A 2014 Project to Revive India's Historical 'Spice Route' Remains a Non-starter

India and China have been playing leading roles in establishing new maritime connectivity from Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and South Asia to Southeast Asia. India launched Project Mausam with a view to counterbalance China’s increasing influence in the Indian Ocean region, particularly in the context of the “Maritime Silk Road” (MSR), which Beijing has been seriously pursuing for some time.

While inaugurating the Kochi Metro in June 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called Kochi “the queen of the Arabian Sea, an important spice trading centre,” (India, Press Information Bureau 2017). This historical reference to the city has a particular context too, which not many would have noticed then, even in the spices-rich state. Kerala has already been given a specific role in the Project Mausam (PM) launched by the Union Government in 2014 where a major goal was to revive the historical “spice route” in a larger geopolitical and geoeconomic context (India, Ministry of Culture 2014: 8). However, the PM somehow remains a non-starter and the interests of the state of Kerala—identified as a potential hub of spices trade—have been completely derailed with the central government’s own import policy with regard to such vital commodities. 

‘Spice/Silk Routes’

India and China have been playing leading roles in establishing new maritime connectivity from Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia to Southeast Asia. India launched PM with a view to counterbalance China’s increasing influence in the Indian Ocean region, particularly in the context of the “Maritime Silk Road” (MSR), which Beijing has been seriously pursuing for some time (Palit 2017; Pillalamarri 2014). Both PM and MSR may have strategic implications for the countries across the region, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and other West Asian countries. 

PM was launched with a view to reviving the age-old ties in a new perspective of sustaining cross-national connectivity from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent and Sri Lanka to Southeast Asian archipelagos. PM aims to set a new track of “monsoon patterns, cultural routes, and maritime landscapes.” It explores various processes and phenomena that connect stretches of the Indian Ocean littoral, even the coastal regions of the hinterlands. The project seeks to rediscover the ways and means by which the monsoon winds could be recaptured to further exchanges across the Indian Ocean, thereby facilitating dissemination of ideas, knowledge systems, traditions and techniques along maritime routes. 

India surely has unique geopolitical, geocultural and geo-economic advantages in influencing the Indian Ocean maritime connectivity and trade. But, how do these advantages get translated into a feasible project to counter Chinese calculations in the region, given Beijing’s ambitious plans of reviving a ‘Silk Road’ across the land and maritime space? The Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress underlined this very clearly. The amended Charter of the Communist Party pledged to “pursue the Belt and Road initiative,” a clear indication of Xi Jinping’s growing position and power (Strait Times 2017). 

Kochi and Malabar in Ocean Spices Trade 

There are broadly two objectives to be realised through PM. First, it aims to bring in a new cross-national communication system among the countries of the Indian Ocean region which will strengthen understanding of cultural values and concerns. Second, it intends to provide new avenues for understanding national cultures in their regional maritime milieu. India had identified more than three dozen countries to be partners of the “new wind’s project” which included countries from the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. The role of Kerala has both historical and contemporary importance under PM. 

Trade is expected to be one of the main concerns of PM given the fact that the GCC is India’s biggest regional trading partner (with countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia having the highest positions [third and fourth respectively] in India’s top trading partners’ list). Historically, the commodities being traded through the networks of Indian Ocean connectivity included spices, medicines, gems, stones, ornaments, metals, wood, etc. 

These trade items (such as spices) had diverse end-use functions which “were not only used as condiments and for preservation of food, but also played a major role in “Materia Medica and ritual functions” (India, Ministry of Culture 2014). The Indian Ocean connectivity also facilitated the spread of religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam from West Asia, and Buddhism and Hinduism from India to other parts of Asia. All Semitic religions reached the shores of Kerala first, before they spread to other parts of South Asia (Jussay 2005: 22; Zainuddin 1833; Viswanathan 1993). The making of traditional sailing ships generated demands for wood for planking and coir for stitching from different regions such as Kerala. Beypore in Calicut was known for the art of “Uru” making, the wooden dhow, which connected Kerala’s Malabar Coast to the maritime spice trade with Arabs and Romans, centuries back. 

Historically, Kerala has sustained a unique position in the global exchange relations, both economic and cultural, and the “spice route” connectivity goes back to two millennia. The spices constituted one of the major components of India’s trade basket and Kerala was the hub of many exotic spices (like black pepper which was indigenous to Kerala). With the advent of maritime trade, the spice trade flourished over centuries. Arabs were the first to hold sway over Kerala spice trade way back in 600 BC (Sidebotham 2011: 224). Commodities such as pepper (a symbol of luxury and riches at that time), cinnamon, and oil were imported to Arabia through the Persian Gulf and the Arab merchants sold them at their will without even revealing their sources of origin. The coast of Malabar thus remained enigmatic to many. Romans also imported huge quantities of pepper from Kerala. In fact, the Arab monopoly continued for centuries until the advent of European colonialism. Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama reached the shores of Kerala (Kappad, near Calicut) in 1498 with the proclamation, “for Christ and Spices” (Economist 1998) The spice trade, however, witnessed many twists and turns with the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial apparatuses seeking to diversify their commercial interests by promoting new cash crops such as tobacco, cashew nut, tea, coffee, rubber, etc besides spices. This had varying effects on the local economy of Kerala and its export potential over years. 

Kerala’s Declining Prospects of Spices Trade

Despite radical changes in land relations after independence, Kerala still dominated in spices production and export. Among the spice growing states of India, Kerala today tops in the production of pepper, cardamom (small), clove, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cassia, vanilla, etc. Kerala’s spices production has added to India’s overall spices export which continued to grow in value over years. Official estimates say that during 2015–16 India exported 8,43,255 tonnes of spices valued at US$ 2,432.84 million (India, Spices Board 2016: 5). The major destination of the spices exports included countries such as UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Qatar, Oman, etc. However, India’s trade diversification as well as its free trade agreements with countries and regions (such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations) tended to affect the export potential of spices from Kerala given the price fluctuations caused by the import of spices from other regions such as Southeast Asia. The international market of spice trade also witnessed new players from Latin America and Southeast Asia, causing further concerns to Kerala’s spices trade (News Minute 2016). It is in this background that PM is being explored as a potential avenue for Kerala’s revival of its ‘Spice Route.’ PM, in fact, seeks to re-establish Kerala’s maritime connectivity with as many as three dozen countries which had the ancient ‘spice route’ exchanges. Among the themes being explored under PM are ‘Spice Route’ trade and cultural products linked to it (creative industries, cultural products), besides boat-building plans for sailing ships in the Gulf and South and Western India. 

However, PM, even after three years, remains a distant dream, primarily due to India’s unsure methods and uncertain strategies. Even the connectivity questions, between New Delhi and states like Kerala, are largely unattended. This is at a time when China continues to strengthen its naval activities in the Indian Ocean, as part of MSR, with massive connectivity projects (such as ‘One Belt, One Road’), and infrastructure building with countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Curiously, India was among the countries invited by China to be a partner in MSR. But New Delhi is, naturally, apprehensive and even wondered by the unexpected interest shown by some countries in the region such as Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka, which apparently sought to revive ancient linkages. The unfolding scenario is palpable enough. While New Delhi is still hazy about its own much-acclaimed project, China is moving ahead with its ‘Silk Road’ project, ‘above the wind’ and ‘below the wind.’ 

Putting across a road map for China through 2050 at the 19th Party Congress, Jinping pointed out that the ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative is quite significant. He said: "We hope to make new ground in opening China further through links running eastward and westward, across land and over sea" (Economist 2017).  Do the policymakers in New Delhi realise that this has several implications for countries in the South Asian region as well for India’s extended neighbourhood? Is it not true that in the emerging scenario, India (and thereby Kerala) is likely to be a loser, notwithstanding its vast potential as a major source of ‘soft power’ with spices and creative industries, besides its huge human resource potential? 

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