Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Coffee Works

Coffee plant
This is coffee when it first starts – up in the beautiful and verdant Western Ghats of India, almost pristine, in harmony with its biodiversity, its rivers, its wildlife, its trees and  hills, sacred  groves, (Devara Kaadu) local deities and farmers. Under a high canopy of shade trees, coffee in India grows gloriously alongside pepper, cardamom, oranges and arecenut.

The coffee flower smells nothing like what it taste - the flowering of the coffee plant, gives a sweet fragrance, intoxicating the entire landscape.The blossom of the coffee plant transforms the landscape to appear like a white, fragrant laden sheet – its smell sweet, the air  gentle. This rousing lasts ,sadly, for just a few days before the coffee flower matures to become the  coffee seed and ready to be picked.

Coffee blossom
She is then gently handpicked and and mostly sun dried . Sometimes sent to a local Curing Works. Once dried, she is put into sacks and stored -usually in the store room of the residence of the coffee grower. She awaits the agent.
Coffee grows only in tropical countries and grown mostly by small farmers as a cash crop. Due to the predominance of small coffee growers in India, (according to The Coffee Board of India almost  98% of coffee is grown by marginalized and small farmers) , coffee is sold through agents – this buying and selling happens at the “gate”. The agent offers a price and farmer takes what he gets – because some commodity trader sitting in a glass office has decided the price of this precious bean.

A coffee farmer sun drying his coffee

Coffee seeds  are  dried, roasted and powdered to make coffee powder.Sometimes the coffee goes to towns and cities for further trade and household consumption- as filter coffee, in South India, or as ghastly instant coffee that is produced by the likes of Nestle.Some find their way into cafés to become  the classic espresso, or  cappuccino or other high street coffees - for which there are millions of consumers who are willing to pay a couple of dollars a pop. In the multibillion coffee industry, the profits go mainly to the shippers, the roasters and the retailers.

 But if you are a traditional coffee drinker and relish your coffee, you avoid the Starbucks and Café Coffee Days - instead you would go to an unpretentious hole in the wall –  "Gayathri Coffee Works" for   example- and buy premium Arabica coffee, freshly grounded for about Rs. 360 a kilo.

Gayathri Coffee Works, Mysore

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Remembering Gaura Devi

In 1925, Gaura Devi was born in the village of Latha, in the Garwhal region of the Himalayas, in the upper Alakananda Valley. Around that time, the area was covered with pristine forests, dark, deep, thick forests – this was also the source of their traditional agricultural economy. In keeping with tradition, she was married off at the age of 12 to Meherban Singh, in the nearby village of Reni. Singh was a small farmer, with a small piece of land, reared some sheep and traded in wool. They were by no means rich but they certainly had a comfortable life devoid of hardship and penury. The inevitable happened.  Meherban Singh died 10 later, and when her son grew up and had children of his own, they all worked together to keep the family going.  As tension grew between India and China, their trade suffered, but the forests produce kept her family going. She became a grandmother and step into her role of a matriarch. She then went on to become the head of the Mahila Mandal. 

Gaura Devi
A little down the Alakanda Valley, the Chipko movement started taking roots –  Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Govind Singh Rawat started to protest against the felling of the deodar trees in a forest near the village. It was the year  1974, and about 2500 deodars trees were marked for felling.  Gaura Devi joined the protest movement  and actively campaigned for protection of the trees.

Ten years later in an interview Gaura Devi said “Brothers, these forests are like our maternal home (maika). We get herbs, fuel fruits and vegetables from them. Cutting the forests will result in floods." 

And today, in a flood-ravaged Uttarakhand, that has destroyed Kedarnath  and other large parts of the state have been washed away and battered , leaving thousands, possibly missing or dead, thousands homeless,thousands of mules and cattle dead , I remember the wise Gaura Devi and her caution.

The disaster that we see today in Uttarakhand cannot be blamed only on the heavy rains - the devastation that we are seeing today  is largely due to deforestation, illegal construction, reckless damming of rivers and a complete abuse of our rivers and our natural resources.

Gaura Devi  may not have been to school but she had the wisdom of our ancient teachers and rishis . All our Hindu scriptures, from the  Mahabharata to the  Ramayana, the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and Smriti contain the earliest messages for preservation of environment and ecological balance.

Gaura Devi knew this then but sadly, those who have been charged with protecting  our people and our forests, still don’t know this. Indeed, they have morphed themselves  from being protectors to predators.

Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests. Our forefathers raised them, it’s we who must protect them.

 Old Chipko Song