INTERVIEW:Planters fear hit to coffee, pepper as labour yet to return

Informist, Tuesday, Apr 6, 2021


By Preeti Bhagat and Kavita Desai


NEW DELHI/MUMBAI – India's labour-intensive plantation sector saw a massive hit to operations due to the reverse migration of labour force soon after the country went into a lockdown a year ago. The manpower hasn't gained strength yet, COVID-19 has flared up again, and mini-lockdowns are making a comeback. Planters are now staring at a dismal scene all over again.  


For Shirish Vijayendra, chairman of the Karnataka Planters' Association till last year, coffee and pepper plantations remain a worry this year too.  


Pepper plantations need irrigation and timely spraying to prevent the crop from black rot and other diseases, and a shortage of labour could pose a major challenge, he says in an interview to Informist.


"With the drying up (of labour from) Assam and Madhya Pradesh, it could be a challenge. Those operations have to be carried out to prevent diseases from diminishing the crop," says Vijayendra, proprietor of Kannagiri Estate with coffee and pepper plantations across 200 acres in the southern state.


Almost 35-40% of the migrant labour from plantations had returned to their home states last year, he says, adding, "We are making attempts to get back the workforce from Assam by contacting labour contractors."


Harvesting at the coffee plantations was particularly affected by the labour shortage, which came as a double whammy for the crop after erratic rains.


As for pepper, the impact is likely to be less harsh but will still hurt. "Picking of pepper needs specialisation as it grows at a height, and it is not an easy task; spraying also needs specialisation," says Vijayendra.


In the current crop year ending November, India's production of pepper is likely to fall to around 50,000 tn, he says. According to estimates of the Spices Board India, the country had produced 61,000 tn pepper last year.


Prices of the popular spice are seen remaining high due to the fall in output and an increase in demand as imports have shrunk with containers yet to pick up movement during the pandemic.


"I expect prices to rise to 375 rupees per kg in the near term," says the plantation owner, keeping fingers crossed for sustained gains. Pepper prices are currently hovering around 355 rupees a kg, he says.   


Following are edited excerpts from the interview:


Q. What are the risks for pepper in the coming days?

A. Rainfall during April and May is very crucial for pepper plantations, and we need sufficient labour to irrigate the crop. We need to spray pesticides to prevent the crop from black rot and other diseases. 


There is a huge labour shortage this year. Almost 35-40% of the migrant labours returned to their home states. People who would come from Assam and Madhya Pradesh have not come, so there is a huge, huge shortage. 


Next season will be much more challenging, both for coffee and pepper. While harvesting coffee this year, we had a huge problem. There was no labour and the same issue might arise for picking pepper, which needs specialisation. Spraying also requires specialisation as it grows very high, so it's not very easy.


We are making attempts to get back labour workforce from Assam by contacting contractors.


Q. What is your outlook for India's pepper crop for 2020-21? 

A. Pepper is a biennial crop. So, one year the production will be good and in the other, it will be bad. This year, pepper harvested in Kerala has fallen. Our normal production is around 60,000 tn. This year, output may be around 50,000 tn.


Q. How has the pepper harvest been so far?

A. The harvest has been okay (considering pepper is a biennial crop). Heavy winter rains, which affected coffee, didn't affect pepper because pepper wasn't ripe. When there are rains before the crop has matured, the returns are good. So, the rains during Jan-Feb have actually helped pepper vines and the crop.


It was a disaster for coffee because its harvest was going on. Pepper was not ready for harvest. We got rains during the first 10 days of February, so not too many people started harvesting pepper at that time.


Q. What could be the extent of damage to the coffee crop this year?

A. There has been a huge fall in coffee production this year because rains have been a disaster. We had a lot of rain in August and September. And when we got through that, we had unprecedented rains in January, which we hadn't seen in years.


While harvesting arabica, we had rains in February, and the same for the robusta harvest. The damage could be 25-30%, it's difficult to say.


The crop quality has also been seriously affected because what could have been potentially arabica parchment turned to cherry, which also dropped from the plant. The top quality became secondary quality and there was physical loss where it started dying on the plant. There is a loss in quality and a loss in the crop.


Q. What is your outlook for domestic pepper prices in the near term?

A. I expect prices to rise to 375 rupees per kg in the near term as there is good demand. As of today, it is around 355 rupees at the estate level. It's not bad because last year, it was around 300 rupees. There has been a small rise in prices in the past 10 days as the demand for the new crop is currently firm. I hope it stays this way.


Q. What was the impact of COVID-19 on pepper shipments?

A. Earlier, a lot of pepper came in from Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Nepal, and this was then re-exported from India. Due to the pandemic, containers have been stuck at ports and this has acted as a boon for us since supplies are not coming in. Domestic prices have now started going up steadily due to this.


Q. How are cheap imports hurting domestic pepper growers? 

A. When cheap imports are re-exported as 'Indian' pepper, the country's crop quality is seen as being poor in the overseas markets, while actually our quality is very good. When Vietnamese and other imported pepper is brought and resold as Indian pepper, our value in the international market falls. 




Edited by Shirsha Thakur


Cogencis news is now Informist. This follows the acquisition of Cogencis Information Services Ltd by NSE Data & Analytics Ltd, a 100% subsidiary of the National Stock Exchange of India Ltd. As a part of the transaction, the news department of Cogencis has been sold to Informist Media Pvt Ltd.


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