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Weaving change

By Rupa Chinai

Natural resource management in Ngainga and other Naga habitations of Manipur is transforming the lives of women

Ngainga village in Ukhrul district of Manipur is a Tangkhul Naga hilltop habitation surrounded by craggy mountains and thickly forested ranges. About 15 km from Ukhrul town, it is one of the more accessible villages in a region where tarred roads are non-existent and a steep kutcha track provides a treacherous pathway, particularly after a spell of rain. Many villages in Ukhrul district do not have even this much.

On the outskirts of Ngainga is a “community forest” which provides food, fodder, firewood and timber to village households under conditions that are now strictly regulated by the village council. The traditional occupations of Tangkhul women revolve around agriculture, which is their main source of sustenance. Nearly every woman here knows weaving, which she pursues in her spare time. In the past, the products they made were used within the family.

Change, however, is sweeping into Tangkhul villages like Ngainga. The village economy has collapsed because of years of insurgency and corruption in the Manipur government, combined with the overall developmental neglect of the hill areas of Manipur. The women say they can no longer depend on cultivation as their only means of sustenance. Agricultural yield is dropping and the fertility of the soil decreasing because of overuse, limited land space for cultivation, and pressure on land due to an increase in population. Only government jobs are available, and these are saturated.

This forces the Tangkhul women to develop alternative means of livelihood. The only other recourse they have is the wealth of their natural resources. A gradual opening up of the region is giving them opportunities to reach the market; they now often weave items for the market. They collect mushrooms, black cherries, wild nuts and herbs from the community forest. Half of this is consumed and the other half sold.

The community believes that education provides a pathway to opportunities outside. However the education system here, established by missionaries, does not create a knowledge and skills base that would help young people find work. Most young Nagas study theology in college. “Our children need English education,” one woman says. “We are working day and night to support their education. We have no time to rest. We wake up at dawn and, after we have collected firewood, carried water and cooked lunch, we go and work in the fields. We have little time to do anything else. We are trying to earn money for the future of our children.”

Another woman tells me that lack of proper linkages to the market is their biggest problem. Public transportation here is rare and expensive. Transportation from the village to Ukhrul town eats into a major share of the profits. There is little scope to reach the markets beyond Ukhrul town. Compounding this is the fact that most of the time the villagers have no product to sell. The women barely weave one cloth a month with the traditional loom that involves strenuous labour. Lacking exposure to what the market wants and how they can meet that demand without depleting their own resource base, has made communities vulnerable to exploitation.

Five years ago Ngainga, along with other villages in Ukhrul district, were introduced to a project brought to the northeast by the International Food and Agriculture Development (IFAD) organisation in collaboration with the Government of India. For the first time in decades, money came directly to local institutions and did not go through the Manipur state government.

Due to rampant corruption and extortion by a consortium of insurgent groups -- both Naga and Meitei -- development activity is a trickle in the Imphal valley and virtually non-existent in the hill areas.

IFAD ascertained from communities their priorities for development and then created a cadre of villagers who went through training programmes in natural resource management. Several changes have come to Ngainga village through the project. The village now has a drinking water storage facility, which has been a blessing for women who had to walk long distances from their hilltop dwellings to fetch water from the lowlands. Water sources are now being protected. Women's self-help groups have been formed and are guiding village development. Low-cost latrines have brought hygienic sanitation. Many families now have a kitchen garden and the occasional sale of vegetables in Ukhrul town has enhanced their earnings. Cultivation of geranium flowers and a plant for extraction of its aromatic oil also fetches a good income. Fishponds and a garden for the cultivation of local medicinal plants have been started. The use of the community forest and timber cutting is now strictly regulated.

IFAD's current project in the northeast is coming to a close and will take on a new avatar with the involvement of the Government of India and the World Bank. Will there then be scope to continue with this ‘hands-off' culture of outside consultants?
The project also supports weavers. It has connected them to an exporter who supplies naturally dyed cotton yarn for the weaving of shawls in the traditional Tangkhul designs, meant for the European market. The women of Ngainga village say that development of the weaving potential will give them an important means of income. For this they, like numerous other weavers in the northeast, need access to naturally dyed cotton yarn, a link to their customers to understand their requirements, and professional design input which retains the unique character of their traditional weaving.

This village, like many across the northeast, has great potential for organic produce and horticulture. The fruits and vegetables grown around Ngainga include banana, plums, pears, wild apples, sugarcane, passion fruit, peaches, drumstick and lemons. Even if production were enhanced, the villagers cannot improve shelf life, find access to packaging material, or easily move their products to markets. Access to cheap transportation and good roads remain primary issues. Better connectivity with the rest of India and greater interaction with people in other parts of the country have shown northeastern communities a whole new world of opportunity.

(Rupa Chinai is a Mumbai-based independent journalist who has been reporting from the northeast for a number of years)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007