Risky life of toddy tappers in Palakkad

KV Srikumar

Meenakshipuram: Palakkad which is known as the rice bowl of Kerala has also another peculiarity which makes the district famous for. It is the largest producer of toddy in the state. Even when controversies are brewing around toddy, deep inside, in Chittor there is a world of toddy tappers unconnected to all these.

A normal day in the life of a toddy tapper begins at 1.30 am. Many of them live with their family in and around the coconut tree plantations. Toddy tappers Ammasakutty and Prabhu who work at Meenakshipuram say on an average they tap nearly 55 coconut trees a day. There are two kinds of tapping for toddy; ‘Pandychethu’ and ‘Chelichethu’. They adopt the ‘Pandychethu’ model tapping. The trees have to be climbed twice a day.

Climbing over 50 trees is really hard labour and time consuming. For this, they found a solution which is a nail biting experience for those who witness it. The treetops that are closer to each other are tied with ropes. With the flexibility of an acrobat, the tappers walk from one treetop to the other with the toddy containers and tapping instruments. If climbed to the top of one tree, the tapper will get down on the ground only after finishing work of 30 trees.

After collecting the palm sap from two or three trees, it is dropped down using a rope. Sometimes around 2-5 litres of palm sap is obatined from a single tree.

Ammasakutty and Prabhu learned the profession from their fathers and have been doing the job for last 15 years. Ammasakutty is a native of Gobichettipalayam, Erode and Prabhu is from Kunnathur, Tirupur. People from these districts and Pollachi are mainly engaged in toddy tapping profession.

15 years back, they used to charge Rs 2.50 – 3 for tapping one litre sap. And this has reached to Rs 13 now. But for ‘Chelichethu’, they earn Rs 26-30 per litre.

Pandychethu and Chelichethu

‘Pandychethu’ is the way of tapping sap that prevails in Tamil Nadu. In this model, they tap the tree in the evening and collect sap in the next day morning. They cut the top of the flower of coconut tree. The sap that flows out is collected in a container, locally known as ‘Mattom’ turning the flower to one side.

‘Chelichethu’ is widely used by Keralites. In this method, the sap that flows are blocked with mud preventing it to flow back to the flower. According to this method, they tap a tree three times a day and collect sap two times.

There are Tamilians who use ‘Chelichethu’ model also. The knife used in both models are different.

Dangerous job

Those who taste the toddy from toddy shops across Kerala might not be knowing the risk the toddy tappers take every day to avail it. There are many who lost lives while working. Asked about accidents during work, Prabhu extended his hand and showed the stitches on his hand. He broke his hand after falling from a tree. One of his relative is at rest after breaking his leg. Commonly, the injury happens to the spinal cord.

During summer, the amount of sap is less. Sap can be taken for two months from a flower. The main villains in the job are honey bees and ants. Whether it is sold or not, and even if the production is less, tapping has to be continued without any disruption every single day. If failed, it would take many days of work to resume the production into the previous capacity. So, if the daily tapper is absent, another has to be hired to continue.

There is limit and permit for the amount of sap to be collected and transported. The sap that is not taken has to be thrown away. Under each toddy shop, there are minimum 50 trees. If a toddy shop has no sufficient trees, tappers can use the trees taken on lease in other places. This is how the shops in other districts reach out to the coconut tree plantations in Chittoor.

It is reported that 3 lakh litre toddy is transported from Chittoor to other places.

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