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Tribes In Meghalaya Have Found A Brilliant Way To Develop While Protecting Nature

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By DTE Staff:

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

As we walk slowly through the dense tropical rainforests of Meghalaya, an infinite variety of native plants, wild mushrooms and butterflies welcome us in an exuberant display of abundance. Dappled sunlight complements the sounds of tropical birds and cicadas in the forest, guiding us further and deeper. Rejuvenated with the richness and diversity of the natural world, we finally reach a clearing in the forest and find ourselves standing on an extraordinary living plant bridge over a turbulent river. Locally known as jingkiengjri, this is a living root bridge in Nongriat in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya.

Image source: Sanjeev Shankar
Image source: Sanjeev Shankar

Living root bridges are rubber fig plant (Ficus elastica) – based bridges found in dense subtropical moist broadleaf forest ecoregion of north-eastern Indian Himalayas. Grown by the indigenous Khasi and Jaintia tribes, these bridges range in span from four to 76 metres and last for several centuries. With exceptional robustness under extreme climatic conditions, minimal material cost, remedial properties on surrounding environment, collective grassroot involvement across multiple generations, and support to other plant and animal systems, living root bridges offer an extraordinary model for socio-ecological resilience and sustainability.

Collective Resilience

The living root bridges are a legacy of the indigenous Khasi and Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya. Demonstrating a high degree of self-sufficiency, which in part is owing to their remote location and distinctive environment, these tribes have developed a unique and sustainable relationship with nature. Through an elaborate attempt to balance individual needs with the needs of the larger community, they have nurtured an ecosystem which acknowledges the interdependent and interconnected nature of all life.

for living root bridges piece.
The ecology-related management practices contribute to the resilience of the Khasi people.

Relevant tribal systems worth highlighting include the traditional practice of sacred groves, a coherent classification of land and forests, an independent village-durbar based governance system, an eco-theandric vision of reality, unique laws of inheritance and succession, and laws of consanguinity and kinship. These ecology-related management practices are an indispensable part of tribal life and contribute critically to their resilience.

The collective nature of the indigenous tribes and their intimate relationship with the forest is epitomised in the living root bridges. There are 11 scientifically documented bridges in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya with the overall estimate exceeding 100 bridges in various growth stages. Developed from the aerial roots of Ficus elastica, these pedestrian bridges play an integral and critical role in tribal life connecting remote mountain villages in a vertical landscape. The underlying growth process involves recurring inosculation (joining by twining) of Ficus aerial root fibres over a gorge or a river. The process begins with the placing of a young pliable aerial root in hollowed-out trunks of Areca catechu (a species of the palm tree). These provide essential nutrition and protection from weather, and also perform as root guidance systems. This assemblage is structurally supported by a bamboo scaffold, which spans the river and performs as a temporary river crossing for the local community (see: ‘How a living root bridge is grown’).

1: Young pliable aerial roots of the Areca catechu, a species of the palm tree, are placed to provide a root guidance system; 2: This assemblage is structurally supported by a bamboo scaffold; 3: Gradually, more roots are inosculated to the primary root system; 4: Heavy stones, timber planks, leaves and soil are added to test the structure for weight load; 5: Heavy humidity, ambient moisture content and pedestrian movement contribute to soil compaction.
1: Young pliable aerial roots of the Areca catechu, a species of the palm tree, are placed to provide a root guidance system; 2: This assemblage is structurally supported by a bamboo scaffold; 3: Gradually, more roots are inosculated to the primary root system; 4: Heavy stones, timber planks, leaves and soil are added to test the structure for weight load; 5: Heavy humidity, ambient moisture content and pedestrian movement contribute to soil compaction.

Over time, as the aerial roots increase in strength and thickness, the Areca catechu trunks are no longer required. Periodic replacement of green bamboo scaffold is essential with increase in aerial root thickness and gradual deterioration of bamboo owing to wet tropical conditions of Meghalaya. This periodic engagement ensures a continual relationship between the bridge and the community.

Gradually, more roots are inosculated to the primary root system with geometric variations like steps and handrails integrated at a later stage. Heavy stones, timber planks, leaves and soil are added in succession to plug the gaps and to test the entire living root structure for weight. Heavy humidity, ambient moisture content and pedestrian movement together contribute to soil compaction.

Eventually, over a period between 15 and 30 years, the root assemblage becomes strong and stable enough to support substantial human and material weight without the bamboo scaffold. Unlike contemporary construction materials and conventional bridge structures, these living root structural systems become stronger, more robust, resilient and productive with time and use. These bridges have also successfully withstood storm surges and flash floods. With contemporary concrete and steel bridges requiring specialised support and substantial funding from the government, living root bridges continue to perform a critical infrastructure role for rural connectivity in Meghalaya.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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