TN’s toddy tappers struggle for survival as lockdown keeps their customers away

The government is easing its stringent curfew rules despite the rising Covid-19 cases in the country. While the gradual reopening of the economy brings a ray of hope to the lakhs of farmers rendered jobless by the lockdown, palm tapping labourers of the rural Tamil Nadu, who are already affected by a falling demand and low income, stare at a bleak road ahead.

For years, a quarter of the population in the palm groves of Ramanathapuram district has been making whatever little money they can through toddy tapping, dangerously scaling over 20-metre tall trees twice a day.  However, when the lockdown was imposed, most farmers in Devipatinam of  the district were pushed into joblessness and poverty.

“It’s been over three months since the lockdown began, we haven’t seen any new customers so far,” said Iruzhandi, a 55-year-old palm tapper from Ramanathapuram.  A coastal belt, Ramanathapuram is home to expansive palm groves and thousands of tapping farmers who work there to make a living out of it.

Situated far away from the town settlement, the palm tree groves used to be a favourite haunt for farmers in the surroundings as they flock to the area to get intoxicated with freshly tapped toddy. However, after Tasmac outlets  began popping up on the outskirts, the demand for toddy sap dipped.

As there is a ban on tapping toddy in place, villagers around the coastal areas in Devipatinam, Kadaladi, Vedhalai and other places in Ramanathapuram district consumed the drink fresh from the palm trees, which is believed to contain many nutritious ingredients. This gave the struggling farmers customers and thereby money to live on.

Soon the toddy labourers saw their remaining customers, who helped them salvage their livelihood, too dwindle, with the lockdown confining them into houses. Nallaswamy, coordinator of Tamil Nadu Toddy Movement, said, “We have organised many protests in the past demanding all previous governments should lift the ban on toddy tapping. But all our requests fell on deaf years,” he said.

The state government had allowed palm farmers to tap “neera”, a non-alcoholic drink from toddy palm and coconut trees in 2017, but even that too is not permitted at this testing time, he said.  Unable to bear the loss of income, a few toddy tappers in Kanyakumari district crossed borders to the palm groves of Kerala, hoping to earn a better life and a steady income.

Sebastin, a social activist based in Kanyakumari, said, “Few toddy tappers here and in Tirunelveli district had migrated to Kerala long before, fearing unemployment and poverty in Tamil Nadu. They work as toddy tappers in Kerala and earn a decent money.

The lockdown, however, left the relatively better off toddy tappers in Kerala too under financial stress as they have remained jobless for nearly three months. Besides, the land owners of the toddy groves in Kerala and Tamil Nadu said they also have their earnings cut more than in half due to the lockdown restrictions.  Manikandan, 60, of Achunthanvayal village in Ramanathapuram, said that he used to lease out land parcels to the tappers and earned reasonable money.  “Now with the curfew in place, there is no steady income for me,” he said.

As the situation continues to be hostile for the farmers, tappers across the coastal areas in Ramanathapuram districts now look for other options for livelihood.  Marimuthu, 23, who is the only son of his tapper father Selvam, said, “I passed out of Government Industrial Training Institute, Ramanathapuram. Despite earning higher education, I failed to find a job in the area I studied and had to do my father’s job for a living.”

Now that tapping is also stopped, he said he was unsure what he would try next. Selvam, member of Tamil Nadu Toddy Movement, said tapping has no future and they have to try a better paying job like fishing or segregating dry fish in plants in Rameswaram. For toddy tappers in the coastal area, this seems to be the only hope ahead.

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