Radha Prathi charts the life and times of coffee planters in Chikmagalur district and observes that Naxalism, urbanisation and the disintegration of the joint family system have posed several obstacles in their lives.
When Baba Budan brought a handful of coffee seeds to India on his way back from Mecca in 1670 AD, little did he realise that he would be altering the lifestyle of Indians, the southerners in particular, in more ways than one. The aromatic beans that were first grown in the hills of Chikmagalur district grew ever so well, almost as if it were their native land.
It appeared as if the Western Ghats were specially bestowed with varying altitudes to grow different varieties of this berry in the optimum possible manner. The umpteen brooks and rivers that gushed forth among these hills took care of the irrigation. The unerring monsoon cycle punctuated with showers of customised rainfall, traditionally known as the Revathi male in Kannada (Blossom showers) between the last week of March and mid-April helped coffee plants to blossom. While Arabica coffee preferred to grow above 3000 feet above the sea level, the Robusta variety was contented to flourish at lower levels. All the townships at the foothills of the Western Ghats flourished in the green business while Chikmagalur ruled the roost with maximum number of plantations. While the planters raked in profits that were hitherto unheard of, the local impoverished populace found employment that fetched them better wages than an agricultural labourer. Over a period of time, working in a coffee plantation became equivalent to being employees of a rural industry because they were given provident fund, retirement benefits and loan facilities.
Government organisations like Coffee Board of India and private companies vied with one another to process and market coffee both in India and abroad. In fact, India exports seventy per cent of its produce; using the rest for in-house consumption. This discrepancy in the ratio had always disturbed planters in the past; nevertheless they just allowed things to take their course because they consistently benefitted in the end.
They did benefit until a couple of years ago. When there was a crash in the international market for coffee between 1998 and 2004, the owners of coffee plantations in the state reeled under the blow. It was around the same time too that the monsoon cycle tripped.
Untimely rain (in January) let the coffee plants flower at a time when the the harvest was going on. The hillsides which were exploited to the hilt demanded more fertilisers than ever before.
The waters of the Cauvery, Hemavathi, Yakshi, Bhadra among others started running dry causing unprecedented disruption in irrigation.
Manpower in the Ghat sections decided to seek better prices for their work. Soon, labour prices went up three times over. Experienced hands migrated to greener pastures leaving plantation owners high and dry. Life has been a roller-coaster ride for planters ever since. Leading planters who do not want to be named reveal that they suspected their labourers of working hand in glove with Naxalites who had started to infest the area and posed a threat to their lives and property.
Some planters* have introduced mechanisations to supplement farmhands. While some others have ushered in labourers from Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Orissa to overcome their problems, they have realised that it will be a long time before they learned the knack of picking berries and adjust themselves to the local terrain and climate.
Most planters have educated their children who have chosen to migrate in search of greener pastures. The disintegration of the joint family system, urbanisation and increase in Naxalite attacks has created a horde of obstacles in planters’ lives. Strife and tension have become the ruling emotions in the life of a planter these days, as most of them admit.
Many of them who have been exasperated by the series of troubles that have been bogging them down have sold their plantations and moved on (see story below) while others are waiting for their lands to fetch a good price for they do not want their children to lead insecure lives in more ways than one.
All the same, the coffee business has not been affected in a big way, as the coffee bar culture has crept into the Indian scene in a big way. Leading entrepreneurs (read coffee shop chains) are packaging coffee drinking as an exalting experience, and suddenly the coffee market has gained a novel dimension.
Jagannath, a leading coffee planter of Arsikatte, who has seen many ups and downs in his rendezvous with coffee for 30 years feels that the situation can be rectified. If plantation owners take up marketing their produce by dressing it up with value-addition from farm -gates till the customer takes the first sip, the situation can still be salvaged, he says. In recent times, planters in Coorg have decided to stick to Robusta plantation because it taxes them considerably lesser in terms of labour and also allows them to grow other crops like areca and pepper simultaneously, while others have decided to go ahead with Arabica plants that demand all their attention, time and money. Some planters are trying to supplement their income by engaging tourists in an experience of home stay amidst coffee shrubs.
Planters are of the collective opinion that coffee drinking should be promoted within the country which will step up the demand so that they need not be constantly under the mercy of foreign bodies to sell their produce. They are sure that can capture the market gainfully again if their countrymen reach out for a cuppa coffee as often as they feel like it!
(* Names of planters have been withheld on request)