KOCHI: While the UAE decision to lift the ban on passenger flights from India early this month cheered thousands of Malayalis stuck in the state, it has suddenly dealt a blow to the vegetable exporters from Kerala to the Gulf in their biggest cash-ringing season -- Onam.
Reason: After the open-air policy allowed cargo flights by foreign airlines only in six metro cities in the country, exporters of vegetables, fruits and fish from Kerala who were relying on the passenger flights going back empty to stuff their cargo to the West Asian markets on seats, are finding those spaces occupied with people.
"Now, all the flights to the Gulf, at least from Kozhikode airport, are fully packed with passengers, and there’s no space for our cargo. Though the demand for vegetables has increased in the UAE markets due to Onam, the space availability has come down by at least by a third. Earlier, we were using the free passenger seats to ply our cargo. That space is gone," rued Rafeeq KB of Kozhikode-based KB Exports & Imports.
From Kochi airport, Air Arabia, Emirates, Fly Dubai, Etihad, Air India Express, Indigo and Spice Jet have either started or expected to start their flights to the UAE. "Unless more more flights start operations to the UAE, we will lose this biggest season," said Ashiq of Atlas, another exporter to the Gulf.
Kerala exports a range of veggies for Onam -- from banana leaves to drumsticks, pineapple to banana chips, papaya to lemon, tender jackfruit to coconut to the Gulf markets -- targeting the large expat Keralite population in the UAE and other West Asian countries.
A sudden increase in freight charges have also hit them hard. "There is an increase of Rs 15/kg in freight charges in recent weeks," said Rafeeq, adding that it was not feasible for the Kerala based perishable exporters to move their goods to Chennai, Bengaluru or Hyderabad due to the rise in transportation costs plus higher clearing charges in these airports vis-a-vis Kerala.
Rafeeq said his company used to fly about 20-22 tonnes per day, which has come down by half to 10 tonnes. "This at a time when we have higher demand," he said.
An official at Kochi airport said exports from the airport increased to over 100 tonnes on Saturday from a daily average of about 83-85 tonnes earlier this month. "This increase is only due to Onam. This may change after the week," he said. Before the outbreak of COVID, the airport used to clock about 116 tonnes on average. But, following the COVID, it dipped to about 66 tonnes in 2020.