Kerala’s Cashew Workers Turn To MNREGA
Women working in cashew units

Kerala’s Cashew Workers Turn To MNREGA

Successive lockdowns have dealt a death blow to the cashew industry in the southern state

Remlath Beevi, a 48-year-old widow and cashew peeling worker in Kollam, has fixed her shovel’s broken handle to join the bandwagon of the national rural employment guarantee scheme.

“In this time of crisis, going for a rural employment guarantee scheme will get me some Rs 304 per day. It is very important, because I am the sole breadwinner of my family. Nowadays, even daily food is also becoming a challenge,” Remlath told The Lede.

Remlath is one among the lakhs of women cashew industry workers who have lost their earnings due to COVID-19-induced lockdowns and restrictions.

“Since March third week, there is not much work in the cashew industry. We thought that after the full lockdown was lifted, we would be able to work. But as COVID-19 caseloads are increasing, we are stuck badly. On and off, work areas are shut down frequently,” Remlath said.

“I am working in the peeling section and I could manage to earn Rs 1400 if there is work for four days in a week. And out of that, I would be losing Rs 300 in pension contribution and Employees' State Insurance contribution. But now, there is not much work. So, I have decided to go for the rural employment guarantee scheme,” she added.

The cashew processing industry is a major source of livelihood for a large number of people in South Kerala. Cashew processing involves the conversion of raw cashew nuts to cashew kernels.

The major stages of processing include roasting or steaming the raw nuts to facilitate removal of the hard outer shell, shelling or cutting the outer shell, peeling the skin of the kernel, and grading the kernels based on quality.

The majority of the workers in the industry are engaged in shelling/cutting, peeling, and grading activities. Shelling/cutting, peeling, and grading activities are done by women workers.

Averting Hunger Deaths

Confirming what Remlath said, Kadakampally Manoj, a trade union leader in the cashew industry, said that it is the national rural employment guarantee scheme which is averting hunger deaths and suicides in Kollam among cashew industry workers where around 700 cashew factories are situated.

“Out of the two lakh cashew industry workers, 90% are women. And more than 70% of the women workers are from the backward and Dalit community. They depend on this industry for survival. Unfortunately, they are facing a tough time now,” Manoj told The Lede.

Manoj claimed that only 60% of the two lakh workers are registered with the state government who can claim pension and other benefits from the government welfare schemes.

“There are 40% of workers, aged above 60, working in the cashew industry. They cannot claim any benefits. But again, they go for work because there are no other survival options,” he added.

According to Manoj, out of the 843 licensed cashew factories, only 30% are functioning well and the rest are either at loss or falling into trouble.

“Importing cheaper cashew from foreign countries, government’s callous attitude towards cashew industry and mismanagement by government entities set up for the welfare of cashew workers has put the entire cashew industry and its workers in trouble,” Manoj said adding that COVID-19 induced-lockdowns have put the workers from the frying pan into the fire.

Illegal Traders In Africa

Meanwhile, Jobran G Varghese, a mid-level cashew trader with seven factories and employing 1000 workers, said COVID-19 induced lockdowns have hit 30% of his sales.

“Full and partial lockdowns have hit the business badly. Lockdowns led to less consumption of cashew, eventually, it resulted in a crash in sales,” Jobran said.

According to Jobran in addition to the COVID-19-induced crisis, the cashew industry is facing trouble from North Indian illegal cashew traders in Africa for the last decade.

“Indian traders purchase raw cashew mainly from the Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, North Indian traders who have black money invest in these countries and up the price. As we don’t have any other options, we are forced to buy from them, which eventually hits our profit margin,” he added.

“The price of one tonne of raw cashew was USD 900. The illegal traders have pushed it to USD 1200. And we are forced to buy by paying the hiked price,” Jobran said.

Around 78% of Africa’s raw cashew nuts are produced in West African countries like Cote d’ Ivoire, Benin, and Ghana.

Jobran who does the business of 6000 tonnes of cashew annually, this year so far could do business only for 2000 tonnes.

According to the Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics, export earnings from cashew nut in FY20 stood at USD 566.76 million.

India exports cashew kernels to over 60 countries. Its major markets are the US, the Netherlands, Japan, Spain, France, Germany, the UK as well as the Middle East countries such as UAE and Saudi Arabia.

India accounts for about 65% of the global cashew export.

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