From handloom and paddy to fish and ducks, the Mising community in Upper Assam has found ways to make a living and improve their lives
Under an aluminium-roofed shed outside the house, Anjali Kaman sits weaving on her loom. As the shuttle flies back and forth, a beautiful fabric emerges, resplendent with the rich colours preferred by the women of the Mising tribe of Upper Assam.
The shed is kept closed so that the fabric is safe from the squealing piglets and clucking roosters that roam the grounds outside. Ms Kaman can weave 2-3 metres of cloth, enough fabric for a dress or a shawl, in a couple of hours. She takes much longer — at least three days — to create the intricately woven mekhela sador, the two-piece Assamese version of the sari.
Last year Ms Keman, who lives in Silikhaguri village of Dhemaji district, earned 10,000, a huge sum by her standards. It is money that will make her dream of a better education for her son possible. The tribe she belongs to have remained at the mercy of nature for decades.
The Subansiri, a tributary of the Brahmaputra river, flows through the region, bringing with it an annual monsoon tale of floods and havoc. That aside, Dhemaji remains one of the most underdeveloped districts in Assam, with agriculture an unreliable means of survival.
The Tata Trusts have been working to improve livelihoods in this region since 2015 and their partner has been the Mising Autonomous Council (MAC), which oversees the local administration. The Trusts’ engagement began when the local MLA and MAC leader Ranoj Pegu flew to Mumbai and approached the Trusts directly seeking help for his community.
“Our people here have plenty of land and water and we have always lived the traditional, tribal way,” explains Dr Pegu. “Our people only knew subsistence agriculture. I believed that to improve their way of life, we needed to infuse technology and encourage the entrepreneurial spirit. That is where the Trusts have helped us.”
The Centre for Microfinance & Livelihoods (CML), an associate organisation of the Trusts, started work in three key areas: supporting women to earn more through handloom weaving, increasing farm incomes through integrated fishery-duckery-horticulture projects and encouraging paddy farmers to shift to boro paddy (the summer crop harvested before the monsoons).
The intent, says Manas Pratim Chutia, the CML team head in Dhemaji, is to increase household incomes to sustainable levels. CML works in close partnership with MAC to touch the lives of some 48,000 people in 121 villages. “All the initiatives we have undertaken have been a success,” says Dr Pegu.
The handloom story is the most heartwarming. The Mising women have traditionally woven their mekhela sador on ‘throw shuttle’ looms. CML has trained 450 weavers from in and around Silikhaguri and Medak villages to work on the faster fly-shuttle looms.
Many of the trained women have started earning. “The fly-shuttle process gives them the potential of earning as much as 15,000 a month,” says Chatra Medak, who heads the handloom project at CML. The weavers have been organised into a producer group with about 150 members in 13 villages. From CML, the women get support in the form of design ideas to make their fabrics more attractive.
The other fascinating story is the integrated fishery-duckery scheme that CML has introduced. Most houses typically have their own fish ponds, where they breed local fish varieties for food. It is this resource which is now being used to generate extra income.
CML provides knowhow on breeding techniques and access to quality fish food and fish fingerlings of breeds that have a higher market value. A koi fish fingerling costs 3, takes six months to mature, and can sell at 400 a kilo. The potential to improve incomes is tremendous.
Amravati Kuli had a fish pond in her backyard for years but did not earn anything from it. Since 2016, she has been a part of CML’s fishery initiative. Her investment in food and fingerlings is about 3,000-4,000, but she expects to earn about 35,000 this year.
CML is attempting to take the fishery project to the next level by making it a year-round income generator. It is experimenting with small pits lined with thick plastic sheets that will retain water.
One of the participants in this pilot project is 40-year-old Dinesh Dole who has built a 15x8x4 ft pit in his garden. The pit holds about 600 koi fish, he says, which will bring him 15,000 as profit. “Previously I didn’t even know that fish need proper feed to grow.”
Fish alone may not be enough to sustain households when the Subansiri does its seasonal damage. CML has introduced duck rearing integrated with fishery as the ducks use the same pond, help aerate the water and thus increase the plankton for the fish.
CML has identified a species of ducks that grow fast and lays more eggs. Participating farmers get a starting brood of 30 ducks. Dinesh Dole is one of those who has bought into this scheme. He is hoping for 24,000 in extra income by selling duck eggs and the drakes. CML has got about 515 farmers to participate in the project.
Rain- sheltered horticulture is one of the ideas being piloted among the farmers. Partho Pratim Taid, a beneficiary, grows organic tomatoes, mustard greens and coriander under a rain shelter. Apart from his fish pond, he has also invested in a fish nursery to sell fingerlings. “I hope to make a profit of 100,000,” says the 25-year-old graduate.
Another change that CML is working on is convincing farmers to change their traditional monsoon sowing to adopt boro paddy. “We want them to start planting around January and harvest in early May before the floods,” says Mr Chutia. CML works with about 10,000 farmers in Dhemaji and Lakhimpura districts.
Purnakant Kumbang, a boro paddy adopter, says he has been able to double his yield and income. The bigger benefit, he adds, is that the new method will help revive farming and give hope to local youth. Like Mr Kumbang, 27-year-old Manas Dole has also benefitted. Currently pursuing his post graduation, he has been able to fund his education through farming. “Boro paddy gives an assured income, with no risk of our paddy getting affected by rain,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest change that CML has achieved is to set up a governance model for the local communities. It has organised local farmers into producer groups and supports them in managing their funds. Now self-sustaining, these groups have a 1,000 membership fee and farmers get loans for buying what they need — fish fingerlings, vegetable seeds, rain sheets, etc — at nominal interest rates.
The group is also able to sell to wholesalers at a higher price as they can offer larger quantities.
CML is now working with MAC to scale up their interventions. A 22-acre plot in Dhemaji is being converted into a skilling and research centre where about 400 farmers can learn best practices in running fisheries, duckeries, piggeries, etc.
CML is already crafting the next step in its Mising journey — to set up a producer company that will support the local farmers and enable more efficient market linkages. A new bridge that connects Dhemaji with Arunachal Pradesh will make life easier and open up new markets. The Subansiri will continue to flow, but there will be fewer fortunes linked to the rain and river gods.