The Coconut Crisis Mounts In Puttur

Dakshin Kannada Taluk Uncategorized

Manual coconut picking is the traditional way of harvesting coconuts in Puttur taluk of Karnataka but the occupational hazards related to the profession have led to an acute shortage of skilled climbers.

 The Coconut Crisis Mounts In Puttur

Manual coconut picking is the traditional way of harvesting coconuts in Puttur taluk of Karnataka but the occupational hazards related to the profession have led to an acute shortage of skilled climbers.

Figure 1: Little to no safety measures for coconut tree climbers when they scale the trees result in severe accidents, and sometimes the death of the climber. Credit: Conrad Deep Dias

Mohan, a 28-year-old resident of Darbethadka in Ariyadka village in Puttur taluk of Dakshin Kannada district suffered his first fall while working as a coconut tree climber on December 4th, 2016, after working in the profession for five years. The accident forced Mohan to undergo a spinal cord surgery for the severe mid-back injury that the fall had resulted in. However, several trips to Father Muller Medical College Hospital in Mangalore (the district headquarter) and extensive treatment later, Mohan is still unable to walk on his feet and spends his days in a wheelchair. As the sole bread earner in a family of two sisters, one of whom is married, and an aged mother, Mohan’s fall means that the family has been surviving on the whatever money they receive from their relatives since the accident in 2016.

Sitting in the courtyard of his house where he lives with his family, Mohan says, “I do not know anything else, so I had to take up this job in spite of knowing the risks. I do not remember what happened during or after the fall. I came to my sense two days after the accident.”

“The doctors say that I might be able to walk after one more year of treatment but each trip to Mangalore costs more than Rs 10,000. I was denied insurance because I had to provide a 100% handicapped certificate which I don’t have. I have spent a total of Rs. 1.5 lakhs on the treatment so far, out of which Rs. 45,000 were given to me by the farm owner for whom I was working at the time of the accident”, he added.

A teary eyed Lakshmi, recalled the time when she first heard the news of her son’s accident. “Here, no one generally informs the family immediately after such an accident takes place. They wait a couple of days so as not to shock the family members. I could not believe it when the villagers informed me. He could not leave his bed for one month. I could do nothing but watch helplessly. I have been nursing him since then.”

Figure 2: Mohan with his mother Lakshmi, younger sister Jalajakshi, uncle Umesh (left) and a neighbour who has been helping them financially.

Mohan’s experience is neither uncommon nor an isolated incident. A little further from Mohan’s house, another man had suffered the same fate. Vasant Maniyani, 45, fell from a coconut tree five to six years ago while working on a farm near his house. Major injuries on his shoulder and a leg injury, which required a rod to be implanted in his leg, have forced Vasant to leave this job for good. In the one and a half years of treatment that followed, the family has spent over Rs. 60,000. Vasant received Rs. 15,000 from the Raitha Sanjeevini scheme under the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC). He now works as a coolie at the Puttur Railway Station where he earns around Rs. 400 per day, a sharp drop from the daily wage of Rs. 700 that he used to earn as a coconut tree climber.

“My wife, Lata had to start working as a bidi maker in order to support the family till I could work again. I have two daughters. I did not know what would happen to their future when the accident occurred”, Vasant said.

Figure 3: Vasant with his wife Lata, elder daughter Shreenidhi and younger daughter Shreenika at their home in Puttur.

The thriving coconut plantations in Puttur ensure that the demand for skilled coconut tree climbers is always high. The industries in the taluk are also heavily dependent on coconut farming with a number of factories in the area engaged in manufacturing various coconut products such as coconut oil, dissected coconut, and coconut powder. Coconut is also one of the only crops in the region that saw its market price surging post demonetization from Rs. 25-30/kg to Rs. 40-45/kg, ma

king it a highly profitable crop for the framers in Puttur.

But at the same time, lack of any sort of safety measures and harnesses in most plantations makes this profession extremely dangerous with chances of accidents and permanent loss of mobility increasing the occupational hazards exponentially. With mechanized coconut picking still a distant dream in the taluk, the coconut industry in Puttur faces a unique challenge. Farmers across the taluk are now facing an acute dearth of skilled climbers to pluck the coconuts. High chances of accidents, slow rehabilitation process and expensive treatment have resulted in a sharp decline in the number of a vailable climbers in the area.

Figure 4: Coconut is one of the most important crops in the taluk with an area of about 3409 hectares under coconut plantation as per the data provided by K Praveen, the Assistant Director of the Horticulture Department of Dakshin Kannada.

 

For a lucky few, their fall did not stop them from going back to their profession. Jathappa Gowda, 45, suffered a fall when he was in his early twenties. After his recovery, Jathappa went back to his job as a coconut tree climber. “There is a lot of hard work and risk. Not all of the coconuts we pick are of good quality. After climbing a number of times, we might get just a few good coconuts and we are just paid Rs. 20 to Rs. 25 per coconut around here.” Lack of other options has forced Jathappa to stick to this profession.  “I have a wife and five kids. I do not have a choice. This is all I know”, he said. Today, he runs a roadside stall in Puttur where he sells coconuts and groceries items.

 

But even for those who get back to the job after an accident, the long recuperation period is a serious problem- both for the victim and his family and the farmers who hire the climbers. The inability of the climbers to immediately get back to their job after an accident contributes to the present crisis in a significant way. An average coconut tree is at least 20 feet high and a fall from such a height results in major injuries that force the victim into prolonged bed rest before he can get back to his job, that is if can get back to it at all.

Figure 5: Jathappa Gowda in front of his stall in Puttur.

Dr. Vinay Prakash, physiotherapist at Puttur City Hospital said, “Generally, a fall like this results in spinal cord and head injuries. These accidents require immediate treatment. The patient should come to the hospital within three hours of the fall. But here, people try to take some form of local treatment first before coming to the doctor which worsens the condition. The lack of effective ambulance facilities in the villages also delays the victim from reaching the hospital in time. In extreme cases, it could prove to be fatal. The victim could be paralyzed for life too. Usually, most of them prefer to go to Mangalore for treatment.”

Apart from the injuries and accidents, continued contact with the coconut trees over years also results in several ‘permanent cosmetic defects on the skin’. “The technique of gripping the tree with both the hands and feet and thus pushing up the body to climb higher, results in intermittent pressure over the forearm, skin, palms and the soles. The friction which is thus created increases the epidermal turnover, which in turn lays thickened vertically oriented collagen bundles in the papillary dermis”, a research paper titled “Health of Coconut Tree Climbers of Rural Southern India- Medical Emergencies, Body Mass Index, and Occupational Marks: A Quantitative and Survey Study” published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research states .

The Raitha Sanjeevini scheme, an accident insurance scheme in place since 1996 in Karnataka, allocates specific amounts of compensation for specific injuries that occur to a farmer in case of an accident or in case of loss of life while doing his work. The allocations are as follows:

Accidental DeathRs. 100,000
Loss of 2 hands or 2 legsRs. 50,000
Loss of 1 hand or 1 legRs. 30,000
Loss of 1 eyeRs. 30,000
Loss of 2 eyesRs. 50,000
Loss of hand and leg fingers (for each finger)Rs. 10,000
Broken WaistRs. 50,000

 

Kamala BS who works at the APMC office in Puttur mentioned, “The compensation is also extended to those who meet with any accident while on their way to deliver the produce somewhere from here. In case of death by coming in contact of a high tension wire while on a tree, they are not entitled to compensation. The compensation is also not granted if the land where the accident has taken place is in somebody else’s name. The land has to be under the victim’s or any of his family member’s names.”

The frequent accidents and long rehabilitation time have taken a toll on all the farms that hire these climbers. The shortage of labor is felt across most coconut plantations- be it small or large. Yogesh Rai, Sales Coordinator, Cocoguru Coconut Industries Pvt. Ltd in Puttur, who also owns a one acre farm in the taluk, said, “In case of any accidents involving the manual coconut pickers in my farm, I pay their hospital fees. Apart from that I also provide them some financial support for the next month or so, because they cannot get back to work immediately after the accident. Accidents have been very rare in my farm though. But it has become very difficult to get climbers now. The new generation does not want to get into this profession so it is hard to get workers. I own a very small farm so I never had to think about switching to machines. If I had a bigger farm, I might have thought about it. It is also not always advisable to use machines in mixed crops plantations. I usually hire one or two climbers on contract basis when it is time for the coconuts to be picked, which is usually three to four times a year. They charge Rs. 30 per tree.”

Ajit Kumar, manager of Indous Bio Products, another factory in Puttur involved in the manufacture and export of coconut products said while talking about the shortage of available skilled labour, “We purchase directly from the farmers. We ourselves do not usually provide them financial support in case of any accident involving the manual coconut pickers. They are supported by the APMC under the Raitha Sanjeevini Scheme. Coconut is a very important produce here in south India, both economically and socially. We use coconut and coconut products almost daily. The increasing lack of skilled climbers will affect all the coconut-based industries terribly.”

The problem is more acutely felt in large scale farms where a major part of the revenue comes from coconuts. Subhash Rai, owns a 60 acre farm in Kedambady village in Puttur where he grows coconut, areca nuts, rubber and cashews. He has also won national awards for his rubber and cashew plantations. “Coconut farming is very profitable now. After demonetization, it was my coconut produce that saved me. It is the only crop that has seen a rise in the market price after demonetization. We sell the coconuts for Rs. 40 per kg now. I usually pay Rs. 30-35 to a climber for one tree. But it is increasingly difficult to get laborers now. They charge extra sometimes as well.”

Figure 7: Subhash Rai’s farm in Puttur is spread over a huge area with over two acres under coconut plantation.

Jai Ram Rai grows rubber, coconut, and pepper amongst other crops in his farm in Keyyur village in Puttur. “We were really happy after we saw that market price for coconuts have increased. Both rubber and pepper prices have gone down. So, I generate a lot of profit from my coconut plantation. But, now I have to look for laborers much before the picking season because it has become such a difficult task. I usually pay Rs 1200 a day to a climber for the 40-50 trees that he usually climbs in a day. I have never really thought of mechanization because I don’t think it is going to be economically viable option for me.”

  1. Praveen, Assistant Director of the Horticulture Department for Dakshin Kannada district spoke about the various factors that cause these accidents.

“These accidents are not rare definitely. It’s not one or two isolated cases. But I would say it is not at a very alarming rate yet. But it is a high risk job. Coconut trees could grow up to 50 feet tall in height. To climb such a great height one needs great technical skills. Normally, the reason for such accidents is not that the person does not have the required technical skills but it is often due to a few bad habits, like drinking during work. Also, before climbing they have to consider their health. But the climbers are not in a good financial position so they often neglect their health. Normally the climbers are known to the farmers but while hiring new climbers they should take the climbers’ health into account. I also feel experienced people should be there on the field to make sure such accidents don’t happen”, he said.

Talking about the dearth of climbers in the district, Mr. Praveen said, “Getting climbers has become very difficult. No coconut climbers are available in major areas. There is a sharp decline in their numbers. That is why nowadays a lot of people just collect the coconuts that fall on the ground.”

But despite the shortage of climbers, he is not very optimistic about the state of mechanized coconut picking in the district. “The department promotes mechanization. We financially support those who want to opt for mechanization. But what we have observed is that the grower doesn’t normally climb the tree and the one who climbs the tree is more confident of his own skills than the machines. Every machine is built with certain restrictions and they cannot fit into every condition. We have to keep this in mind. Now more experiments are being done to improve these climbing machines. In Coimbatore, they have come up with seat belts. The cost and land area factor are not that big an obstacle to mechanization. It is generally the owner who does not want to opt for machineries. They do not think it is financially viable option. A lot of the people who buy these machines end up not using them. In Kerala there is a lot of training and, for women climbers too. I have not heard of any woman climbers in Dakshin Kannada.  We are trying that here in this taluk under a program called Coconut Climbers Training which uses machines. But people are yet to respond in large numbers.”

The answer to this crisis lies in better training, on-the-job monitoring and mentoring, and a gradual and informed initiation of mechanization into the flourishing coconut industry of Puttur taluk. However, of utmost urgency is the need to look into the almost complete absence of even the most basic safety measures in the coconut plantations of the taluk and ensure that efforts are made to make the climbers’ health and safety a priority.

Review Overview

Summary

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *