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

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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.

(IANS)

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Modi’s Visit to Bhutan Signals Deepening of Bilateral Ties

In 2014, Thimphu had been the first foreign capital Prime Minister Modi had visited shortly after the NDA government was formed

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Modi, Bhutan, Bilateral Ties
The visit had added significance since Bhutan has been changing under its new government and India-Bhutan ties had to be reoriented. Pixabay

Prime Minister Narendra Modis two-day visit to Bhutan was aimed at re-engaging with the Himalayan neighbour during his second term in office as part of his ‘neighbourhood first policy. The visit had added significance since Bhutan has been changing under its new government and India-Bhutan ties had to be reoriented to the new winds blowing in Bhutan.

In 2014, Thimphu had been the first foreign capital Prime Minister Modi had visited shortly after the NDA government was formed; it was an indicator of the special relationship shared between India and Bhutan. After the 2019 general election, his first foreign destination was to Maldives to attend the inauguration of the new government in Male headed by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. On his way back to Delhi from Maldives, Prime Minister Modi had stopped over at Colombo at the request of the Sri Lankan government.

Modi’s visit to Bhutan has signaled a deepening of the bilateral ties and converting them into a more broadbased relationship. Both sides are making efforts to diversify and develop their ties to a wider variety of sectors that go much beyond the traditional cooperation in the hydropower sector.

The visit took place at a time when there is greater international attention on Bhutan, just after the visit of senior United States official John Sullivan and a visit by the Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui earlier in the year. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan was on a visit to Thimphu last week, followed by a two-day trip to Delhi. It was the first visit to Bhutan by a senior US official in the past two decades as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted. During his discussions in Thimphu, Secretary Sullivan emphasized the “importance of expanding people to people ties between the US and Bhutan and enhancing joint efforts to combat human trafficking.”

Modi, Bhutan, Bilateral Ties
Prime Minister Narendra Modis two-day visit to Bhutan was aimed at re-engaging with the Himalayan neighbour during his second term in office as part of his ‘neighbourhood first policy. Pixabay

Though Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with the US or China as part of its longstanding policy, both the US and China have increased their informal contacts and interaction with the Bhutanese government in recent times. China has made efforts to reach out to Bhutan to establish formal diplomatic relations; Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Thimphu in July 2018, the first high level visit from China after the Doklam impasse in 2017 when Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Indian army soldiers had a 72-day face-off in the trijunction region between China, Bhutan and India.

China has made major in-roads in South Asia with large infrastructure projects in the past decade, from Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar. Beijing was keen to include Bhutan in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Though Thimphu declined the invitation to attend the BRI summit in April, China has attracted interest among Bhutanese youth who favour increasing Bhutan’s interaction with China.

As Bhutan has made its transition to democratic governance, it has modernized and opened out at its own pace. With three changes in government through three elections, there is greater political awareness and debate over policy issues in the country. Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering’s government aims to diversify the economy and reduce dependency on hydropower export. There is a growing view, especially articulated by the younger generation that believes Bhutan should increase its engagement with a wider range of countries, including China.

Hydropower exports to India provide more than 40 percent of Bhutan’s domestic revenue. India is Bhutan’s main development partner and Bhutan’s hydropower export form the bedrock of the development cooperation. The Indian government has made plans to expand its partnership from its heavy dependence on the hydropower sector to other areas and assist Bhutan in increasing trade in a wide range of products. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering and Modi jointly inaugurated the 700 MW Mangdechhu hydropower project in the Trongsa Dzongkhag district in central Bhutan. They also inaugurated the Ground Earth Station and SATCOM network linked to ISRO’s South Asia Satellite that would
facilitate communication, public broadcasting and disaster management in Bhutan. Scientists from Bhutan are to travel to India where ISRO would help them design and launch a small Bhutanese satellite.

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India used to be the top destination for young Bhutanese to study abroad, but in the recent years, Bhutanese students are choosing to go to western countries, resulting in a significant reduction of Bhutanese students studying in India. India and Bhutan are in the process of establishing linkages between top Indian institutions and colleges in Bhutan. Modi said to the students at the Royal University of Bhutan: “people energise our ties.” Prime Minister Modi reiterated India’s support to Bhutan’s current Five Year Plan as he outlined a new programme of cooperation with Bhutan that included space, education, Information Technology, healthcare and science and technology that is line with Bhutan’s new priorities and aspirations. (IANS)