Coconut grower in the Cauvery delta regions of Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam are finding it difficult to reap the harvest as the area is facing an acute shortage of skilled labour. With few tree climbers available to pluck coconuts, farmers may face huge losses.
Cultivators in villages across these regions, where an estimated 40,000 hectares of land is under coconut cultivation, complain that industrialisation and better employment prospects have weaned away labourers from palm climbing. According to farmers, the scenes of labourers climbing trees and picking coconuts are becoming a thing of the past. These days, most use, what in local parlance is called, ‘Alaku,’ a long pole with a sickle at the top, to cut down coconuts from the tree.
While five years ago, farmers recall paying as low as `150 for every 1,000 coconuts plucked by labourer, the cost has now more than doubled and has touched `400 per 1,000 nuts. “This apart, we have to pay an additional `400 for peeling the coconuts. The labour charges are compounded at a time when the price of coconut itself has crashed,” says V Veerasenan, a cultivator in the Ponnavarayankottai village, near Patukottai. He says that a coconut that sold for `6 a year ago has now plummeted to a mere `2.
Farmers cite two reasons for the diminishing labour force. Firstly, the perception that palm climbing is a demeaning occupation, reserved for those at the bottom of the caste structure, has prompted the educated among the traditional palm-climbing communities to shun the work.Secondly, education has also increased migration to more industrialised areas, making labour a dear product.
“Most tree climbers of the current generation have left the villages and have gone to Tirupur and Coimbatore for factory work,” says Muthuramalingam, a farmer in Koopachikottai near Mannargudi, adding that the MNREGA scheme has also had a profound impact on labour availability. Farmers say that unless the coconuts are plucked regularly in the 2-month cycle, the yield of the tree would drop significantly. “Small farmers like us are unable to do it even once in three months, heavily affecting our profits. When one tree can give 70 to 100 coconuts a year, we are getting less than 50,” says Muthuramalingam.