Twenty-four-year-old Sreedevi G from Malappuram in Kerala scaled new heights during the lockdown in Kerala. The B.Ed. student of NSS Teacher Training College, Ottappalam, learnt to climb coconut trees during the lockdown and began earning by harvesting coconuts in her neighbourhood.
As the pandemic-induced lockdown in March brought life to a standstill in Kerala, Sreedevi wondered how she could help her ailing parents, Gopalan and Usha, to make ends meet as the lockdown had forced her father to take a break from his work of plucking coconuts. Although her college had closed in March, she assumed that the lockdown would be lifted soon and life would return to normal. But when the situation did not improve and the lockdown was extended, the family had to think of ways to augment their earnings. A post-graduate in history, she thought of ways to earn a living that adhered to norms of social distancing.
“I am the eldest of three sisters and my parents used to remark that if they had son, he would have been able to follow in my father’s footsteps. That is when I thought of plucking coconuts for a living,” recalls Sreedevi.
Speaking on the phone, the determined woman remembers that her parents were completely against the idea. Although it was an uphill task, she tried doing it on her own with a Thlaap, a circular loop made of rope or banana fibre that is worn around the feet by men who climb coconut trees in the traditional way. To clamber up one tree after the other, the men put the thlaap around their feet and use their hands and feet to lift themselves up swaying trees. “My father refused to teach me and I found it difficult to lift my weight up the tree. It is a skill that I should have learnt as a child. So I gave up that attempt but not the decision,” she says.
Mastering the skill
A search on the net came up with videos of a machine (which has a harness) that is used to scale coconut trees. Sreedevi knew she had found the solution to her problem and persuaded her reluctant father to invest ₹3,000 in a machine. YouTube tutorials came to her rescue and she learnt to master the art of scaling up the tall trees with the help of the machine.
“It was not that difficult and within a few days I was confident I could do it. But then I had to learn to distinguish between tender and ripe coconuts. It is difficult because even the coconuts on the same bunch might ripen at different times. Tender coconuts are used for its water and meat. That took time to learn and my father showed me how to differentiate the nuts,” she says. She asserts that never once was she nervous or scared as she climbed the tree.
The next time her father got a call from a resident, Sreedevi went along to pluck the coconuts on two trees. “Although they were not happy when they saw me, I was able to pluck the tender coconuts that they wanted. However, they wondered why a postgraduate and an unmarried woman was doing this work …. Many questions and raised eyebrows did not deter me. I got ₹80 for my first job as a coconut plucker. The next day, I went to pluck coconuts from nine trees and I got ₹360. Words cannot describe how happy I was when I was able to give that ₹400 to my parents,” recounts the plucky woman.
While her friends were thrilled to learn about her new set of skills, many of the elders in the locality were apprehensive if this was the right profession for a woman. Her mother was besieged with questions about Sreedevi’s choice.
Making parents proud
“My father has breathing problems and it was necessity that motivated me to do this. Since I proved myself capable of doing the job, my parents are proud that I have been able to assist my father in his profession. My two sisters and mother have also learnt to use the machine to scale the coconut palm,” she points out.
Sreedevi adds that she also picked up driving skills during the lockdown. As her father needed medical help for his pulmonary illness, Sreedevi found that it was quite expensive to hire an autorickshaw to go to the nearest government hospital. The alternative was to buy a second-hand autorickshaw and use that. “My father’s friend taught me driving. And now I take my family around in that,” she says with pride.
In the meantime, she has been getting calls from a farming group in Alappuzha who wants her help to teacher their members how to use the machine to climb coconut palms.
And what when the results of her B.Ed. exams are out? “Coconut plucking can be done from 5.30 am to 8.30 am. I don’t see why I cannot work as a teacher and a coconut palm climber. It should not be difficult,” she insists.