At this time of the year, tapioca farmers were usually preparing to welcome middlemen, dozens of guest workers and a long line of trucks for harvest at their farmlands in Kuzhippuram, of Malappuram district, Kerala. Tapioca harvesting is arduous, often requiring hard physical labour, and they rely on the workers’ stamina and experience to get the crops plucked out, loaded and transported to nearby markets.

The growers surveyed their lands with foreboding this season, and all they saw was a sea of tall green plants ready for harvest. But there was no manual labourer, middleman or truck at the site. They all remained at their homes, immobilised by lockdown. With the season’s harvest time fast running out and the monsoon clouds threateningly scudding across the sky, all they could pray for was that the lockdown be lifted immediately so workers would arrive in time for the harvest.

While the government made pandemic-related restrictions even more stringent, closing all the roads for their seasoned harvesters to arrive, an improvised army of reapers emerged out of nowhere, willing to buy their crops and supply them to nearby areas. It was the youth brigade of Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI)  Kuzhippuram wing who came up with this mission, taking it up as a challenge to help the farmers struggling to harvest the tuber crop locally known as Kappa. “What a relief for us. If they were not there, we would have suffered a huge loss ,” says Ahammed Poolakundan, a differently-abled farmer who had an acre of tapioca land to be harvested before the Monsoon sets in.  

The region has been a key producer and supplier of tapioca

“This is our ‘Kappa (tapioca) challenge’;  This is our message to all the youth out here. Our goal is to help the needy. We want to be with all the farmers facing difficulties to harvest their crops. Farmers are our main food providers, they should not be suffering like this,” says Fahad A K, who pioneered the effort.  

The idea came about during a discussion on a WhatsApp group named ‘Kuzhippuram Sakhakkal’. When the suggestion was put up, everyone agreed in unison and arranged a team for the mission. The 15-strong squad volunteered to harvest nearly 1,000 tonnes of tapioca from about 15 acres of farm field, distributing them later for free to the households in ward 8, 9 and 10 of the Parappur panchayat and 20 of the Othukkungal panchayat. The remaining harvest was supplied to the nearby regions where they were distributed to households under the supervision of the respective DYFI wing.  

“It took us a week to finish . Plucking out tapioca and loading them to trucks was an not easy job. Our team members carried the baskets weighing more than 50 kg on their heads and filled the trucks,” Mohammed Babu, who headed the mission along with Fahad, says. 

The Kappa challenge idea came about during a discussion on a WhatsApp group named ‘Kuzhippuram Sakhakkal’

As producers, including sharecroppers and landlords, were on the brink of total collapse, the challenge came as a boon for farmers, many of whom had to pay their land owners. “ This time the price is low compared to the previous year. However, they gave me Rs 4 a kg which is more than what I expected this season,” says farmer Abdul Rahman Edakkandan.   

The region has been a key producer and supplier of tapioca for long. Tonnes of tuber crops are exported to the Middle East after seeing huge demand from the countries. Ever since the state went into lockdown, growers have been facing various crises including transportation issues, price drop, summer rain, to name but a few.  Seeing the price drop, many tried to buy time delaying harvests, but the summer rain and early onset of monsoon spoiled their plans. “Some farmers refused to sell the crops hoping that they would get a better price if they waited. But that proved costly as rain began battering the district. Had delayed more, their crop would have rotten away,” Pramod K, an active member of the team, says.  

During the second wave of Covid-19, Malappuram has seen an unprecedented spike of positive cases and was placed under triple lockdown, the district enduring one of the strictest restrictions . “There was also concern that this time tapioca would rote away as lockdown coupled with rain paralysed all harvesting activities. The timely intervention of the good-spirited youngsters, however, made sure that the crops ended up on the dining tables here,” says Hameed A P, opposition leader of Parappur panchayat.