Nixing hooch for weaving, these Assamese women turn a new leaf


GuwahatiFrom brewing and selling country liquor to weaving exquisite fabrics and also finding a market in neighbouring Bhutan, the women of Chatra, a remote village in Assam’s Nalbari district, have not just elevated themselves to a respectable profession but have changed the image of their village for the better.

Chatra, located about 20 km from Nalbari town in Lower Assam, was till 2009 identified as a liquor den and mostly visited by those looking for moonshine when the women, mostly belonging to the Bodo community decided to switch over to weaving, a skill at which most Assamese women and girls are best at.

They joined hands with Gramya Vikash Mancha (GVM), an NGO that arranged for their advanced training in weaving and tailoring.

The Nalbari district used to be a hotbed of insurgency till the late 1990s and its people suffered a lot due to the frequent military operations. The insurgency had severely affected development in the district till a few years ago.

Padma Boro, one of the women in the village, took the lead and soon encouraged 30 others, “mostly unmarried women and widows”, to abandon country liquor for weaving. The state-owned Northeastern Development Finance Limited (NEDFi) then stepped in to provide to them training on looms at Nalbari’s Industrial Training Institute and took them to Kokrajhar, where they interacted with handloom weavers of the same community and understood the specific market demands.

Back home, they managed two looms of their own while NEDFi provided another eight looms, warping drums and other accessories. The NGO built a temporary shed in the village and their journey began. They produce mekhela chadar (used for making traditional women’s dresses), gamocha (traditional towel), dokhona (used for making traditional dresses of Bodo women) and fabric for traditional robes of neighbouring Bhutan – and made a profit of Rs 80,000 last year, which is expected to rise manifold this year.

The NEDFi has been set up to hasten economic development in the northeastern region by identifying and financing commercially viable industries, providing advisory and consultancy services, promoting entrepreneurship through effective mentoring, skill development and capacity building of micro, small and medium enterprises and generating sustainable livelihoods through micro finance and CSR activities.

“It was very tough to convince the village women to leave hooch making as it was already a good source of earning for most of the rural Bodo women. But it not only painted a bad image about the village as a liquor den and the women did not get time to properly attend to their children. Very few children attended school and the customers who came to the village for drinking often created a ruckus. But as soon as we started weaving and our products started getting good markets, it made them confident about switching over to weaving from selling liquor,” Padma Boro told IANS.

The Bodos are the largest plains’ tribe in Assam and the laopani (rice beer) is a traditional brew made by the community. The laopani is consumed in each household in limited quantity and even used in religious rituals of the community. However, due to poor financial status and lack of opportunities to supplement the family income, women of some of the communities had taken to making country liquor and selling this for hefty profits in some places in the state.

“While the girls and women of our village learn the weaving skills from very tender age, the intervention by the GVM and NEDFi helped us by giving new and attractive designs and the technology to do it better in lesser time. Most women learn the basics of weaving at their homes since childhood and so it took less time for them to pick up the new designs and technology,” Boro said.

“I was making country liquor and used to sell it. I have been making it for years and there was no other option for us to earn a livelihood. Lots of people used to come to my house for a drink and I was earning good enough to live a solitary life. However, Padma baideu (Assamese for elder sister) came to me one day and said that by weaving, I can earn almost equally and live a good life. I decided to go with her as it is honourable work to weave. I was selling the liquor only due to compulsion and why should I sell it when there is a dignified way of earning my livelihood,” asked Rebati Swargiary, a widow who joined Boro’s movement in 2010.

The indomitable spirit of the group encouraged NEDFi to scale up its activities by providing a Common Facility Centre under a joint CSR project with IDBI Bank. To take the project forward, the Bagurumba Weavers’ Development Trust was formed with Padma Bodo as its managing trustee. It purchased a 7,600 sq ft plot, constructed a 2,000 sq ft building and bought new looms and accessories.

“The new building consists of a display room, store, office and a hall accommodating 18 looms. It really feels good to see the rural woman joining hands and improving their lives. Children of the village now go to school and things in the village are changing very fast for the better,” said NEDFi deputy general manager Ashim Kumar Das.

The movement started by Padma Boro has not only given the women financial independence but also a dignified life.