Yaay! The long awaited vacation to Kerala! What a paradise…a totally different experience at Cochin and the backwaters; a totally different one at Munnar. As we headed from Kochi to the backwaters, we spent long hours driving through small picturesque villages, with coconuts, jackfruits, bananas and mangoes simply piled up on the trees, as if into competition with each other on the head count. It looked for a while that the jackfruits were winning, but I think at the end, the coconuts won, hands down. I was dismayed and irritated to see the kiddies comparing the features of the cameras to click pictures of the natural wonders I was so excited about. “Kids. Look out of the window. Enjoy the nature.” Such old fashioned statements only come from me in this mad family and the kids, torn between ignoring me and ignoring me, decided to ignore me. Giving a cursory glance outside the window that would not be long enough to spot even the biggest outsized jackfruit in Kerala, they said to pacify me “Wow! Nature!” and immediately went back to the more interesting artificial wonders that the cameras had to offer. “What did you see from the window?”I persisted and the lil one, without batting an eyelid said “There are no high rise buildings in Kerala. No offices. And no Malyalis wear glasses. Don’t they read enough?”
I could feel the economist in me rising and after taking 5 calming breaths most unsuccessfully to control my econ instinct, I told the kids (I mean, I HAD to) “Folks, we are in a 100% literacy zone. So I don’t want stupid comments about people in this state not reading enough. They don’t wear glasses because they are basically a fish eating people. High vitamin and protein content.” I could sense from the silence in the backseat that I had made an impact. “Really, mom? 100% literacy? Then why is all of Kerala not…urban? Its mostly villages and farmlands.”
How do you explain to children what the combination of communism, labor rights and high literacy rates can do to economic profiles of regions? For the past many years, Kerala maintained its numero uno status on the Indian HDI but would not make the grade on the State GDP rankings. While literacy is a terrific thing to happen to a state, it has not exactly served as an attraction to industries, which shy away from minimum wage conscious, union oriented and educated labor forces.
Why the industries, even conversations with small farmers and locals highlighted what an issue labor was in the state. On the way from the backwaters to Munnar, the spice haven of Kerala, the mangoes and coconuts suddenly give way to tall rubber trees, with the typical slanting line cuts on them and the small black pot tied to its middle to collect the sap. Looks rather like a tall, slient hermit with slanting ropes tied around the middle and a kamandalu in hand. A typical rubber plantation of an acre can host up to 120 rubber trees that start yielding sap after around 6 years. Most farmers also grow paddy, bananas and pineapples between the rubber trees for the first 3-4 years to make some money off the land. However, in its fourth year, the rubber tree roots grow so very robust that they start absorbing all the water content in the soil, rendering any other crop infeasible. “I had around 5 acres of rubber plantation a few years ago,” said a local hotel employee. “But my children don’t want the hard life of a farmer. They are well educated and want to have city jobs. One of my sons is in Bangalore and the other is now studying in Australia. So I sold off the plantation and took up a job. Its not amazing pay, but its steady pay, and a lot less heartache and worries for my age.” I could detect a similar strain in many people’s voices as they talked to us. Since most families have kids that have been moving away from homeland, labor shortage is a seriously huge issue and has lead to a humungous escalation in labor costs. An unskilled labourer at the rubber plantation can earn anywhere from Rs.500 to Rs.600 for a half day stint and a skilled labourer earns, hold your breath, something like Rs.900 for 8:00 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. profile, MNREGA minimum wages be damned. Compare that to the MNREGA pay of Rs.200 per day in other places like Maharashtra and Orissa and you can see what an issue the wages are in Kerala. In fact, since the coastlands at West Bengal and Orissa have similar plantation profiles, Kerala is currently witnessing huge migration from these two states to man these plantations.
As one moves ahead towards Munnar, the tall rubber tree hermits give way to shorter and extremely organized farms- tea! The road was distinctly narrower and help! definitely twistier…aaargh! Since it had been my idea to visit Munnar, the kids (lil one and his two cousins) were now holding me personally responsible for the winding roads built by the British to get to Munnar All my enthusiastic pep talks about the green and fresh fragrance of tea were now met by green-in-the-face little devils who had not known how rough this journey was going to be. “This is the worst journey I have ever done. I give it a rating of 0.05 out of 5” That was my older niece, all of 14 and the leader of the kiddie gang. As our car turned a sudden 100 degree left at about 60 degree incline, I learnt about the centrifugal force the practical way. Tummy lurching unpleasantly, I was suddenly thrown to the right, with my right cheek pressed tightly against the supercold glass of my window, with the lil one’s pointy chin pressing into my neck in a most life threatening fashion. For the first time I realized the full import of the description “a pointed chin”. As I was hanging there helplessly, our driver, who by the way was getting positively more cheerful with every turn, decided to declare “Cardamom Plantation to the left.” What! Cardamom plantations! My Carl Linnaeus green instinct fought against the Newtonian forces most helplessly; my struggle to sit upright causing the already upset lil one to react violently and push me rudely even more against the glass. “Look to the left. Cardamom!” I sputtered from that corner of my mouth that was free from the frozen glass impact. “I hate cardamom” said the pointed chin, with similar sentiments getting echoed from the other kids pressed against cold glasses in the backseat. Such co-operation! The car now hurled dangerously downwards causing all passengers to hang on to the seat in front of them for dear life as tightly as possible. Just as all three kids suddenly landed in the leg space, our driver enthusiastically pointed to orange farms on the right, urging us to click photos through the window. This was one wise Master in the driver seat; he is only speaking always in the present continuous tense. “Stopping now after turning for clicking?” he asked. By now, the sheer physical gravity forces had totally defeated the Grammar Nazi in me. “No,” I managed to barely squeak. “”Only stopping when reaching hotelling. When we reaching?”
Munnar. At last. As we recovered from that gruelling ride, we gradually started enjoying the spice beauty unfolding in front of us. The lush green tea plantations, the pepper climbers, the bushy cardamoms and the robust cinnamon trees…oh, ‘twas truly Munnar spice and everything nice. The kids recovered too and actually forced us to buy “I love Munnar”mementos. As I urged them to stay away from the gaming center in the markets, the lil one told me wickedly “Someone needs to play too, Ma. Otherwise with 100% literacy, people only land up reading. How will this gaming center make a profit?”