The king’s guard: Meet the people who live in mango trees so they can protect the fruit
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.
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 ft 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 km 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 grower. “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 grower 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 ₹1 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.
RELATED STORIES: MEET THE MIGRANT MEN AND WOMEN
With the annual Kailali-to-Konkan journey drawing more and more Nepalis — there are no official numbers, but mango growers say there were fewer than 1,000 a year coming to the Konkan a decade ago, and about 70,000 today — 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. My sister’s wedding, hopefully a semi-permanent home next year,” says Seema Vishwakarma, 28, who has been accompanying her husband to the Konkan from Kailali, with their three school-going children for the past four years.
Majboori ka naam hain Mahatma Gandhi, she adds, referring to the image on all Indian currency notes.