Home » ‘We have no option’: An election protest brews in Indian coffee capital

‘We have no option’: An election protest brews in Indian coffee capital


Araku Valley, India – Gemmala Sita is proud of the coffee beans she grows on what is among the world’s largest organic, fair-trade plantations. Her Arabica beans end up as steaming cups of coffee in the chic cafes of Paris and Dubai, Stockholm and Rome.

But the 29-year-old’s own life is a struggle for the basics. She must bathe in a makeshift washroom made of bamboo and covered with used household cloths.

Sita and her 45-year-old husband G Raja Rao are among 450 members of a tribal community that lives in Gondivalasa village in Araku Valley, on India’s eastern highlands facing the Bay of Bengal. The region in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh is dotted with coffee fields renowned for its Arabica beans that are grown as an intercrop along with black pepper. When leaders from G20 nations visited New Delhi for the grouping’s annual summit last September, the Indian government gifted them this coffee.

Yet in Araku Valley, it is a protest that is brewing.

In India’s 2019 national election, the coffee hub grabbed headlines after more voters picked ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) from a long list of candidate options than the combined votes secured by the nation’s two biggest parties, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress party, in the constituency.

Only one other constituency in all of India registered more NOTA votes than Araku’s 47,977 votes – a direct message from voters that they did not find any candidate worth supporting. In 2014, too, Araku notched up the highest NOTA tally of 16,352 votes for any constituency in Andhra Pradesh.

And since then, the disillusionment among voters like Sita has only grown – as India’s ongoing national election rolls around to Araku Valley, which is scheduled to vote on May 13. In October 2019, Modi declared India open defecation-free. Sita knows that’s not true.

“It would have been better had there been toilets in the houses, but we have to go out in the open every morning to defecate,” she said. “We have no other option.”

Coffee farmer Gemmala Sita, whose beans reach cafes in global capitals — even as she must struggle without a toilet [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera]
Coffee farmer Gemmala Sita, whose beans reach cafes in global capitals – even as she must struggle without a toilet [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera]

Sip of desperation

A British civil servant, NS Brodie, introduced coffee to Andhra Pradesh in 1898. Two decades later, in 1920, British revenue officers along with Maharaja of Jeypore – a now-abolished kingdom in present-day Odisha state – introduced coffee to Araku with seeds brought from the Nilgiris, a hill range in southern India.

Since then, the region’s coffee has emerged as a brand in its own right. Samala Ramesh, a deputy director at the local office of India’s coffee board, says the valley’s altitude – 3,000 feet above sea level – in a tropical region gives it a rare combination of hot days and cool nights. That, along with the medium levels of acidity in the region’s iron-rich soil, serve as ingredients that give Araku coffee a unique taste, he said.

The valley itself has 156 villages with a total population of 56,674 people, of which an estimated 20,000 people work in the coffee industry. The district it belongs to has a total of 230,000 coffee farmers. Most people involved in coffee farming come from tribal communities.

The annual unroasted coffee bean production of the entire district was around 15,000 metric tonnes in 2023-24. About 90 percent of Araku’s coffee is exported to Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Switzerland and other nations, according to the Trade Promotion Council of India. It is sold as gourmet coffee in Paris.

The government buys about 10 percent of the coffee from Araku farmers, while private firms buy the rest of it and process it, mostly for exports. The district’s coffee exports bring in 4 billion rupees ($48m) in annual revenue, said Ramesh. Overall, India is Asia’s third-largest coffee producer.

But while global audiences sip on Araku coffee, 33-year-old coffee farmer Buridi Samba said the region’s villagers don’t even have access to clean drinking water. They rely on natural springs.

The men in Gondivalasa bathe in a manhole they’ve built. There’s no drainage system. While the administration has built some public toilets, it has not provided water connections or septic tanks for human waste. The result: The toilets lie unused.

About 96 villages in the valley depend on one primary health centre (PHC) that is desperately short of medical staff. “We have just one general physician here and no specialist,” said Majji Bhadrayya, who heads the PHC.

While the health centre can do normal deliveries, it does not have the resources to carry out caesarean procedures. Patients often need to walk up to 10km (6 miles) to get to the clinic. Villagers carry those who can’t walk on makeshift stretchers made of clothes and tied to sticks. The health centre refers more serious cases to a larger hospital 7km (4.3 miles) away, said Bhadrayya. But that hospital too, a doctor there said on condition of anonymity, is missing specialists in key fields, as well as MRI and CT scan facilities.

Some villages have no proper roads connecting them to the clinic and hospital. In other cases, the roads are littered with potholes. Many parts of the region have no streetlights – so travelling after dusk is even more dangerous. And there’s only one college in the valley that offers degrees.

Tummidi Abhishek, an assistant executive engineer in the state government’s Tribal Welfare Department acknowledged that these shortages are “severe” in parts of the valley. But he insisted that the state government, under the regional YSR Congress Party, was “taking steps to improve the conditions in the valley and also in interior areas that had no accessibility before”.

These steps include the construction of so-called “multiple purpose centres” that would serve both as venues for community events and basic medical facilities – with labs for medical tests, midwives to help with deliveries and a room for doctors to examine patients. Abhishek said the government was also committed to building roads connecting remote villages to these facilities.

But the farmers of Araku have heard similar promises before. And it is not just the government that they feel bitter towards.

The coffee plantation fields of Araku Valley [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera]
The coffee plantation fields of Araku Valley [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera]

Earning a pittance

Since 1999, the Small and Marginal Tribal Farmers Mutually Aided Cooperative Society (SAMTFMACS), a cooperative of 100,000 coffee farmers families across 2,000 villages in the region, has tried to help the community produce better – and more sustainable – coffee. It is backed by the nonprofit Naandi Foundation. The cooperative supplies farmers with bio-inoculants to regenerate the soil, new varieties of seedlings and trains farmers in what is known as “terroir classification” – in essence, GPS mapping of each plot to help understand how the soil type, shade, elevation and other factors add to the unique taste of the coffee produced.

The cooperative also runs a modern processing unit in Araku, said Tamarba Chittibabu, the president of the cooperative society. Chittibabu said the cooperative usually sells the coffee to Araku Originals Private Limited (AOPL), a private firm that exports roasted beans to Belgium, France and China, among other countries.

But there’s a wide chasm between what the exporters make and what farmers earn.

Chittibabu said the cooperative buys coffee berries at 50 rupees ($0.60) per kilogramme – which he said was fair and based on the global price of coffee at the moment.

Ram Kumar Varma, the founder of Native Araku Coffee, a firm based in Visakhapatnam city in Andhra Pradesh, said his company tries to pay farmers a little more – 70 rupees ($0.80) per kilogramme. Many other coffee exporters buy berries from middlemen, who pay farmers even less than $0.60 per kilogramme for their produce. Varma and Chittibabu blamed middlemen for suppressing the earnings of farmers. “The middlemen have to be eliminated,” Varma said.

But Nava Roja, a 24-year-old coffee farmer, told Al Jazeera that even what SAMTFMACS or Native Araku pay producers is a pittance. She has around one acre of land that produces around 300kg (660 pounds) of berries. That gets her 15,000 rupees ($180) in a year, she said, at $0.60 per kilogramme.

“It is very difficult to survive with such a meagre amount in the face of growing inflation. We want at least 150 rupees [a little less than $2] per kilogramme as the roasted beans are sold at a very high price in the international market.”

Indeed, Varma confirmed that Araku’s coffee fetches between 2,500 and 6,000 rupees ($30-$72) per kilogramme in the international market.

Election officials prepare to seal the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) as the voting ends at a polling station in Chennai, southern Tamil Nadu state, Friday, April 19, 2024. Nearly 970 million voters will elect 543 members for the lower house of Parliament for five years, during staggered elections that will run until June 1. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Election officials prepare to seal the Electronic Voting Machines as the voting ends at a polling station in Chennai, southern Tamil Nadu state, Friday, April 19, 2024. The machine lists all candidates in that constituency and has the option of ‘None of the Above’ for voters not convinced about any candidate [Altaf Qadri/AP Photo]

Ballot or bullet

That sense of neglect from the government and the feeling of exploitation by the coffee industry have all made Araku fertile terrain for India’s Maoist rebels – who lead a far-left, armed movement spanning several states aimed at overthrowing the Indian state.

In 2018, Maoists shot dead two politicians hailing from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), a regional political party in the state. In the past, Maoist fighters have also called on the valley’s people to boycott elections, said Vundrakonda Haribabu, a political scientist at Andhra University.

Yet, Araku’s coffee farmers have defied the Maoists to vote – tens of thousands of them instead choosing NOTA in 2019 as a way of registering their protest.

And five years later, many are convinced that remains their best bet at being heard.

“We are completely justified in pressing NOTA because it gives a clear message to the political parties that they have failed,” said 30-year-old Gemmela Vasu, a villager in Gondivalasa. “It is better to go for NOTA rather than boycotting the elections.”

The farmers insist that they are not asking for much – better prices for their coffee berries, roads and medical facilities – and toilets. On May 13, said Sita, the farmer who must defecate in the open, she will again queue up at a polling booth to vote. She still hopes democratic India will wake up and smell the coffee.

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