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  • Climbing classes: Young men in Kerala get up areca trees

Training begins: The number of young people eager to learn has come as a surprise | Photos: Shree Padre

Climbing classes: Young men in Kerala get up areca trees

Shree Padre, Puttur

Published: Feb. 01, 2019
Updated: Mar. 18, 2019

For 15 years Prashanth, a 37-year-old villager living near Thirthahally in Karnataka, slaved at a granite quarry and a petrol station, although he was an educated man who had completed a pre-university course. The little he earned disappeared into paying for food and other basic expenses. The net result was that he was always in debt.  

Then he enrolled for a five-day skill training course in areca nut harvesting in Thirthahally. Areca nut trees have no branches and grow upright to about 50 feet. Climbing such trees, harvesting their nuts and spraying pesticides requires skill, boldness and physical ability.

Prashanth now earns not less than Rs 1,500 a day as an areca nut harvester. In the next two months he will earn Rs 75,000, a sum that will take care of all his expenses and leave him debt-free. An excited Prashanth hasn’t taken a single day off from work though the job is strenuous. “I want to pay off my loans as quickly as possible,” he says.

Like Prashanth, 21-year-old Suresh who lives in Perdala village in Kasaragod district of Kerala, learnt areca nut harvesting in another training course at Vittal and also earns Rs 1,500 per day. 

Karnataka is the highest producer of areca nuts in India with 800,000 acres under cultivation. The state requires at least 60,000 skilled harvesting workers. A thousand acres of an areca nut garden require about 70 workers for harvesting and spraying. Wages are between Rs 1,000 to 1,500 per day.

Since the profession is dangerous and physically taxing, it never used to attract young people. So, there is a shortage of areca nut workers who can climb these tall trees and carry out agricultural operations. The current batch of workers is middle-aged or even older.

The Coconut Board is the pioneer of tree climbing training.  Confronted with a shortage of coconut tree climbers, it trained 53,851 youths and women in this skill. The trainees are called ‘Friends of Coconut Trees’ (FOCT). The Coconut Board’s persistent training of coconut climbers has solved the problem to a good extent.

The areca nut harvesting season is from November to April. Skilled workers do both harvesting and spraying by climbing the trees. During the monsoon, spraying is required to prevent a fungicide disease called mahali. Once the disease strikes, there is no curative treatment. Generally, three rounds of spraying are needed between May and August.

Any delay could result in a financial disaster for the farmer. This year, for example, trees couldn’t be sprayed because of continuous rain. Informed farmers estimate the  losses due to mahali at Rs 1,000 crore.

This prompted a group of farmers, who call themselves the Elite Group, in Thirthahally to launch a skill training programme in areca nut climbing.  Surprisingly, they got a good response and trained 33 youngsters in a five-day workshop in October 2017.

Their initiative inspired Campco, a giant marketing cooperative based in Mangaluru, to offer a similar training programme at the Central Plantation Crop Research Institute (CPCRI) in Vittal. They got 90 applications for 30 seats. The University of Agriculture and Horticultural Sciences (UAHS), Shivamogga, collaborated with Campco. 

The turnout of young people eager to be trained surprised the organisers. Says S.R. Satishchandra, president of Campco, “We didn’t expect so many youngsters to attend the workshop. But they proved us wrong.” Adds K. Shankaranarayana Bhat, vice-president of Campco, “Out of 30 trainees 18 have already started work and are harvesting areca nut as best as newcomers can.”

Climbing an areca nut tree is risky. If the climber releases his hands from the tree or if the loop placed around his ankles snaps, the climber can fall to his death or seriously hurt his back. 

For the first time, the Vittal training programme included safety measures. Dr K.C. Shashidhar, head of the agriculture engineering department in UAHS, has studied the kind of safety measures required and come up with a suitable system.

“The gadgets we use for training and for regular work are different. Regular workers need to spend Rs 4,500 in the beginning to buy the gadget and protect themselves during work. It will last for three to four years,” he says.

News of both workshops spread through the media and by word of mouth. Dr Manohar Rao, president, Elite Group, says, “A few of our trainees are requesting us to conduct another training session. Some of their relatives are working in hotels in the city. They aren’t happy. The trainees have volunteered to bring such people for our training.”

Kooloor Sathyanarayana Rao, treasurer, Elite Group, adds, “Youngsters who migrate to cities for jobs are facing a crisis. They don’t earn enough to support their families. If there is a good job opportunity in their villages, they will be keen to return."

“The Campco workshop has given us the confidence to scale it up,” says Dr M.K. Naik, vice chancellor, UAHS, Shivamogga, “I appreciate the effort with which they have given top priority to workers’ safety. We are now considering including this in the two-year agriculture diploma course we are already conducting at two centres.”

Dr M.J. Chandregowda, director, Appropriate Technology Application Research Institute (ATARI), Bengaluru, who is in charge of all the Krishi Vijnan Kendras (KVKs) in the three southern states, is quite impressed. “We will take the responsibility of introducing this skill development technology these teams have pioneered to other areca nut areas," he said.

Contact: S.R. Satishchandra, President, Campco – 9448696108,presidentcampco@gmail.com
Dr Manohar Rao, President, Elite Group – 91086 73750, drmanoharrao@yahoo.com

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