Giving artistic look to water hyacinth

Giving artistic look to water hyacinth

Artisans are trained to make attractive items

Giving artistic look to water hyacinth

Artisans from different parts of India are attending training

Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), a weed which grows extensively on the floodplains of the northeast is neglected for several reasons. It chokes wetlands and degrades water quality and is a problem to pisciculture. 

However, a joint initiative of sustainable development in Assam has successfully converted this menace into a “wonder-weed” by the use of Thai technology--a step which has changed the face of rural Assam.

The North-East Development Finance Corporation Limited (NEDFI) and the North Eastern Council (NEC) under the Ministry of Department of North-eastern Region (DoNER) have successfully trained  many rural artisans on the use of dried water hyacinth by a system of interlacing through which brilliant artefacts and accessories of great aesthetic appeal can be created.

Eye-catching sandals, lamp-shades, bags, pen-stands are being deftly crafted by these rural artisans. After rigorous capacity building for 2 years by training as many artisans as possible, NEDFI has taken this endeavour to the next level.

 “Almost 2,000 artisans have been trained so far and a few of them have even become rural entrepreneurs themselves,” said Ashim Kumar Das, Assistant General Manager, NEDFI. 

With the help of United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, they got Thai experts to train 31 rural artisans in March this year. Under their guidance these artisans learned new techniques to make the products more fashionable and durable, fit enough for international standards. The exceptional success of the water hyacinth project in rural Assam has encouraged the showcasing of these products across many places, including the India International Hand-woven fair at Chennai.

The initiative has attracted several artisans from different states like Punjab and Haryana. “Recently a few interested artisans from Africa had come over to undergo training and we have received very good response from them,” Das added.

Branded under the name of Aqua Weaves, products made out of water hyacinth had also been displayed at India Exposition Mart, Noida, in November last year. “It is a great substitute to cane and bamboo. The fact that it regrows in 12 days, is a boon since raw materials would be never a problem,” explained  Jagat Hazarika, an artisan. Removing water hyacinth also serves to conserve water as hyacinth doubles loss through evaporation.

After 2 years of rigorous capacity building, NEDFI now has plans to seriously market water hyacinth products. “We want entrepreneurs to explore export opportunities and for that we need to make sure that quality is not compromised,” said Das.

Income improves
In 2010, the cumulative income of all artisans was in lakhs but now it is in crores.  Das said that since it is an attempt to generate sustainable livelihood the entire profit goes to artisans.

In Assam, particularly there are cluster of villages in districts like Darren, Nazario, Dhumma and Goldarina, people have now created raw material banks for dried stems to use when needed. Artisan Rita Das who was extremely poor until 2008 is now an established entrepreneur with almost 100 rural artisans working under her. “I even made a jacket out of dried water hyacinth, which I presented to (now former) chief minister Tarun Gogoi,” artisan Rita Das happily recalled. 

Prices of Aqua Weaves are decided by artisans themselves. “We have taken this step to ensure a fair trade policy and encourage these artisans,” Das said. A unique feature is that artisans have their own brand ambassadors endorsing their own creations.

In March 2011, NEDFI had set up a water hyacinth craft gallery-cum-demonstration centre where artisans got free training on quality, pricing and market demand. The demonstration centre enabled them to display and sell their products.

Initially artisans who were specialised in jute, cane and bamboo work were trained. However, later training was imparted to those who were willing to work hard and learn.

Gain in productivity
National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, had earlier collaborated with NEDFI to enhance the skill-set and design quality. This had largely helped gain productivity while minimising cost.

The product is now highly valued since it is eco-friendly and provides inclusive growth to the villages while empowering women since most beneficiaries are from fair sex. Now the focus is to aggressively market the water hyacinth products and within 6 months a catalogue and website would be in place.

“I was surprised to see these products. I have seen water hyacinth from childhood and never knew that they can be used to make such beautiful products. I have taken a bag and door mats” said Sangreal Banerjee, a tourist from Kolkata who was visiting the gallery in Grammatic. It has not only given financial stability to rural people but also helped many families who lived in insurgency-ravaged areas of the Northeast see a new lease of life.

NEDFI next endeavour would be to help artisans make more valuable products like furniture. “For this we have initiated talks with Indonesia who are the world pioneers in using water hyacinth on a massive scale. While we would try for exports, we believe that India has got a huge market in itself,” the NEDFI  official said.

This is not the first attempt with water hyacinth in the country. Earlier the Kottapuram Integrated Development Society, Kerala, in association with the India-Canada Environmental Facility, had tried similar technique since the backwaters of Kerala have water hyacinth in abundance. 

However, they could not turn this into a large-scale process. Many environmentalists claim that the saline water systems of Kerala hamper the growth and depth of weeds. Northeast climate-wise definitely has a better scope.

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