The coronavirus pandemic has completely devastated the world economy, and thereby, the livelihood of millions. A multiple number of measures implemented by almost all the countries to contain the spread of COVID-19, such as total lockdown, have affected the supply chain, resulting in a global economic recession. While trying to contain the rapid spread of the virus, the countries simultaneously are also working on strategies for post-lockdown recovery.
The question on how to reduce the vulnerability of people of poor-income groups to coronavirus shocks is at the centrestage of debates and discussions today. Some lessons must be drawn from the experience of COVID-19 pandemic to enhance livelihood in a sustainable manner in the post-coronavirus future. The coronavirus negatively affects livelihood assets of communities that are already insecure.
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines a sustainable livelihood (SL) based on capabilities, assets (both material and social resources) and activities required for living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, both now and in the future, while not undermining natural resource bases. In recent years, a substantial range of work has been carried by academics and researchers of diverse fields in order to enlighten people about the potential of sustainable livelihood. We have also witnessed international organisations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other I-NGOs taking considerable steps to encourage people to practice sustainable forms of livelihood.
In context to Assam, the oil well explosion in Baghjan has added more fuel to the already worse situation as a result of coronavirus shock. According to an ecology expert, the Baghjan gas well fire is “set to” and has already triggered a local livelihood crisis. This has again flared up the “Environment vs Development” debate across all the quarters. The COVID-19 pandemic and tragedies such as Baghjan have made us aware that our development needs to be in accordance with environment and ecology. Policies must be introduced to create an ecosystem for sustainable businesses and sustainable livelihood practices to flourish.
In our state and also in rest of North-East India, there has been an increasing trend of out-migration to the rest of India for low-paying and manual jobs, leaving traditional community livelihood practices or being self-employed in the home state here. For instance, the community livelihood practices of ‘japi’ making clusters in Nalbari district or bamboo-based artisanship and pottery making (Salmara) in Majuli or other parts of Assam are in existential threat with youth being uninterested in these professions.
Alternatively speaking, these professions are essential not only for the sake of tradition, but they also serve the purpose of sustainable livelihood. What we miss in the big picture is that with technical market assessment and market linkages of the products, it promises a profitable revenue generation. Most importantly, these livelihood practices involve both men and women as they are home-based composing an inclusive system.
However, in contemporary times, any livelihood practice without skill-based dimension to it is an archaic tradition. Thus, vocational training centres should be established in the nook and corners of the region and popularized thereafter. According to a report published by Columbia University on “Youth and Sustainable Livelihoods,” more than a decade back (2008), “It (vocational training) is at the crossroads of economic recovery, education and rehabilitation and reintegration, and can be a key component of development, a method for upgrading the labour force and a factor in the holistic development of youth. Effective VT can provide skills for both agricultural and nonagricultural livelihoods, and for employment and self-employment.”
Therefore, precise information on market realities will advance the abilities of beneficiaries of vocational training to access sustainable livelihood opportunities. It would be unjustified to not mention the welfare-oriented policies of the government with regard to livelihood generation and skill development but what lacks in this is the fact that bureaucratic irregularities and failure of not locating market linkage mechanisms. This is the time of the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model where such initiatives are funded by both government agencies and CSRs. Our state needs to explore such possibilities with tremendous effort for the livelihood of local people generated by the local people themselves.
Assam is yet to explore its authentic potential of bamboo cultivation. Assam is one of the largest bamboo-producing states in India, with bamboo being an integral part of our indigenous culture, social life and local economy.
In December 2019, while participating in research to assess the scope of bamboo cultivation and bamboo-based industries at ‘saporis’ of Majuli, we found that most of the bamboo produce gets wasted as there is no livelihood aspect associated with it. Bamboo cultivation with an economic dimension is not only a sustainable livelihood method but also creates better ecological conditions, particularly in river islands such as Majuli. In short, there remains a vast untapped resource of bamboo that can open scope and possibility for utilization for many productive jobs.
Additionally, with a range of artisans engaged in traditional craftwork of bamboo-based cultural artefacts, there is another reason for potential extensive bamboo cultivation. Majuli is one of the tourism hotspots in North-East India with a reputable record of attracting domestic and global tourists. Thus, a potential wide presence of market in the place of bamboo-based products such as bamboo baskets, bamboo mats, bamboo hats, fishing rods, tent poles, cordage, ladders, hand-fans and indigenous products such as leaf headgear, musical instruments and various domestic crafts would be another supplement to the other attract tourists in Majuli.
Along the lines of tourism, as a state, we need to invest our efforts in eco-cultural tourism in post-COVID Assam. It is a concept in which ecological and cultural aspects of a landscape are combined to create a site for tourism. Sustainability and participation of local communities are decisive in this approach of tourism. A central element to the success of eco-cultural tourism practised elsewhere in the world is local control in the planning, development and maintenance of the tourist sites.
The state of Assam is inhabited by multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious groups with around 115 ethnic groups and 18 major tribes. It is observed that most of these groups have their own sets of lifestyle, food habits and local drinks. ‘Eco’ comes in as most of these indigenous communities are located around ecological hotspots. For instance, there are four major ethnic communities in Kaziranga namely, Mising, Karbi, Tea tribes and Assamese-speaking caste groups or the Tai Phake community in Namphake village near Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Thus, Assam provides a great scope to strengthen eco-cultural tourism.
In order to assess the possible extent of eco-cultural tourism, we approached Abhishek Chakravarty, a well-known law academic and development professional specialised in the environment. Mr Chakravarty said:
“ Kaziranga National Park and Manas National Park so far have been able to prove the possibility of eco-cultural tourism model in Assam. Efforts must be doubled to explore its true potential. If Maguri- Motapung Beel situated near Baghjan and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park is given the status of protected area/ bird sanctuary with ample promotion of tourism; it will open up wide opportunities for sustainable tourism projects for local communities. The sustainable tourism-based livelihood can be in the range of local guides, craftsmanship in traditional artefacts, increase in the numbers of homestays etc.”
In conclusion, it is the need of the hour to start a dialogue on the possibilities of sustainable livelihood practices in Assam. With more than a million people returning to the state, it is high time to explore diverse livelihood measures and enhance our traditional community livelihoods. However, the process of livelihood generation must be in conformity to environment and ecology for maintaining sustainability.
The article is co-authored with Nazib Sohail, a postgraduate student of Peace & Conflict Studies (PaCs) at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati. His interest areas areas Religion, Politics, Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Transformation, Identity and Environment Conservation.