Most of the gardeners who pretty up Kochi’s landscape are migrant labourers from West Bengal and Orissa

A mobile phone blares a peppy Bengali song as Pappu works the lawn mower in a lawn in Kochi. Pappu is one among the increasing number of gardeners from West Bengal and Orissa who have made the city their home.

A better life

“Educated boys with an agricultural background from Bengal and Orissa, don’t like to get their hands dirty with work or the soil. But when they leave home any work is good,” says Ajit Mandal, a gardener and gardening contractor.

So, either people like Ajit bring them here as gardeners or they come looking for a job and end up as gardeners. Unemployment and better wages are the primary reasons that bring these people to Kochi and other places in the State.

Ajit, from Midnapore, was among the first people from his native Bengal to come to Kochi, in 1984, and begin a career in gardening. For a year-and-a-half he did odd jobs, was a coolie for sometime before he began gardening. Men folk from extended families were brought in for a piece of the ‘better life’ pie and they stayed on. Uttam Sahoo, plant nursery owner-cum-landscape artist-cum-gardener, says the reason why most migrant gardeners in the city are either from West Bengal or Orissa is because, “some of us initially came as labourers and then when we wanted manpower, we brought more people and then others brought others…” it is the domino effect playing out.

“We got a life here and we brought people here so that they too would get a life,” Ajit says. The ‘gardeners’ usually have an agricultural background. “Back home we have nellu (paddy) and pachakari krishi (vegetable farming),” Ajit says. The assimilation is so complete that Malayalam comes easier than Hindi for these people. It is also a question of necessity, he says.

Usually these gardeners, initially brought as labourers to help, start under a senior who is something of a contractor. They then branch out, if they prefer. Pappu, who is in his earlytwenties , is one such youngster. He has some friends who work under him.

Ajit brought Rocky, a relative, to Kochi 12 years back. Initially he worked with Ajit before branching out. Ajit says, “I let the boys who worked with me strike out on their own. Once they learn the job and can get by on their own, I let them go.” Rocky was among those who struck out on their own and has done not too badly. He in turn has brought his family here. His sisters’ husbands too work here.

Besides laying gardens, Rocky, like Uttam, has a plant nursery on Subhash Chandra Bose Road. The going is tougher today, he says. The rent on the land which houses his nursery has increased, the plants are expensive and then there is the increase in the number of ‘boys’ coming in and the jobs getting fewer.

While Rocky gets his plants from Mannuthy, Uttam gets his from Andhra Pradesh and Bangalore, besides Mannuthy. Shrinking gardens are another reason. High rises and apartment blocks offer a source of employment in the form of maintenance which these gardeners undertake.

“The new boys, trying to strike out on their own, assure people that they can do the job for Rs. 300-350 per day…it is not possible. Once they live here and understand the expenses they realise their mistake and suddenly jack up the rates,” he says.

According to him the current rates are anywhere between Rs. 350 – 550 (depending on the size of the garden and work). Rocky has some gardeners, as do Ajit and Uttam, who live with him and work for him. Apart from monthly wages, the benefits include ‘free food, bed and tools.’ “The expenses come down a lot and these boys can send home some money also,” Ajit says.

As a contractor, Ajit says he gets a commission from the wages of his crew. Uttam, from Digha in West Bengal, has one of the best nurseries in town. ‘Lovely Nursery’ on the Kochu Kadvanthra Road has been providing plants to the city for close to 13 years. A proud Uttam shows off his nursery. He has a house; his daughter will start schooling here, “even my voter ID and my wife’s have the Kochi address.” Ganesh, one of Uttam’s friends, also has a nursery.

Homeward bound

It might be the ‘Kochi address’ on the voter ID card but there is the irresistible tug of home. “I go home for a month or so during vacations. I get my parents here. My brother is here. We have a life and community here so we don’t get too homesick. Kochi has been kind to us,” Uttam says and adds diplomatically, “the people are warm and friendly.”

These gardeners, a few hundred of them, have a cultural association, the Vishwakarma Cultural Association. The highlight of the association is the annual Durga Pooja celebration. ‘Back home’ in West Bengal or in Orissa, these people have land holdings which they farm. Uttam, for instance, has betel leaf and paddy cultivation. The other time to go home is when the “rains come.”

Meena David, who owes her beautiful garden to Pappu says, “These boys are diligent workers. No long breaks, no unnecessary conversation, no hassles and most of all they will get the work done if it means staying beyond 6 p.m.”

Working late, these gardeners say, is not an issue. “We came here to work, isn’t it?” And one can’t argue with that logic.