The Rubber Board has begun trial cultivation of rubber with tea in West Bengal to change the perception that rubber is harmful to environment and other crops cannot be grown in rubber gardens.
And if the experiment turns successful, inter-cropping would be extended to other parts of the country, K.G. Mohanan, additional production commissioner, told IANS.
"If we get a positive result from the Nagrakata joint cultivation of rubber and tea at Nagrakata village in Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal, the rubber board is planning to assist inter-cropping of rubber in tea gardens of northeast India," said Mohanan, an expert in natural rubber cultivation.
"Natural rubber and tea will grow side by side and that will help the gardens retain their economic viability," he added, dismissing the talk of rubber being not eco-friendly and that other crops cannot be possible in rubber gardens.
India is now ranked first in rubber productivity (1,760 kg per hectare), second in consumption (948,000 tonnes per year), fourth in production (862,400 tonnes) and sixth in terms of area of rubber cultivation in the world.
According to the Board, the total cultivation area would rise to 986,000 hectares and production and consumption would go up to 1,583,000 tonnes and 1,731,000 tonnes respectively by 2024-25.
In India, rubber is grown mostly in Kerala and Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu. The seven northeastern states, excluding Sikkim, are categorised as non-traditional areas for rubber cultivation.
Tripura is the second largest natural rubber cultivating state in the country after Kerala with around 60,000 hectares under cultivation and producing about 26,000 tonnes of natural rubber in 2010-11.
India's second industrial rubber park has been set up in Bodhungnagar in western Tripura to boost the country's elastic polymer industry.
"All over the world, tea, coffee, spices and rubber are grown as a monocrop which affects the ecological balance and bio-diversity. Therefore, we are now trying to encourage inter-cropping in the rubber gardens," said Mohanan.
Coconut is now grown in between rubber. But pineapples, ginger, turmeric, vegetables and mustard can be inter-cropped for up to three years from the beginning of a rubber plantation, according to him.
"After the rubber plants grow up, shade loving medicinal plants, which do not require much light for growth, can be inter-cropped," he said, adding that this would help retain bio-diversity.
Mohanan also dismissed the argument of some of the environmentalists that farming of mono-cultivations like natural rubber is harmful to the environment.
"If natural rubber cultivation is harmful to the environment, why have China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and many other countries been expanding rubber cultivation in their countries?" he asked.
The Rubber Board with the Indian Space Research Organisation's National Remote Sensing Centre had recently carried out a satellite imagery survey to find out potential areas of natural rubber cultivation in Tripura.
Mohanan said such type of surveys would be conducted in other parts of India to know the potential areas of natural rubber cultivation.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)