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Lockdown measures may cost Karnataka coffee growers more than US$90 million

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MILAN – COVID-related lockdown measures are putting a further strain on the already struggling coffee industry in Karnataka, India’s largest coffee growing state, which accounts for about 70% of the crop in the country.

“Even as we were grappling with the fallout of floods and landslides on plantations over the last 2 years, the extended COVID lockdown spelt heavy losses for us as it disrupted operations and damaged coffee beans,” Karnataka Planters’ Association Chairman Shirish Vijayendra told IANS from Chikmagalur, about 240 km northwest of Bengaluru.

The lockdown, enforced on March 25 and extended since then to contain the pandemic, prevented growers from trading, curing and exporting coffee in seed or powder form.

“The suspension of public transport and prevention of vehicular movement during the first two phases of the lockdown till May 3 also prevented growers from harvesting beans and pepper inter-crop, as workers couldn’t commute to estates for weeks,” Vijayendra recalled.

With migrant workers from neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, returning to their native places to avoid coronavirus infection, movement of harvested coffee to curing works was affected.

“As work in plantations came to a grinding halt due to lockdown restrictions, growers had no income as beans couldn’t be processed for sale or curing and trading for domestic consumption or exports,” lamented Vijayendra.

Though many restrictions for the agriculture sector were eased after the 21-day first phase of lockdown, the plantation commodity sectors like coffee, tea, rubber and spices, didn’t benefit as they are considered commercial crops and not exempted from taxes and other central or state levies.

The prolonged lockdown also held up coffee at the farm gate of growers, curing works, traders and at ports. “Though about 70 per cent of coffee is exported, domestic consumption was affected as roasters, retail outlets, cafes and hotels remained shut and beans couldn’t be processed or sold,” said Vijayendra.

“We estimate the overall loss to the coffee plantation sector in Karnataka at about Rs 700 crore (US$92.3 million) due to disruption in harvesting, trading and export because of the lockdown and the coronavirus fallout,” reiterated Vijayendra.

According to the Association, the loss in harvesting Robusta crop is Rs 131 crore, in Arabica and Robusta gleanings Rs 88 crore, in inventory of beans held by growers Rs 144 crore, in harvesting of pepper Rs 78 crore and exports Rs 250 crore.

Exports were also affected as transportation from plantations to ports was delayed due to lockdown and shortage of labour and vehicles.

“As offices of traders and exporters remained shut and operations at Mangaluru and other ports suspended due to non-availability of labour, our export stocks got stuck for several weeks,” said Vijayendra.