Why Tamil Nadu is pushing for palm cultivation

Why Tamil Nadu is pushing for palm cultivation

The palm tree is a wonderful gift to humanity as a whole, said the Tamil Nadu agriculture budget, giving its thrust to its cultivation.

“The palm tree is a wonderful gift to humanity as a whole,” says the first-ever agricultural budget presented in Tamil Nadu Assembly by agriculture minister MRK Panneerselvam recently. “Palmyra is our state tree, with a long and continuous record in the history.” The budget while making a case for palm tree cultivation, highlighted the various usages and products made out of the...

“The palm tree is a wonderful gift to humanity as a whole,” says the first-ever agricultural budget presented in Tamil Nadu Assembly by agriculture minister MRK Panneerselvam recently. “Palmyra is our state tree, with a long and continuous record in the history.”

The budget while making a case for palm tree cultivation, highlighted the various usages and products made out of the tree such as baskets, handicrafts, cosmetics, broomsticks, roofs, etc. apart from palm jaggery, palm fruits and palm juice.

Planted along the sides of farms and fields, the long-trunked trees with star-shaped leaves are hard to miss while passing through the villages of Tamil Nadu.

However, in recent times, their numbers have come down starkly due to rapid urbanisation. In view of this, the minister has said that it has been made mandatory to get permission from the district collector before palm trees are cut, even under unavoidable circumstances.

This is not the first time that the state government has shown interest in the palmyra. Under the previous AIADMK regime, chief minister Edapaddi Palaniswami had in 2019 announced ₹10 crore for sowing 2.5 crore palm trees in coastal districts. The new disposition has decided to distribute 76 lakh palmyra seed nuts and one lakh palmyra seedlings to farmers with full subsidy in 30 districts this year.

But is palmyra cultivation really a profitable venture?

A tree for generations

According to an ancient book ‘Tala Vilasam’ written by poet Thirukkudanthai Arunachala Pulavar, there are 801 uses of the palmyra.

“There is a saying in Tamil which goes like this: ‘Panai vechavan paarthuttu saavaan, Thennai vechavan tinnuttu saavaan’, meaning, one who plants a palm tree will die after seeing it mature and the one who plants a coconut tree will die after enjoying its benefits. So palm cultivation will benefit the future generations rather than the current generation,” says Paruthichery Raja, founder, Pasumai Soozh Paadhukaappu Iyakkam, an organisation working towards awareness about palm trees.

The life span of a palm tree is nearly 150 years. It will bear fruit after 20 years. The state plans to give out mostly seeds for the scheme and some saplings. But Raja says it is difficult to use saplings because of its delicate growth process.

Palm jaggery and a box made of palm leaves

“The seed first strengthens the root system. It is only after a few months that two leaves will come above the surface. At that time, the sapling has to be taken out without damaging its roots and packed accordingly. Even if you disturb it a little, it will not grow. So the government should reconsider distributing saplings,” he says.

Godson Samuel, a pastor creating awareness on palm trees, says that during summers, people consume ‘nungu’ (ice apple), the tender fruit from the palm tree.

“The ‘nungu’, which has jelly-like white sockets, is actually a seed. If we let the fruit ripen properly, it will turn into a fibrous fruit called ‘panam pazham’. It can be eaten or used as squash. It is nutritious,” he says.

“The government can distribute the squash in schools,” he suggests. “Also, the ripe fruit will have seeds which can be saved and distributed to people. So instead of eating nungu, we should promote eating panam pazham,” he says.

One palm tree will bear some 300 fruits in a year and from one ripe fruit, about 800 seeds can be taken, Samuel adds.

C Ravindran, assistant professor of horticulture, Agriculture College and Research Institute, Killikulam, Thoothukudi district, says the cost to grow palm is very minimal.

“In arid areas, it would grow in 15–20 years. With proper irrigation, it will start producing flowers and fruits in 10 years. Also, the pest attack on this tree is also very low,” he says.

The institute has been chosen by the state government to carry out palmyra research.

Problems in jaggery-making

Besides growing palm trees, the agriculture budget has also said that measures will be taken to distribute palm jaggery, a value-added palm product, derived from palm trees through the public distribution system (PDS).

However, John Peter, founder, Panai Vaazhviyal Iyakkam, an organisation that works towards the protection and welfare of palm tree cultivators, says there are numerous problems involved in distributing the palm jaggery through ration shops.

A man makes a traditional cot using palm strings

In the 1970s, a census by the Khadi and Village Industries Board revealed that Tamil Nadu has nearly 10.5 crore palm trees. Now it has decreased to 2 crore or even below that, Peter claims.

“The love for the trees saw a dip after the state government in 1987 banned toddy extraction from palm trees, affecting the livelihoods of a significant number of people dependent on the trees. Even today, one cannot climb a palm tree and bring down the palm juice without being caught by the police. Though it is just palm juice, the police detain the climbers on the charge of extracting toddy. To produce 10 kg of palm jaggery, you need 72 litres of palm juice. With police being against it, you cannot expect the production of palm jaggery in large quantities,” he says.

Also, he adds that in a year, one can extract palm juice only for three months between July and September. If the government plans to sell palm jaggery for a whole year, it is not clear how much quantity the government will distribute to each card, he points out.

Peter stresses on another important aspect. To produce good quality 1 kg jaggery, it costs ₹600. However, one kg of jaggery is being sold at ₹350–₹400. Saying that there is adulteration, Peter says that the government should have procurement centres to ensure no adulteration and a good profit for farmers.

“Unless the ban on toddy extraction is removed, nobody can save palm trees,” says Nallasami Chennimalai, founder, Tamil Nadu Toddy Movement, which has been fighting for withdrawal of the ban for the last 17 years.

Across the world, palm trees are found in 108 countries. Nowhere, there is a ban on toddy, he said.

“Even during the pandemic, Kerala had closed all liquor shops but not toddy shops because toddy is seen as a food and medicine. Only in Tamil Nadu, it is equated with liquor. Ban on toddy tapping is against Article 47 of the Constitution, since it is not an intoxicating drug but a food item,” Nallasami says.

Environmental benefits of palm

R Panchavarnam, a researcher on trees who has written a book on the Palmyra, says that the presence of palm trees reduced the effect of the 2006 tsunami in coastal regions.

“When we approached the government in 2017 to plant palm trees opposite University of Madras, the then government did not give permission,” he said, even as he welcomed the move now.

Palm seeds are spread out in the sun to dry before it is sown | Photo courtesy – Naam Tamilar Katchi

Renowned botanist D Narasimhan advises planting palm trees across the state, instead of just coastal areas.

“We don’t know whether we have enough space in coastal areas to plant such a huge number of palm trees, because today the seashore is rampantly occupied by private players. Though the trees can grow well in coastal areas, they should also be planted in other areas close to water bodies, considering its ability to store water in its roots,” he says.

Being resilient to storms, Narasimhan points out that these trees did not fall even during Cyclone Gaja because of its strong root system.

Besides economic benefits, the tree, scientifically called Borassus flabellifer, also has environmental benefits. They are said to have the ability of recharging the groundwater and are also a habitat for many bird species like Asian Palm swift, vultures and reptiles like snakes and monitor lizards.

“Due to scant understanding of the importance of palm trees, we lost many of them to urbanisation in the last two decades,” Narasimhan rues.

In earlier days, each and every part of the tree was used by the people for various purposes, including building huts, for food and fuel. Much of the early Tamil literature was written on palmyra leaves. Now after the plastic ban, the use of palm leaves for packaging has gained new vigour, he adds.

‘Engage palm tree workers’

In view of this, many environmentalists and political parties such as Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) took to planting palm trees on a large scale over the last three years.

So, when the state government announced a similar scheme, activists like Godson Samuel feel it is an eyewash.

A man selling nungu, the tender fruit of palm

“It cannot be ascertained how many seeds will be procured, how many will be planted and how it will be monitored. We don’t know whether fishermen and other villagers can be involved in this process through MGNREGA,” says Samuel, who had done a bike expedition from Mumbai to Nagercoil in 2015, to create awareness about the uses of palmyra trees.

He noted that sowing cannot be seen as an individual act, and it has to take into account the welfare of workers related to palm tree products.

“Instead of giving the work to persons unrelated to palm trees, the government should entrust the work to palm tree workers,” he says, advising that they should be given licence to plant palm tree seeds.

The activist also rues about the fact that there are no good prices for palm products, which has brought down the number of people involved with palm tree products.

“The previous government had announced that the seeds were to be procured from the state’s agriculture and horticulture departments. But till date, those departments haven’t taken any concrete action with regard to palm trees,” he says, adding that the government is likely to purchase seeds from palm tree growers at a very low price.

Samuel recalls that planting palm seeds was done even during former chief minister Kamaraj’s period. “Back then, works related to palm products were taken rigorously. Particularly, the palm board was doing well then.”

“In order to preserve a sustainable biodiversity, we need such trees which are suitable for our soil systems. The announcements should not lie just in papers but it should reach the people,” says Sunanda, head of the environment wing of NTK, welcoming the government’s move, and claiming that it has come about because of the continued efforts of her party.

Oil palm prospective

Even as the Tamil Nadu government is giving a push to palmyra palm (Borassus flabellifer), on the other hand, the Union government is focusing on full-fledged implementation of the National Mission on Edible Oils–Oil Palm.

This oil is extracted from another kind of palm tree known as African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis). This is the palm oil (that is the general term used, but it is actually palmolein) supplied through PDS.

Varadharajan, a farmer who is involved in oil palm cultivation in Thanjavur, says that growing oil palm is easy compared to other ordinary crops. It doesn’t need water as much as paddy but needs moisture.

According to Asokan, manager, Godrej Agrovet Company, although oil palm is cultivated across the state, the company covers 10 districts. It is one of the few companies in the state which caters the need of crude palmolein extraction from the fresh fruit bunches (FFB) from the oil palm tree through its mill in Ariyalur district.

Insufficient rains is the only problem, he says. As of now, oil palm is cultivated in 3,000 hectares and about 1,000 hectares are yielding. From the third year of its planting, it starts yielding and it continues for the next 30 years,” he said.

When asked about why may oppose the Mission, Asokan says it is because of the fear of monoculture, or the cultivation of only one plant or product in an area.

“In Indonesia and Malaysia, the oil palm has become a monoculture. India is dependent on these countries for 70 percent of its palmolein needs. Whereas here we have a lot of land and can cultivate oil palm without the fear of it becoming monoculture,” he says.

Talking to The Federal, M Tamil Selvan, assistant professor, Agricultural Research Station, Pattukkottai, says oil palm caters to a large portion of our edible oil needs.

“When you cultivate groundnut, sesame or sunflower, you can get a maximum of 750 kg of oil from one hectare per year whereas with oil palm cultivation, from one hectare, you can get 4,000–6,000 kg of oil. Another thing is no one can steal your cultivation as only a few companies can extract the oil,” he says.

From oil palm, two types of oil can be extracted. One, crude palmolein, which is edible and two, palm kernel oil, which is used in cosmetic industry, he adds.

“Today, across the state, in 7,000 hectares, oil palm cultivation is carried out. Efforts are on to increase the yield from 6,000 kg of oil to 15,000 kg per hectare” Selvan says.

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