In 2019, when he travelled 2,100 km on a train from Bilaspur to Thiruvananthapuram, Ranjeet Singh Paikra had never before seen coconut palms standing row upon row. Less than two years later, the son of a poor farmer from Pendra road in Chhattisgarh is an in-demand coconut climber in his adopted state of Kerala. So, when the time came that he could give something back to the state, Paikra didn’t think twice. He and his co-workers pooled together their savings to contribute Rs 52,000 to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund.
Says Paikra, “We didn’t face a lot of problems during the lockdown because the company took care of us. But we realised there may be many who need help. We felt we should help.”
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Back home in Pedra road, poverty had forced Paikra to drop out of school after Class 10 and start working in his father’s rice fields. However, money was little, and when a friend told him about jobs in Kerala plucking coconuts that paid well, Paikra seized the opportunity.
At the age of 30, he underwent week-long training at Computech, a private firm, to climb coconut palms using a machine. While traditional climbers use nothing but their feet and hands to clamber up and down the palms, today there are stilt-like machines to make the process much easier.
Paikra admits being scared, especially when he looked down from the top of a tree the first time. “Any work that you do can initially be difficult… But over the next few days, it became easy and now it has become a habit.”
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As a certified climber, he clocks 40-50 trees a day—sometimes even doing 70-80 trees at large plantations and in good weather. For every tree he climbs, he gets Rs 40, of which Rs 15 goes to Computech. In a month, Paikra earns around Rs 30,000. It is a large sum compared to the pittance back home, he says, attesting to the high-wage informal Kerala economy that draws blue-collar workers from across the country. More than 40 colleagues of Paikra are from Chhattisgarh alone, who live together in accommodation provided by Computech. Paikra’s father, mother and two brothers live in Pedra road.
With Kerala reporting among the first cases of the coronavirus in the country by May, Paikra said he was hearing from his employer stories of women selling their livestock and children breaking their piggy-banks to contribute to the CM’s relief fund.
Despite the lockdown having stopped work and salaries for them as well, Paikra and colleagues offered to contribute as well. Says one of them, Chandrapal Koram, “Takleef ki baat nahin hai. Bahut kuchch humein yahan se mil raha hai. Toh hum bhi dena chahte hain (It was not a problem for us. We are getting so much from this state. We wanted to give back as well).” Mohandas, who runs Computech, says, “When I told them how even little children were doing their bit, it struck a chord. All of them were willing to donate.”
At a meeting chaired by him, Paikra and the others offered the Rs 52,000 they had collected. Mohandas, an ex-serviceman, added another Rs 26,000, and they presented a joint cheque of Rs 78,000 to a state minister.
Koram talks about how Kerala feels so much like home. “We get a lot of respect here. The people are very warm and courteous. During the lockdown, when we fell short of rations, our local shopkeeper lent us rice and pulses.”
Now, life is nearly back to normal, Paikra says, except that they do the climb wearing masks and routinely disinfect their machines.