Those were the days

Published : Oct 19, 2012 00:00 IST



(Kishor Shamji Kuruwa is a former president of the Indian Pepper and Spice Trade Association and the proprietor of Kishor Spices Company, a traditional family-run spice business house in Kochi.)

Pepper trade in Kerala was concentrated initially in the Malabar region, in places like Tellicherry and Calicut. Then it shifted to Alappuzha. Until the mid-1960s, Alappuzha was the centre for pepper. All the leading exporters were based there. The domestic inter-State business was handled from Alappuzha.

It was the main trading centre for pepper, coir and turmeric in India. There were huge warehouses there for storing these commodities. Kochi was then famous only for the ginger business. Pepper reached Alappuzha in small boats from places like Kottayam, Kanjirappally, Muvattupuzha, Kothamangalam and Thodupuzha. Such places constituted the pepper belt then. Today, it is mostly a rubber-growing area.

Pepper harvests from all such places would be loaded on bullock carts the previous day and would be taken to the boat jetty in Kottayam. The they were then loaded in boats and sent to Alappuzha. Barges would then transfer the pepper loads to Kochi, from where they would be sent by steam ships to Calcutta or Karachi and places across the world. Companies like India Sea Navigation had a regular passenger-cum-cargo vessel running between Karachi and Kochi. Every Sunday, one vessel would be in Kochi, another in Karachi.

The Idukki arch dam had not yet been built then and most parts of Idukki were inaccessible jungle. Pepper and other goods were coming to Alappuzha from as far away as Palakkad. The other major pepper centre then was, of course, Calicut.

I think accessibility is the key that changes the fortunes of a trading centre. When the Aroor bridge was built, goods started moving from the cultivation centres to Kochi directly. By the late 1960s, Alappuzha, where labour militancy too was on the rise, had lost its relevance as a pepper trading centre. Kochi came into prominence.

By then, people had started moving deeper into the jungles of Idukki and large forest tracts were being converted into pepper gardens. Later, cardamom too started being cultivated there.

When the Idukki arch dam was built, a lot of area under pepper went under water. People then shifted to the upper areas of Idukki, such as Kattappana, Nedumkandam and Adimali to grow the crop.

Every year I used to go to these places with my father. We have links with three generations of dealers there who procure pepper for us from the local farmers. We still hold on to these links. Some of the dealers are no longer there; in some cases a new generation has taken over. Somewhere in between, the trade patterns changed.

With banks providing generous credit, the breed of commission agents, like my father, who used to finance the traders from the primary markets to the exporters and inter-State dealers and who acted as a sort of middlemen in the pepper trade, have now completely disappeared. Dealers from the primary markets have started supplying pepper directly to the exporters.

Of late, some dealers have started exporting pepper on their own. Some such dealers in Sulthan Bathery and Kalpatta in Wayanad district and Kumily and Nedumkandam in Idukki district have established their own facilities for grading and processing pepper for exports and also for the Indian domestic market.

Earlier such processing facilities used to be concentrated invariably around Kochi. Now you can see them all over Kerala.

As told to R. Krishnakumar
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