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Updated: March 7, 2014 20:59 IST

A worthy climb

p. anima
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Going up in life Soumini (left) and Seena at work. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup
The Hindu
Going up in life Soumini (left) and Seena at work. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

On International Women’s Day, P. Anima tells the story of two women who make a living out of an unconventional job

At work Soumini M.K. and Seena V.K. Thayyil are stars. It amuses them, the audience they collect every time they do their job. In Memunda near Vatakara roughly 50 kms from Kozhikode, it is not a stiff task to find Soumini’s house. Ask for Soumini, the one who climbs coconut trees, and the pointers are instant. “We inevitably gather a crowd when we climb up a coconut tree. It is as if we are film stars. People watch anxiously as we climb up and bring down coconuts,” says 48-year-old Soumini.

Soumini and her 37-year-old neighbour Seena are trendsetters in the region. After their six-day training as part of the Coconut Development Board’s Friends of Coconut Tree initiative in Koyilandy about a year ago, the women realised the skill they learnt can be their livelihood. When they climbed up trees with the aid of the coconut climbing machine and plucked fruits, they also climbed into a work profile exclusive to men for long. Kozhikode district today has a handful of women who have taken advantage of the initiative and found a profession.

Matter of livelihood

Soumini and Seena merely thought it a handy skill to have when they signed up for the programme. “We thought we could at least pluck coconuts on our land without anybody’s help,” says Seena. Finding men to climb up coconut trees was an agonising endeavour in their neighbourhood too. But the classes changed their point-of-view. “At the class we were encouraged to take it up as a job,” remembers Soumini. Seena pitches in, “We were told about the shortage of manpower in this profession. Everybody cannot be engineers and doctors. But people were not coming into this job.”

The women remember climbing a tree on day one of the training. “Once you learn to use the machine, the thrill is different. The first day you climb a little, the second day a little more. But it takes only a day to learn the machine,” says Soumini. If Soumini was confident, Seena admits she was jittery going up a tree. So when does one lose fear? “As money starts coming in, fear begins to retreat,” she jests. The day the women returned, they announced their skill to the world climbing up a coconut tree at home. “I went up and dropped a few tender coconuts for the family. Quite a crowd gathered to watch me,” says Seena. Soumini immediately made her skill a job. Her tailor-husband initially had reservations, not any more, she says. Soumini, a tailor for long, passed her class 10 examinations and appears to cash in on opportunities to learn. “I have learnt to make umbrellas, sandals and washing powder at workshops,” she says.

Seena, though, took it a little slow. Her father did not want her to be known as someone who climbs coconut trees. “My brothers are in the same profession and when I enrolled for training they wondered if I will manage. But my husband, who is in the Gulf, was of immense support. He asked me, ‘What is the harm in doing hard work and making a living?’” says Seena. Egged on by her husband and drawing inspiration from Soumini, Seena took the plunge. Since each traditional plucker has an earmarked area, the women had to venture far to find their niche. A little over 10 kms from home is Valiyapally where the women do most of their work. They consider themselves saviours of Valiyapally trees as scarcity of workers had left coconut trees untouched for almost a year. “We work for about 20 days a month and for each tree we climb earn Rs. 30. On good days we climb about 18 trees and our work is done by noon. Customers often give us more money irked by absentee pluckers,” says Seena.

In the neighbourhood

The women also pluck coconuts at a few houses in the neighbourhood. Soumini says the new job has brought relief to her asthma and improved breathing pattern. Seena’s husband has not yet seen her at work. “He comes once in two years.” Soumini younger son accompanies her when he is home on holidays. But both women realise their immense economic independence. “There are some months when I do not ask my husband for money,” says Seena. Soumini is considering sorting out the water problem at home by installing a motor.

The only hurdle the women face is in getting the machine to the work place. “We are not allowed in the bus. So we end up paying Rs. 100-120 to the autorickshaw,” says Seena. The women are encouraged wherever they go. “When we climb up we hear men telling the women in the house, ‘You sit here, cutting and eating fish,’” says Soumini. They know climbing up a coconut tree they have climbed a few notches high in everybody’s eyes.

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