During my first two months in Barama in Baksa District, part of the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in Assam, I uncovered a strange truth about the handloom sector in India. The reservoir of handloom skills is concentrated in the north-eastern states of India, which together account for 16.83 lakh (60.5%) handloom households of the total of 27.83 lakh units engaged in the country. Yet, the north-eastern states haven’t been able to leverage this resource as a viable source of income and employment.
I soon understood why. In almost every household in Barama, the women possess a loom on which they weave clothes. Yet, despite such a large presence of handloom, it was only being used for household purposes. Agriculture was the dominant occupation, with about 55% of the population (Census 2011) employed in it and related activities. Being here on a 13-month SBI Youth for India fellowship and assigned to DHAN (Development of Humane Action) Foundation, I made it my mission to make handloom a viable source of income. It would reduce dependence on agriculture, it could help emancipate women and also perhaps, preserve a slice of their heritage.
Motivating and organising the women was the first step. To facilitate this, I had to make many trips to talk to the weavers and figure out their needs, so their skills could be best utilised. This was not the easiest of tasks.
Due to bad roads and poor public transport that became even more infrequent by 5.30 pm (when it grew dark), we often found ourselves stranded in unknown places and had no choice but to walk home. Also, being new to the textiles field, I had to learn from scratch about the processes involved and made some rookie mistakes like confusing which yarn was being used.
But despite everything, I was able to motivate and organise 35 weavers into groups of five members each, and a month back we completed our first order to the tune of INR 5,000 for a local shop in Guwahati; the weavers were really excited about this!
Now, we are trying to connect with various vendors and portals, and have sent samples to an online portal and it looks promising. Our eventual aim is to create a portal owned and managed by the weavers themselves. This is an extremely challenging proposition but there’s no harm in dreaming big! If successful, this can be replicated by approximately 4,000 SHG women members in the area and perhaps, beyond. To raise funds for this venture, I have launched a crowdsourcing campaign and even made a documentary around the lives of these weavers-in-the-making.
As things progressed, one could literally, see the enthusiasm and vigour in the weavers to get orders and get the job done. They also became aware of simple techniques to improve efficiency and the quality of their products. For instance, they used to earlier take measurements using their hands when making clothes for themselves, but now they use measuring tapes, a small investment that helps them to be more precise. Secondly, since weaving is time-consuming, weavers work together. As one attends to household chores, another weaves at the same time.
Luckily for me, language was not such a barrier as Bengali, my mother tongue has some similarities to Assamese. However, my co-fellow Elamuhil from Tamil Nadu was not so lucky. This is how a conversation for him would typically go. He would ask a question in English. I would translate it for the NGO staff who knew Bengali. She would translate it into Assamese for a community member. That person would then translate the question into Bodo for the final recipient of the question. The answer would then follow the same chain in reverse order!
I also got a taste of how the north-east is ignored by the rest of the nation. Though Assam experienced terrorist attacks, floods, and an earthquake, I wasn’t inundated with calls from friends and family, because the national media barely mentioned these incidents, and thus no one was aware of what was happening. I could never have understood this, having lived all my life in Mumbai. Neither could I have imagined getting used to constant power cuts, poor water supply and with sharing a rarely cleaned toilet with three other families. But I did. I also took up photography, learnt how to cook and ride a motorcycle, and have enjoyed community celebrations like Kali Puja, Durga Puja, Ras Mela, and Bihu.
Through my interactions, I realised that despite being poor, people here are always ready to help you out. We hired a maid to take care of our house. Being a widow supporting two children, her financial condition isn’t the best. However, whenever we get late in the field and don’t have time to cook (local restaurants shut early), she never fails to offer us dinner. Living in a village does need some getting used to, but once you do, it’s really, really an absolute delight!