Weaving a new story post-Covid
Womenfolk in rural Assam, as in other parts of the country, were among the worst affected due to the Covid pandemic.
Womenfolk in rural Assam, as in other parts of the country, were among the worst affected due to the Covid pandemic. But even during the distressing period, several women were able to create a livelihood opportunity for themselves.
During the Covid lockdown, over 20 tribal women in the Morigaon district were supported by the NGO Oxfam India under its Brahmaputra River Basin Resilience Building Programme and were provided with one handloom each and one kg of thread each. The women explained that with one kg of thread they could weave 3-4 pairs of Mekhela Chadors (Assamese Women attire) and are able to sell one pair at over INR 1000 each.
"Most of the tribal women know to weave as they learn it as part of their culture, but the majority of them have never been motivated to take this up as a serious earning source. The women usually weave during the festive seasons for family members and during the marriage of family members," said Bhupen Das, a senior official of the Assam government, associated with the Sericulture Department.
It is a part of the tribal custom in Assam for women to learn to weave. Most of the tribal communities have their own traditional attires too. However, the tribal households view it just as a continuation of their tradition rather than as a business proposition.
Karabi Deka Bordoloi, a 24-year-old Tiwa woman from the Bongalpara village, in the Garmari Gaon Panchayat is excited about her new handloom unit. Not only did it help her through the lockdown, but it has also boosted her family income post-lockdowns. Karabi lives in a thatched house with her family of five. She lives close to the river and her house is affected during every flood.
"Every year during floods, water enters our compound and in a couple of rooms, and we have to shift everything to rooms where water doesn't enter. A couple of months of every year we are forced to adjust to the floods and this makes life very difficult," said Karabi.
"I received the loom and thread in June 2021. I knew to weave, so I was able to weave straightway and was able to sell the woven cloth and earn. Till now I have earned over INR 10,000 which is much higher than what I would have earned from agriculture or as a daily wage labourer," said Karabi.
Karabi was weaving a Gamosa when this reporter visited her house in January. She said that she is weaving Gamosa and Mekhela Chador keeping the approaching festival season in mind.
Karabi very deftly displays her finished colourful products to all the visitors in the hope of getting newer buyers and spreading the word about her work; she has woven colourful Gamosa, Mekhela Chador, and traditional attires of the Tiwa community to which she belongs.
"Where is a major demand for these during Saraswati Puja, Rongali Bihu in April and also the marriage seasons, and I hope to earn a good amount," she said.
Though most of the farmers in the village own agricultural land, they are able to cultivate only in one season due to floods, and the production in this season only helps the family sustain. "We are able to cultivate paddy for one season in a year and we only get enough to last a year for the family. The only other earning source is daily wage labour and here one doesn't get work every day," said Akashi, Karabi's neighbour.
Akashi also explained that the daily wage is less than INR 150, and one rarely gets work for even 15 days in a month.
In the village, people told this reporter that those who want to earn more to supplement the family's income migrate to bigger towns. However, post-Covid most of those who had migrated had come back to the village.
"My 25-year old son was working in Bangalore as security staff and used to send us money. During the lockdown, he came back. We had no source of income left. Just when we were beginning to lose hope, Oxfam India approached us," said 53-year old Malati, another resident of the Bongalpara village, in the Garmari Gaon Panchayat.
"My husband is ill and though we have 1.65 acres of land, we get only enough to sustain ourselves and not sell anything in the market. Now, I and my daughter are engaged full time on this loom and we have in the last 6 months earned over INR 10,000," she said. Malati told this writer that she and her 21-year-old daughter plan to approach people for weaving orders, and hope to increase their earnings from the loom.
"My son used to earn INR 13,000 a month and used to send INR 2000 every month, but now as he has no plans of going back, we have to find ways to increase our income," she explained.
"This is a traditional skill which we learnt as young girls in our village but we never had a loom to weave and we never thought that it can be an income source," she added.
Somalia Boro and Bonti Basumatari, two Boro women in their 20s, from the Mikirgaon village in the Tulsibari Gaon panchayat are hopeful regarding building their lives post-pandemic.
Traditionally belonging to farming families, both their families had lost their land to riverbank erosion, but now both hopes to script a better life for them with the support which they had received from Oxfam India.
As the district is regularly affected by both flood and river-bank erosion, the Covid pandemic brought more destruction for these villagers. Over the years due to river-bank erosion, many of these women have lost their land to the river. Though some families still have small plots of land, annual flooding doesn't allow them to cultivate for more than one season. At her house which is close to the river, Bonti has set up the loom in the front yard of her house.
"The river used to be far from here but all our agricultural land got eroded onto the river and now only our house remains. In this continues one day we will have to shift from here and take the loom with us," said Bonti pointing to the river. "We lost all our farmland to the river due to erosion, and now we only work as labour for a livelihood. Even our income source as daily wage labourer was affected due to the Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdown," said Somalia.
"I have been able to earn about INR 8,000 in the last 6 months. Apart from the earning, which is more than I earn as a labourer, I was very happy that I didn't have to sit idle at home," she said.
Bonti is optimistic too. She is hopeful of doubling her earnings from the handloom by next year.
"A woman labourer gets just about INR 140 a day, and in a month we do not get more than 15 days of work. So my income from weaving is much more than as a labourer. I am confident that I will be able to double my earnings by next year," said Bonti.
How? Bonti said that there is a demand for hand-woven cloth and many people from her village go to the town to purchase or place orders. The community leaders trained by Oxfam India said that while these women are exploring a market to be able to sell their produce collectively and get a good price, they have to sell individually due to the lack of any such market at the moment. "We have held a series of meetings with various local social organizations, cultural organizations and have requested them to purchase Gamosa and ethnic attires, from these women. Thankfully student associations, Sahitya Sabha, and some members of the Tiwa Autonomous Council have accepted our request," said Mukuta Bordoloi, a community leader trained by Oxfam India.
Makuta also said that he is in talks with shops in the nearby town and plans to create market linkages for the beneficiaries so that they will be able to sell their produce directly in the market in the future. Presently, these women have to wait for buyers to come to their houses.
"Festivals, cultural shows and even the marriage season are very useful for business. We are trying to build a market in a small way focusing around these dates. We have started a WhatsApp group. The Assamese New year calendar is in April, and there is a demand for handwoven Gamosa in that period," added Mukuta.
Sabita Devi, a Guwahati-based researcher associated with the non-profit Centre for Environment, Social and Policy Research has studied the livelihood of tribal women from weaving, and she said that the handlooms given by Oxfam India as a support are much better and more sophisticated compared to the traditional ones which these women usually use.
"The traditional looms on which these women used to weave earlier required a lot of effort and output was much less. Secondly, they never took to weaving as a means to earn, and it was more on a need basis. For example, someone gives these weavers a certain amount of thread and the cloth weaved would be equally divided," said Devi.
Praising the initiative by Oxfam Indian, Devi said that with the new looms and raw materials given by the organization as support along with constant support in the form of financial inclusion and market linkages, these women will soon be able to look at weaving as an important earning source and not just as a traditional skill passed on to them.