Ex-Air Marshal KC ‘Nanda’ Cariappa was laconic but peppery. “The Prime Minister has a lot of things to do; so, he could have made a mistake. But, frankly, his speech writers, the minions who brief him, ought be hauled over the coals,” he said, in a clipped British accent (he trained at the Royal College of Defence Studies, London).
The reference was to what the PM had said during his campaign in Karnataka about Nanda’s father, legendary Field Marshal Cariappa. A speech riddled with errors, in which he had claimed the Congress party humiliated two army chiefs from the state, Cariappa and General K S Thimayya.
It has, however, left Coorg unmoved. Most retired officers waved it all away as politics of a lowly variety. Few remember, too, the effort of H D Deve Gowda, during his brief tenure as PM, to raise a Coorg Regiment in the army, in homage to the Kodavas’ martial spirit.
If Coorg had got its regiment, perhaps it could have weathered the contradictions it is caught in. Pradnya, a young reporter, says the biggest challenges in the region are education and employment. Only now has a medical college been set up here. Otherwise, after completing school, all children had to leave Coorg to study further. Unless they were ready to return and run coffee and pepper estates, there were no prospects of jobs.
There was a time when Coorg was proud of its sons joining the armed forces. No longer. Locals believe it is no longer rewarding. The alternative is to work in the coffee and pepper plantations that dominate the landscape. However, the crisis in these commodities is deep. Kushalnagar and Virajpet traders know this best. Most are night owls — India’s biggest competitor in the coffee market is Brazil and they watch fluctuations in coffee prices online on an hourly basis. With the 8.5 hours time difference, this gives them little time to sleep. India produces 300,000 tonnes a year and internal consumption is only 65,000 tonnes, mostly in the five southern states. To keep the estates running, growers have to export the rest. If Brazil has a bad crop or suffers political instability, Coorg celebrates. All Coorg coffee is exported out of the New Mangalore Port Trust.
“This year’s rate (of coffee) is the same as the last five years. But, expenditure — on labour, maintenance, curing — is not. It is going up every year. So, coffee planters are really struggling to make ends meet,” says G Chidvilas, editor of Shakthi, a local newspaper his family has owned and run for 61 years.
The saving grace is pepper, a commodity that is interplanted with coffee. However, its export is subject to World Trade Organization rules. So, Vietnamese pepper comes to India and Sri Lanka, and cannot be banned. “Only recently, the government has imposed a minimum import fee of Rs 500 per kg on imported pepper. That and high international prices have saved planters somewhat. But, for how long?” he says.
The result is that it is incredibly hard to make money through plantations. Most owners are, therefore, turning these into homestays. However, the physical infrastructure — water, power, and connectivity (Coorg is not on Indian Railways) — is crumbling because it cannot support the demands of tourism. While tourists throng Coorg, they are always a little disappointed — by the shortage of water, the power cuts and the sheer difficulty in getting to the place.
Add considerable local hostility to ‘outsiders’. There are many of the latter. Plantations tend to employ labour from Assam, as it is cheaper. Many of them are Muslims. And, the tourists are seen as a burden by locals.
Coorg is now a bit tired of struggling. There is no real leadership of the development debate, either. In one part of the region, there are such basic problems as man versus nature — wild buffaloes and leopards attack habitations because Coorg is dominated by reserve forests, now being cut down by a timber mafia in which many politicians have interest. As forests are denuded, animals move to human habitations.
And, there is the issue of the proposed railway line. In its manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised it. However, many locals also do not want it because it threatens their way of life — apart from the reserve forest that will have to be hacked down to build the line.
Others say it is hard to stay jurassic — owners of estates are simply leaving because they do not want their children to suffer the educational deprivations they had to put up with. Neither the Congress or the BJP are addressing this question squarely. While Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s rally in Coorg was successful, BJP president Amit Shah opted to make a speech and leave — he did not seem to want to engage with locals, including the media.
All Coorg has left are stories about its valour in sepia tones. And, hopelessness about its future.