Indian Express Stories of Strength

Facebook and The Indian Express bring you a series on those at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. From healthcare workers to government officials to innovators — a look at their day at work, their struggles and challenges.

The coconut climbers from Chhattisgarh: Stuck in ‘new home’, but they still want to give back

Their incomes came to a standstill during the first phase of the nationwide lockdown, cutting a deep hole in many of their savings. But, still, they didn’t want to be left behind, contributing to the CM’s relief fund.

June 1, 2020 7:04:23 pm

KOCHI: Ranjeet Singh Paikra had never seen so many coconut palms together in his life until he set foot in Kerala. The sight bewildered him. Back home in Pendra Road, Chhattisgarh, Ranjeet had never paid much attention to the coconut palms, which were few and far between. Growing up in a poor family of farmers, he abandoned his schooling after Class 10 and began working with his father on their rice fields. But he knew at the back of his mind that he couldn’t continue doing this work forever because it brought little income into the family.

And then one day, his friend phoned from Kerala, telling him about a job of climbing tall palms and plucking coconuts. The money is good, he was told. As daunting as the job profile sounded, Ranjeet wasted no time in boarding the Korba Express from Bilaspur and travelling 2,100 km to Thiruvananthapuram. In the beginning of 2019, the 30-year-old underwent a week-long training at Computech, a private firm, to climb coconut palms using a machine. Though traditional local climbers used nothing but their feet and hands to clamber up and down the palms, today there are stilt-like machines developed to make the process a whole lot easier.

“Any work that you do for the first time can be difficult. I was climbing a coconut palm for the first time. Naturally, I was scared when I looked from the top. But over the next few days, it became easy and now it’s become a habit,” said Ranjeet, over the phone from Thiruvananthapuram.

Over the past one-and-a-half years, Ranjeet has turned into an excellent certified climber, clocking as many as 40-50 trees a day. On good days in large plantations, he can even go up to 70-80 trees if the weather is benevolent. For every tree he climbs, he makes Rs 40 out of which Rs 15 goes to Computech. His monthly income, which hovers around Rs 30,000 a month, is miles away from the pittance he gets back home.

Kerala’s high-wage informal economy and its pressing need for blue-collar workers has meant thousands like Ranjeet are able to make enough to support their families back home in the northern India hinterlands. With the money they earn here, they are able to finance the weddings of their sisters, build comfortable sturdy homes for their families and give their children a good education. For them, Kerala is home away from home, offering a peaceful social environment to live and prosper.

“We feel at peace here. Life is good in Kerala,” said Ranjeet.

Kerala’s high-wage informal economy and its pressing need for blue-collar workers has meant thousands like Ranjeet are able to make enough to support their families back home in the northern India hinterlands.

And so, when Covid struck out of nowhere in February-March affecting state after state including Kerala, throwing its finances into a precarious situation, Ranjeet wanted to do his bit. Encouraged by his employer who spoke of women selling their goats and little children breaking their piggy-banks to contribute to the chief minister’s distress relief fund, Ranjeet and his 42 colleagues, all from Chhattisgarh, expressed their desire to contribute to the CM’s fund as well. The 21-day first phase of the lockdown, during which their incomes came to a standstill, had cut a deep hole in many of their savings. But still, they didn’t want to be left behind.

Chandrapal Koram, who’s also a climber at Computech, said, “Takleef ki baat nahi hai. Bahut kuch humein yahan se mil raha hai. Toh hum bhi dena chahte hai (It was not about hardship. The state has given us a lot and so we wanted to give something back.”

At a meeting chaired by Mohandas, who runs Computech, all 43 labourers put up their hands to contribute. Some offered to donate Rs 1,000 each. Others like Koram spoke of donating up to Rs 2,500.

“When I told them how even little children were doing their bit for the state, I think it struck a chord among them. All of them were willing to donate. Together, they pooled in Rs 52,000. I am an ex-serviceman and I donated my monthly pension of Rs 26,000. So, together we were able to collect Rs 78,000 which we handed over directly to minister Kadakampally Surendran,” said Mohandas.

Although he is thousands of kilometres away from home, Koram said Kerala doesn’t feel alien to him. “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 lended us rice and pulses. He understood our situation. We promised to pay him back.”

Ranjeet added, “We didn’t face a lot of problems during the lockdown because the company took care of us. But we realised that there may be many like us who need help. We felt like we should help as well.”

Since mid-April, as part of relaxations on agricultural activities, Ranjeet and the others have started going back to work, with necessary precautions. Social distancing, in any case, is not a concern while working in large coconut plantations. They wear masks and gloves and wash their hands regularly. Climbing machines are routinely disinfected.

But with the monsoon approaching, the coconut plucking season is set to wind down substantially. Once the lockdown is lifted and trains start operating as usual, Koram and the others want to return home. They had made plans to travel back home in the summer, but the lockdown foiled all those plans. This time, they may stay home for a longer period, considering the uncertainty around Covid-19 and the general economic mood in the country. However, as soon as work beckons in Kerala, they will be back.

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