labor pain

The location of the new Ossoor Restaurant caused such envy in me, the lush green in the trees and in the coffee all round the restaurant (and across the highway on the front) paled before the green on my face. The Ossoor plantations run hundreds of acres each, and probably total to some thousand acres across Sakleshpur. The boys cleaning the restroom at the restaurant were speaking a language which when I asked they said was Hindi. “Kaaheka Hindi?” I asked them, wherefrom is your Hindi? “Bihar, saab,” they told me, delighted and astonished at being spoken to. Here's how the corporate planters are managing labor-shortage in plantation country: importing them from as far as Bihar.

Balan has an idea to prepare for the imminent shortage of hands we’ll face in the picking season. He wants to bring in from Chitradurga some lambanis, gypsies, and house them in our labor line (a row of  dark  sooty rooms that we have inherited with the purchase of the plantation). He says more than one family will stay in a room. I wanted to ask: how will they cook their separate meals and do other things like, say, making love? I checked myself. A certain reticence is expected of the owner, the saukarru. I asked him to hold his idea for a while.

At the Planters Club, if you order forty-five minutes ahead, they'll serve you a terrific meal in the local style. At breakfast, they can only serve bread, jam and omelette (and instant coffee in this coffee town!) because they cannot find enough help. Their guest house has been running full for the last thirty days.

Almost none of the labor on our plantation are young. The few men we have, they suffer their slow, reluctant walk on filaria-ridden legs. The women are stronger, are more able (not eating paan masala, not alcoholic, not smoking, not refusing tasks that demand bending to the ground), but the pressure from them is to leave work sooner than closing-time, every day.

We have a new friend, a fifty-year old wiry planter whose rugged weathered face is proof of his toil; he carries his success on the farm with quiet dignity, and his face breaks often into a shy attractive grin—at which point he is a fine study in humility. He has been incredibly helpful and shows a genuine concern for us, for our newness to the place, and he worries regarding our inexperience. Sujaya pointed out our women to him, about their slipper-clad feet immersed in slush in these monsoons—the women have sores between their toes, and Sujaya asked: “Shouldn't they wear boots?” He answered without lowering his voice, almost within earshot of the women: “They’re used to it. Now, don’t pity them so much that you rush and buy boots for them.”

The young ones have been going away to Bangalore, where in the new enterprises employees enjoy respect, hot meals, healthy workplaces, and the promise of a career. Their parents and the parents preceding them have never known ambition, have never dared to aspire. In Bangalore, anything is possible for these youth.

Can the planters afford what the businesses of Bangalore offer their employees? A planter invited me home, and politely asked me not to pay the labor (and the writer) “too much”: “We’ll all suffer.” The suffering he spoke of is real: the plantation takes a year of effort and investment, is dependent on the right amount of rain arriving in time, and on the rise and fall in prices in Brazil and Colombia and Vietnam. Some years are good, some years are disasters, and good planters measure their earnings as an average over years. To counter risk, small and medium planters do not pay electricity bills, nor repay loans (expecting a waiver from the government at election time).

At harvest this year, many planters had no labor for picking berries and they lost the crop they had struggled to grow. So labor-shortage is the severest risk for the survival of coffee plantations in Malnad.

What is the collective plan to make work fruitful for those young who prefer farm-life to the city? This is not a challenge for the labor department; rather, if they wish that the lovely plantations should remain, that they should prosper, then planters need urgently to hatch a plan to make farm-work rewarding for workers; and they should create conditions for the workers to feel as stakeholders in the success of the plantation. Yields from the plantation should be brought to levels that allow for rewarding workers. Are some planters meeting somewhere and generating ideas?

I wish to meet them.