MARAIKULAM, INDIA // Like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, Rajan Kochuveliyal is a coconut plucker. For more than a century, the men of the Kochuveliyal family have earned a living shimmying up the swaying palms of Mararikulam, a coastal village in the south Indian state of Kerala.
Mr Kochuveliyal, who is 55, will retire soon, and his only son - like so many other young men from his community - has no desire or need to take over. "There are very few of us left. When my generation stops climbing, there will be no one left to do this," Mr Kochuveliyal said one recent morning as he prepared to climb the first tree of the day. "Young people can choose their jobs nowadays. They don't want to climb trees wearing a loin cloth - it is a dangerous job without status."
This presents India with a serious problem. The country produces 15 billion coconuts every year, making it one of the world's top producers, and almost every single one is still picked by hand. But in Kerala, by far India's biggest coconut-growing state, the number of pluckers has plummeted in recent years to 15 per cent below what is needed to harvest the crop. And the country's Coconut Development Board expects that shortfall to widen further in the next decade as pickers get too old to climb.
So Kerala's government has come up with a novel solution - a competition to design a coconut-picking machine that can be operated from the ground. Three winners, to be announced in September, will each receive a prize of one million rupees (Dh81,000) - a sum that, until recently, few coconut pluckers could hope to make in a lifetime. "Our purpose was to design something to bring the coconut down," said T Balakrishnan, Kerala's industry secretary and the man in charge of the competition.
"People don't have to go up if the coconut comes down." Easier said than done. The machines must be cheap, easy to transport, independently powered, operable from the ground in confined spaces, and capable of plucking coconuts at heights of 30 metres. Because coconuts on the same tree ripen at different times, they must be able to cut out only those ready for harvest. They have to cut from above so the nut does not fall directly on them.
They must allow for the fact that the trunk of the coconut palm is notchy and rough and gets covered in slippery moss during the monsoon. And above all, they must be easy to use. "We want to produce something that the farmers or even a housewife could use on their own," Mr Balakrishnan said. He launched the competition in August and was quickly overwhelmed by the response. So far, more than 460 designs have been entered, including some from Israel, Bahrain and France, and more are still coming in.
Entrants include engineering students, government professors - and even a coconut plucker. Eight designs have already won funding to develop a prototype, but the competition remains open to anyone who wants to enter a working model in the final. "Some of the designs we received were crazy," Mr Balakrishnan said. "One designer suggested using a small balloon to reach the coconuts." Most, however, opted for one of two designs: a rotating blade on the end of a long pole, or a robotic cuff that grips and climbs the trunk and cuts with a saw on an extendable arm.
These may sound like the fantasies of Heath Robinson, known for his drawings of eccentric machines, but the contest is deadly serious for a region that has relied on the coconut for food, fuel and industrial raw materials for millennia. Indians call it the kalpavriksha - Sanskrit for "the tree that gives everything" - and put almost every part of it to use. The oil that is extracted from the nut is used for cooking and beauty products. The fibrous husks are used to make coir rope, mattresses and doormats, and the leaves for thatch roofs. Some Indians even use the tree's roots to brush their teeth and in the south of the country the palm sap is fermented into an alcoholic toddy.
All together, coconuts contribute more than US$18 billion to the Indian economy every year, according to the Coconut Development Board. The problem is that coconuts have never been systematically cultivated in Kerala, where 90 per cent of them are still grown on small, private homesteads with as few as two or three trees. "You find coconuts in the back garden of every Keralan house," said Minnie Mathews, the chairwoman of the Coconut Development Board, based in Kerala.
"The life of the people of Kerala revolves around the coconut." Other coconut-producing countries such as Thailand and Malaysia have experimented with using hydraulic lifts or monkeys to harvest coconuts. But the lifts do not fit between the trees in Kerala, and animal-rights activists fiercely oppose the use of monkeys. At the same time, human pluckers have been deserting the trade because decades of communist rule in Kerala have produced one of the most socially mobile states in India.
Ideas of caste, which still hold sway in many parts of northern India, have eroded here, meaning a son is no longer destined to hold the same social status or job as his father. Widespread access to education has produced the highest literacy rate in India and remittances from workers in the Gulf have also helped Kerala's economy boom. "Children from villages can get jobs in the IT sector or government; they are no longer confined to their family's traditional occupation," Ms Mathews said.
The trend started in the mid-1990s when many pluckers started to take advantage of free state education and sent their children to school rather than teach them to climb trees. The Coconut Development Board responded by running classes to teach people how to climb trees using a small portable climbing apparatus - but few of those they trained remained in the job once a better opportunity came along.
The dearth of pluckers means that their income has risen from two rupees per tree 10 years ago to 20 to 30 rupees a tree today, but that still has not stopped people leaving the business. Some coconut farmers have even experimented with bringing in non-skilled workers from some of India's poorer sates, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But few of them could manage the work and the accident rate among those was very high.
So until the competition is over, India's multibillion-dollar coconut industry still depends on people such as Mr Kochuveliyal, who has been plucking since he was seven. Before he climbs the first tree of the day, he stops to offer a brief prayer to the Hindu god Shiva, placing his hand first on the trunk, and then on his muscular chest. "Oh Lord," he whispers, "protect me while I climb." With that, he puts his feet inside a small rope loop, places his hands around the trunk and begins to climb the towering palm.