PETTAH, India — As he approaches his first tree of the day, S. Mohan presses his calloused palms together and bows his head.
“Oh God, I am climbing the coconut tree,” he whispers. “Protect me from harm.”
With no safety gear beyond a strap of palm frond tied around his ankles, he launches himself onto the tree’s arcing trunk, which rises dozens of feet into the air. With a swift series of spider-like maneuvers, he is at the top of the tree within seconds, slicing the nuts from their stems with a heavy blade he carries tucked into his loincloth.
One misstep and he would surely fall, as much as 100 feet to the ground.
India produces 15 billion coconuts a year, a tropical bonanza that feeds a billion-dollar industry. Just about every coconut is plucked by hand.
Plucking coconuts is a job that has been in Mr. Mohan’s family for generations. All his uncles and brothers were pluckers. This was the ancient and seemingly immutable destiny of all sons of a handful of communities here of the Dalit, or untouchable, caste.
But Mr. Mohan, who like many southern Indians uses only his surname and a first initial, would never allow his son, Shabu, who finished high school, to take up the work. Nor would he let his daughter, Shalini, who also went to school, marry a plucker. None of his brothers or sisters have allowed their children to become pluckers, either.
“It is a risky job,” said Mr. Mohan’s wife, Girija. “Our people can choose now. Nobody would choose this work.”
And so Kerala, a relatively prosperous and well-governed state in southern India, is in the grips of an acute shortage of coconut pluckers that threatens to undermine one of its most important industries.
The scarcity of coconut pluckers in Kerala illustrates the loosening of the once rigid caste bonds in many parts of India, freeing young people from hereditary jobs.
Unlike northern states, where caste remains a force and education remains out of reach for many, Kerala has a 100 percent literacy rate, and the shackles of caste are looser than ever.
But this has created a crisis of its own: If no one wants to pluck coconuts anymore, how will this industry survive?
It is hard to overstate the importance of coconuts to life here. Every last bit of the coconut tree and its fruit is put to use. Some Indians use coconut tree roots to brush their teeth in the morning, and fall asleep under a roof of fronds at night.
The coconut’s oil and flesh are used not only in food, but also as ingredients in myriad beauty products, including glistening hair oil and creamy skin moisturizers. The average Indian family consumes about 30 coconuts a month, according to the Coconut Development Board. Its bristly fiber is a major export product, providing doormats to the world.
The coconut industry has grappled for years with the problem of how to get nuts from the distant crowns of the tall, slender trees. It is not a simple task. India’s coconut trees produce about 60 nuts every 45 days. Because the tree flowers continuously, the nuts ripen at different times, and deciding whether a nut is ready to be plucked requires experience and judgment.
“A trained climber will know which nuts to harvest and for what purpose,” said Minnie Mathew, chairwoman of the Coconut Development Board. “A machine can’t do that.”
Some coconut-producing countries have experimented with mechanical platforms that raise pluckers to the tops of the trees. Others have trained monkeys to do the job. But none of these solutions have proved workable in India. The machines are unsuitable to the terrain or are prohibitively expensive. Animal cruelty laws and religious beliefs rule out monkeys, officials said.
Kerala’s state government has responded to the crisis by sponsoring an international design competition that will pay $20,000 to develop three economically feasible coconut-picking machines. More than 350 people have sent in ideas.
T. Balakrishnan heads Kerala’s department of industries, which is sponsoring the competition. Coconuts are essential to the state’s economy, he said.
“We have 3.5 million people growing them, and many others depending on coconut-related manufacturing for employment,” he said. “It is a crucial part of our agricultural sector.”
The coconut pluckers’ ranks began to thin about 20 years ago, as more untouchable families began taking advantage of free education for their children. Kerala has a reputation as one of India’s most egalitarian states, and its nominally Communist government has prided itself on eroding caste divisions. Residents enjoy one of the highest standards of living in India.
“In a way we are victims of our own success,” Mr. Balakrishnan said. “Those who are educated don’t see it as a desirable profession.”
Even as caste has become less restricting to those in society’s lowest echelons, the work associated with a low caste is seen as undesirable, even when it is lucrative. Because of the shortage, a skilled plucker can make as much as $8 a day, a considerable wage in a country where many struggle on less than $2 a day.
“A climber will probably make more than an office clerk,” Mr. Balakrishnan said. “The reasons people do not want to do the job are not primarily economic. It has to do with lifestyle and aspiration.”
The job’s dangers also make it unattractive. B. Mohan, a 65-year-old coconut plucker, fell from a tree in October. He broke several bones and injured his spine. Lying under the palm-frond roof of his tiny house, he said the doctors said he might never walk again.
“I started climbing when I was 15,” said Mr. Mohan, who is not related to S. Mohan. “There was no other alternative. We had this job only.”
His father died after a fall from a tree, and Mr. Mohan had worried about the danger of the job. But he had no other skills that would draw a similar salary. Now, unable to work and lacking insurance, he faces a grim future.
“I plan to die,” he said matter-of-factly, as he stared blankly at the ceiling.
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