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Kozhikode's Coconut Tree Climbing College

How to Climb a Coconut Tree


Why high literacy levels in Kerala haven’t created a shortage of men who can climb the most daunting trees


By K A Shaji


It was about 15 years ago that Ramadasan Vaidyar, a noted satirist of Kerala, thought of the need to establish an exclusive col­lege to train youngsters to climb coconut trees. Vaidyar, who made headlines in the late 1970s by organising a contest for women with the ugliest face to scoff at beauty pageants, also decided that he wanted to inaugurate the col­lege in a unique way. The then district collector, UKS Chauhan, was invited to open the college by climbing a particularly intimidating coco­nut tree. He agreed.

Chauhan was given three days of rigorous training by the principal designate of the col­lege, Moothedathu Pradeep Kumar, who used to pluck coconuts in Vaidyar’s own grove. “It was a different experience training the collec­tor, who hailed from north India. I had to reach Chauhan’s office after midnight to give him the lessons. His wife and security personnel tried their best to stop him. But Chauhan was reso­lute,’’ says Kumar.

The collector was ready on the inaugural day. But he’d only gone up the tree a few feet when his wife clung on to both his legs, phys­ically preventing him from climbing further. Nevertheless, this very drama provided suffi­cient publicity to Vaidyar’s unconventional venture, aimed to poke fun at the hypocrisy of Malayalis who prefer white collar jobs.

The college stopped functioning a few years later, after Vaidyar’s death. But it succeeded in bringing dignity back to a profession that is crucial to Kerala’s fragile agricultural economy.

Taking inspiration from Vaidyar, self-help groups across the state have now started train­ing the youth in the mechanised form of co­conut plucking. In districts like Kasargod, Alappuzha and Thrissur, some groups have arranged loans from nationalised banks for trained climbers, so that they can buy mobile phones and motorbikes. The idea is for climb­ers to be made immediately available over the phone for any farmer in the region.

“Mobility and communication are chang­ing the scope of this profession. They are mak­ing it more profit­able as well. Better wages and less hard­ships are prompting many to think about this profession seri­ously now,’’ says PK Rajagopal, a climber from Bediadukka in Kasargod district.

But there are those like Kumar who still use the traditional mode of climbing coco­nut trees—with the help of a rope. He climbs more than 60 trees a day. “This is a skill learnt through training and dedication. I can fetch more coconuts than a person using the climb­ing machine,’’ he says, standing in front of the building that once housed the tree-climbing college. The coconut tree used by Kumar to train his students still stands in the compound.

“Only the formal college has ceased to func­tion. I am here to offer free training to anybody who wants to study the conventional mode of climbing. The training may be rigorous, but I can offer placement to all who pass,’’ he says.

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