do well to seize the initiative and woo big multinational players to set up local tyre manufacturing units, an initiative that would also be in sync with Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign.