They weave their way out of poverty

They weave their way out of poverty

These are women under siege – held prisoner not just by an unpredictable river but the adverse circumstances of their lives, observes Ratna Bharali Talukdar

The river seems to have imprisoned them. It has forced them to live in isolation and confinement on a tiny island. They try to break free from the shackles imposed on them by nature, by making organic products from the jute that grows in the neighbourhood. These are women of Assam’s chars – tiny inhabited islands, ecologically fragile and prone to erosion, created by the Brahmaputra and its major tributaries as it makes its way to the sea.

Flowing with poverty

In char isle of Chalakura, women like Johra Khatun, 45, and her friends, fashion low cost, eco-friendly jute products such as jholas (decorative swings for babies) and chika (decorative flower-pot holders). Their products have found a growing and responsive market in cities like Mumbai, Kanpur, Jammu and Srinagar. But behind the colour and ornamentation of these artifacts are stories of confinement, isolation, and personal tribulations caused by natural disasters. Chalakura is highly flood prone. All its inhabitants have experienced erosion-led displacement and are forced to live partly nomadic lives

 Making ends meet

If you visit Chalakura, you will see these women sitting in clusters under the sun, busy making their jute products. In fact, over 90 per cent of female residents of this island are engaged in this work. Every three months or so, the completed artefacts are packed and dispatched by truck to Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, from where they are sent to other states in India.

Like the others, Johra – who was born on this isle – has had few chances to visit other places. The jute products she turns out after her housework is done earns her a lowly Rs 12 on an average day. Every part of a swing, for instance, fetches a rupee and, no matter how hard she works she is unlikely to make more than 12 such parts in a day. Her hectic work schedule is not the only reason for Johra’s inability to access the world beyond.

As Johra makes her jute products to support her family, Monowara Khatun, 14, who is studying in Class IX in Dhubri Bangla Vidyalaya School – works hard to fashion her chikas in order to go to school. This is the only way she can pay the Rs 20 boat-fare needed to go to school in town, in the absence of a government-run ferry service.

Ladies first

Comments Nur Mahammad, the headmaster of a Chalakura Lower Primary School, “Only those with an indomitable spirit will complete their education. Parents here are generally indifferent to schooling and the girls inevitably drop out at the high school stage. Once they drop out, these girls get drawn into making jute products, like their mothers and aunts. ”

Unlike most char-dwellers in the state, Chalakura’s men leave their families at home when they migrate for work. This is because they believe their women can earn a steady income at home, however little it may be, thanks to Chalakura’s three-decade-old tradition of making jute products.

Jute to the rescue

According to local accounts, it began when a village leader underwent a training programme on jute diversification. He passed on this skill to Chalakura’s residents and the local women became especially adept in the craft. What made it particularly suited to this region was the fact that Chalakura has been cultivating jute as a cash crop over the last two centuries. In 2011-12, the district produced 31,422 metric tonnes of jute, which rose to 49,785 metric tonnes in 2012-13.

An International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Media Fellowship programme study in the char areas of Dhubri has revealed that the craft urgently needed institutionalised support, training for product diversification, skill upgradation and market linkages, if it has to survive. Survive this craft must, if the modest earnings of Chalakura’s women are to be protected. Every rupee earned here goes some way in helping them face life’s adversities.

 These are women under siege – held prisoner not just by an unpredictable river but the adverse circumstances of their lives. The one lifeline they have is their ability to fashion artefacts out of the jute that grows in their neighbourhood.

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