Thaazhe nokkiyaal theernu (If you look down, you are finished). So the secret is, don’t look down when you are on top.” As someone who has been up there — at times over 40 feet above ground level — Komalavally, 37, offers some useful perspective. She is part of a group of five women in Sreekrishnapuram, a village deep inside Kerala’s Palakkad district, who have been trained to climb coconut trees.
That makes Komalavally a ‘maram keri’, which translates as someone who climbs trees, but is metaphorically used as a term of derision for women who break conventions.
Kerala is India’s coconut country, with 770.62 thousand hectares accounting for 7,429.39 million nuts annually, the most for any state, according to the Coconut Development Board’s figures for 2015-16. But with the state facing an acute shortage of coconut climbers, the Board and the Agriculture Department has over the years come up with different strategies to harvest the crop — from training unemployed youth to climb trees, to offering climbers insurance schemes, and now training migrants and women to do a job that has been a male preserve, traditionally tied to caste.
After a four-day training class organised by the block panchayat as part of the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana, Komalavally can now use a ‘climbing machine’ to go up coconut trees, pluck the nuts, and climb down — all in 20 minutes.
She says they get their orders from villagers who call the block panchayat office. “Also, our phone numbers have been advertised in the village. In fact, a lot of it happens through word of mouth,” she says.
Today, Komalavally has got no orders so she agrees to do a demo. “Since we have just begun, we don’t get daily orders. On such days, we go for NREGA work,” says Komalavally, standing at the foot of a coconut tree in her neighbour’s compound.
Minutes later, she begins clasping the cables of the ‘climbing machine’ around the palm, making sure it is in place.
The machine, manufactured by the state-owned Radico, has two pedals connected by cables that go around the tree. The government has supplied three such machines to the Sreekrishnapuram panchayat. “We plan to train more women as coconut climbers. When that happens, we will procure more machines,” says A P Raghavan, the officer in charge of women’s welfare in the block panchayat.
Komalavally is all set. She now slips her feet into the pedals and holds on to the handles. “When you start climbing, the clip you see here has to be tight. If the clip is turned the other way, the cables will come loose and there could be an accident,” she says.
Komalavally begins her ascent, somewhat like a cyclist in vertical motion. In less than a minute, she finds herself at the summit. “Now, we tighten the coupling on both the pedals so that they don’t move,” she yells from the top.
She then uses her right hand to twist a ripe coconut and then, just as it comes loose, she shouts out to the small crowd that has gathered below, “Watch out, move away.”
She then loosens the coupling and prepares for descent. As she slides down, her husband and neighbours watch on. “Handle mathram pidichal, pedi thonila. Thengil pidichal, pedi thonnum, concentration povum, tension aavum (If you just hold the handles, you won’t be afraid. But if you touch the tree, you will lose concentration and be all tense),” she says, adding that the best time to climb is between 7 am and 10 am and then in the evenings, when the weather is pleasant.
It’s now noon and the team gathers at the block panchayat office to discuss their work. “We trained five of them in November last year. Now we want to train at least 30 more women as coconut climbers. Since agricultural work is seasonal, more women need to be taught skills that they can use to find jobs,” says Raghavan, the official at the panchayat office.
Mini Mathew, publicity officer at the Coconut Development Board, says the training began in August 2011. Since then, she says, 37,000 men and women have been trained but there have been instances of women dropping out due to a variety of reasons, among them the lack of family support.
The women climbers of Sreekrishnapuram say they face no such problems. “Earlier, we never paid these trees any attention,” says Sreeja V, 36, Komalavally’s colleague. “But now, we are always walking with our eyes turned skywards, wondering, does this palm need to be climbed, how many coconuts are on that one…” she says with a chuckle.
Sreeja says they usually wear trousers and shirts to work. “We tried climbing in kurta-pyjamas but it wasn’t easy,” she smiles.
“The money isn’t good. We only get Rs 35 to climb a palm. Hopefully, we will earn more once orders pick up. But at least this is an additional source of income,” says Komalavally.
Just then, a man enters with tea, pakodas and banana fritters. “It’s lunch time and you are bringing tea,” jokes 54-year-old Ammini, the oldest in the group and a grandmother of three. Her husband is “too old to work” and so Ammini must run the family. “Ammini chechi might be older than us, but she has tremendous energy,” says Komalavally.
With children and grandchildren to take care of, the women say their days are mostly long. All of them wake up by 5 am and make breakfast and lunch before setting out. “Unlike men, we can’t just wake up, put on a shirt and mundu (dhoti) and go climb trees. There’s lots of work at home,” says Sreeja.
After reaching home, by 7 pm, the women “cook dinner and watch a bit of television”.
At Komalavally’s modest home, her husband Unnikrishnan, a daily-wage labourer, talks about a recent accident that left him bed-ridden for months.
“It was in 2016. I was handling these big logs when one of them landed on my leg,” says Unnikrishnan. “I couldn’t go to work for close to a year and it was Komalavally who kept the house running,” he adds. “I always tell her to be careful, that’s all.”