What is it like to spend all day in or under a mango tree, alone, in a foreign country many many miles from home? Every year, thousands of Nepalis flood the Konkan region of Maharashtra, home to the world-famous Alphonso mango, to earn a living, keeping monkeys, birds and thieves away
Reetika Revathy Subramanian
It’s a quarter past five. Fluffy clouds glide over a dense Alphonso orchard in Ratnagiri. The only sound is the breeze in the trees. Then, suddenly, there’s a piercing shriek and a loud ruffling of leaves. The monkey tribe has signaled its arrival. The battle has begun.
Standing 40 feet below, 65-year-old Narbahadur Vishwakarma takes position and aims his catapult. With one small stone, the monkeys are silenced. Calm returns. The Alphonsos are safe, for now. Narbahadur is among the nearly 70,000 migrants from Nepal who arrive in the Konkan every year to work as Rakhwaldars (protectors) of the prized Alphonso orchards. Their work begins when the first flowers bloom, and ends only when the last crate has been packed off to market.
Experienced labourers also help pick and sort the mangoes, make the wooden crates, and pack the petis or boxes off for export or sale. Armed with a catapult, rope, stones and a sickle, these workers spend about seven months a year in the scenic coastal districts of Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg.
Most of the workers come from the hilly Kailali district of Nepal, nearly 2,000 kilometres from the Konkan but just across the border with India. Local farmers say the boom in the Alphonso mango business in the late 1990s drew the first batches of Nepali migrants around the turn of the century.
“By 2000, the Alphonso mango had become a prized commodity; the export market was growing, and farmers were willing to pay to protect the fruit from damage and theft,” says Vivek Bhide, president of the Konkan Mango Orchard Owners and Sellers Cooperative Association.
Before the mango economy boomed, locals were employed to do the job. “Over the past few years, outward migration of youngsters has grown,” says Ratnagiri district collector MN Kamble. “They choose to work in Mumbai, Pune or other big cities instead of the farms.”
Local farm labourers also won’t stay all night, says Madhukar Jadhav, sarpanch of Roon village and a mango cultivator. “The Nepalis work and live in the orchards. They are fearless and trustworthy.” The Nepalis are also desperate, and make few demands — so there is no insurance in case of injury, no minimum wage, rates are negotiable. If mangoes are damaged on a Rakhwaldar’s watch, the sum they were promised goes down.
The total cost of maintaining two Rakhwaldars (they usually work in pairs) ranges from `50,000 to `1 lakh for a six-month season. “If they work well, we pay for their bus tickets back home,” says Pradeep More, a mango cultivator from Lanja in Ratnagiri who has employed 12 Nepalis this year. “Over six months, one Nepali worker guards, picks and packs over 2,000 boxes of mangoes, which fetch more than `20 lakh on the market. So, payment of even Rs1 lakh is a good deal for the orchard owners,” says Bhide.
Senior Rakhwaldars act as agents. The orchard owner will call, usually in October, to discuss timelines and how many people are needed. “Based on the owner’s need, we bring along neighbours and relatives,” says Kiran Gharti, 32. Kiran has been coming to the Konkan for the mango season for four years. In 2017, he brought along a cousin, 16-year-old Mahesh Gharti, to work as his partner.
Meet the migrant men and women
With the annual Kailali-to-Konkan journey drawing more and more Nepalis private buses have begun to ply from Palia Kalan in Uttar Pradesh, on the India-Nepal border, to Pawas in Ratnagiri.
“If we are traveling alone, we even end up taking the train because it’s cheaper. But you have to change trains multiple times, so with women and children accompanying us, we prefer the bus,” says Narbahadur, who is accompanied by his wife, daughter and son-in-law this year. While the bus journey costs `2,600 per person, the train tickets usually add up to about `1,100 per head.
“Until about 10 years ago, the men would work individually on the farms. But that meant there was no time to cook and do chores, and they would end up spending a lot of money buying food,” says Deepak Paradkar, a field executive with Aajeevika Bureau, an NGO working with labour migrants. “So, they began to bring the womenfolk or a younger relative along. The owners sensed opportunity for cheap labour, and offered the junior partner half the salary to work as Rakhwaldar, while the men graduated to picking, sorting and packing mangoes.”
This partnership system known as the jodi system is widely practised across the mango orchards today. The couple is paid salary of 1.5 times what one Rakhwaldar would earn.
Over the years, the conventional single male migration pattern has expanded to include families too. That way if one of the adults is unwell, one of the children can step in.
For the children, this annual shuttling between the two countries means disrupted education. “The children are usually between 6 and 10 years old. The parents approach us when they arrive to get their children enrolled while they are at work,” says Mangesh Hatkar, a primary class teacher at the government-run school in Roon village. “We do not have their names recorded in our attendance registers. Based on their age, we allow them to attend classes. We give them old textbooks and the daily meal. They usually leave by June.”
It’s a rough life even for the adults. There are no days off, and no real living conditions. Workers and their families live in makeshift shelters within the orchard — or up in a tree. Some are assigned a room on the property, but guarding up to 1,000 trees means there’s only time for sporadic rest, so even those with rooms rarely use them.
The Nepalis still return every year, because there is little employment back home, and the money they earn here is 1.6 times as valuable in Nepal.
“The money I earn in Ratnagiri helps to resolve one problem every year,” says Seema Vishwakarma, 28, accompanies her husband to the Konkan from Kailali, with their three school-going children over the past four years.
Loneliness, broken by a wedding feast
Tapendra Thapa, 16, has been living for six months in a bamboo hut he built himself. There is no electricity; no running water; no toilet. Instead, he is surrounded by the 8 acres of mango trees, in Ratnagiri’s Roon village. Beyond it are green fields that get pitch dark at night; the only sounds from within his dark, 6 feet x 8 feet home is the shrieking of monkeys.
This is Tapendra’s first stint in the Konkan. He came to Ratnagiri in December with a few clothes, his cellphone and some cash. “I’m not afraid of the dark. But apart from monkeys, there is also a possibility of thieves and drunkards entering the farm,” he says.
So he watches the trees by night, and spends his days making wooden crates and packing mangoes for shipment. His senior co-worker is Kiran Gharti. Returning to Lanja four years in a row has meant a job promotion, fluent Marathi, and invitations to local weddings.
“At the beginning, I used to assist. I didn’t understand the language; it sounded like everyone was yelling at me,” laughs Kiran. “Today I can recognise the ripened mangoes by their shape. I’m earning `54,000 for six months now.” The young father ends up saving most of the money; his only other source of income is his family’s rice farm in Kailali. “We live on very little while we are here,” he says.
The months of April and May, which mark the wedding season, are particularly exciting for the workers, who get invited to as many as two weddings a week.
In the many weeks with no weddings, life can get very dull and lonely, the Rakhwaldars admit. There is poor cellphone connectivity and a lot of time spent alone. “I get homesick and exhausted, especially after sunset,” says Tapendra. “Sometimes, I listen to songs saved on my phone, or else I just think and dream.” Meanwhile, he’s learning Marathi, in preparation of the years ahead.
It’s all in the family for those who protect the Hapus
In the first week of April, 60-year-old Kaushilla Sonar was chasing a group of monkeys away when she tripped and crashed to her knees. They were bleeding and her legs began to swell, but she couldn’t let the monkeys get at the fruit.
“Skipping work was not an option the next day either, so I told my grandchildren to skip school for four days and watch the farm for me,” she says. “There are no doctors for us here. We have to go to the village and pay for first-aid ourselves. I’m worried that I won’t be able to keep up with the monkeys in the weeks that remain.”
Kaushilla is here with her husband, two daughters and four grandchildren. She previously worked as a domestic helper in Pune for two years before moving to Ratnagiri.
The Nepali workers routinely clamber up 40-feet-high trees and tackle monkeys head-on. But they have no health cover, formal or informal. The nearest primary healthcare centre is about 30 kilometres away, in Lanja town. And even seeking help would mean the loss of a day’s pay.
“We have to look after ourselves. It is our individual responsibility,” says Sarita Thapa, who is here for the first time. “For example, I don’t use a knotted rope to attack the monkeys because I hurt myself previously. I only use the catapult and stones,” she adds.
According to Madhukar Jadhav, the village sarpanch, previously, orchard owners used to submit identity documents of the Nepali workers employed in their farms to the local police. “But over the past three-odd years, there has been no real documentation and the workers don’t get any support,” says Jadhav. “So, if there are any relatively serious injuries, and the owner feels that the worker is an asset on his farm, he might give an additional amount at the end of six months. But there is no real mandate or contract to attend to health issues or injuries,” he adds.
For women mango protectors, it’s double the work, half the pay
Every day, Sarita Thapa, a Rakhwaldar employed in Sathavli village, spends all of her waking hours working. The mother of two children from Kailali district starts her day at 4 a.m., gathering firewood. Then she cooks some rice, lentils and chicken that she packs as tiffin for her husband who works as a sorter and packer, and for her school-going son.
By 8 a.m., she has washed the utensils and clothes and headed out to the orchard to watch for monkeys. She returns home at 9 p.m., to make dinner. Yet, Thapa is considered a ‘helper’ and earns less than half the amount earned by her husband.
Her husband earns `9,000, while she makes `4,000. “My work shifts never really end. Sometimes, I am even forced to skip lunch,” says Thapa, who plans to return to her native place in June, and then, come back to Shimla in time for the apple-picking season.
Asked about the wage gap, sarpanch Jadhav says, “Women workers do not come on their own, so they are considered Jodidars. They only migrate with their families. So their income only supplements the male worker’s earnings.”
Besides the wage gap, the women workers also spoke about problems related to hygiene in the open farms, especially during menstruation. “We all stay in the open and cannot afford to miss even a single day at work, both at home and in the farm,” says Vishwakarma, who says that there are no toilet facilities.
The workers end up going to the nearby stream to bathe, wash clothes and often, use the same water to drink. “On a rare day or two when I feel very weak, I am forced to send my children to the farm. And in that time, I don’t quite rest fully. I am constantly worried about their well-being and safety.”