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No buyers, markets closed — how Covid hit livelihood of women potters in this Assam village

Making earthenware no longer sustainable for Hira & Kaibarta community women in Tarigaon. They are now selling fish in small quantities for Rs 15 that would earlier fetch Rs 200/kg.

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Chaygaon, Assam: The festive season is under way in Assam. People are coming out in both urban and rural areas, getting over fears of Covid-19 amid a decline in cases. There is movement in marketplaces and restaurants. Traffic has increased too. But for two rural communities in the state’s Kamrup district, the struggle to sustain traditional livelihoods is making it hard to remain hopeful.

Women potters and fishermen from the Hira and Kaibarta communities in the lower Assam district have been severely hit during the pandemic, with uncertainty looming over their future.

Kanuri Hira of Tarigaon village, situated about 44 km from Guwahati near Chaygaon tehsil in Kamrup, is worried about not having warm clothes and enough to eat as winter approaches.

The 70-year-old has been making earthen pots as part of her family tradition for decades. However, with no orders since the lockdown, the septuagenarian has been grappling with challenges to stay afloat.

“Nothing is the same, and I doubt we will be having business as usual. The government should help us with some winter clothes and food. My grandchildren are not getting proper food,” Kanuri said.

The women potters of the native Hira community make earthenware using ancient techniques and special ‘Hiramati’, a sticky dark clay found in some parts of the state — a centuries-old art. Men are not engaged in this household industry.

“We used to live by selling earthenware. During lockdown, we could not fetch the clay to make pottery, and even if we make some now, where would we sell those? It has been tough for our community as we have never done any other work before,” she added.

Kamini Kaibarta and her younger sister Jamini could not manage to catch fish last week when it rained heavily. But she has now asked neighbourhood women from her Kaibarta community, which is primarily engaged in fishing, to join them and make a fresh effort.

“This is how we are surviving — sometimes a fish or two, and in the daytime we go out to collect leafy greens and kosu (taro). If it’s affordable, we may also buy pulses. Since the Covid crisis, we have been forced to sell the small fish for Rs 15 to Rs 30 in other villages — what would otherwise fetch us Rs 200 a kilo,” said 60-year-old Kamini.

Having exhausted their savings, these villagers are making do with food from resources of their own environment.

Also read: Rotting crops, unsold produce, falling incomes — How India’s hopeful rural economy has crashed

The Hiras and Kaibartas of Tarigaon

The Hiras and Kaibartas are among the Scheduled Caste communities in Tarigaon.

The Hiras, who are found mostly in the lower Brahmaputra valley districts of Kamrup, Goalpara, Darrang and Nagaon, make up nearly 30 per cent of Tarigaon’s 250 households.

Unlike the Kumars, the Hiras make clay pots using their hands and not the wheel. The women shape the pottery using a wooden log or ‘pitoni’. The pots are carefully dried in the sun and then under shade, after which they are decorated and set aside in batches for firing using different techniques.

Tekeli, koloh, horiya (pitchers), different sizes of saru (earthen cooking vessels), mola (earthen cups), saki (traditional lamps) and fooldani (flower vases) are among the various products made by Hira potters.

A small saru costs anywhere between Rs 20 and Rs 100. “Most of what was made before the lockdown has not been sold yet,” said Kanuri Hira.

A vast majority of Tarigaon’s poor population belongs to the Kaibarta community.

One of the earliest settlers of Assam, the Kaibartas are primarily occupied in fishing. However, there are social restrictions on Kaibarta women in some places on selling fish. With markets closed, these fishermen and women have to contend with selling their fresh catch in nearby villages at low prices.

Impact of the pandemic 

During the nationwide lockdown, the households in Tarigaon availed 5 kg rice under the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojana, and the womenfolk received Rs 500 per month for three months under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana.

The villagers — both men and women — were engaged in road construction work under the public works department (PWD) when the restrictions were eased. Many continue to work for daily wages.

“At present, work is under way for 15 RCC (reinforced concrete) bridges in the area besides road repairing and construction of new roads. The women get Rs 300 as they have their meals at home, and the men are paid Rs 350 for an 8 hours shift,” said a government official, who did not wish to be named.

“For NREGA projects, the daily wage has been increased to Rs 190 from Rs 183. Currently, road construction work is on in few revenue villages,” he added.

“People in Tarigaon village from the Hira and Kaibarta communities are now engaged in farming and daily labour activities. So are those from the Muchi community in adjacent Simolubari village,” said Krishna Karma Kalita, the 81-year-old Gaonburah (village head). The Muchis are known to make traditional Assamese musical instruments.

Also read: India starts cultivating hing, a staple ingredient that costs $130 mn each year to import

‘Young ones act carefree’

As far as the pandemic’s impact is concerned, Tarigaon has reported only two Covid cases so far.

Asked why people in the village are moving around without masks and not maintaining physical distancing, Kalita said it is the youngsters who have to be constantly reminded.

“The young ones act carefree. They have to be told to wear masks and not step out so often,” he said.

Finding new means of livelihood

Even as the two traditional livelihoods are affected, some in the village have abandoned their regular occupation to sell fish in the open market.

“I used to be a tailor, stitching uniforms for kids, but with schools closed during lockdown, I got no orders and was forced to shut business. Now, I sell fish in Chaygaon bazaar and manage to earn about Rs 350 a day,” said 45-year-old Mased Ali.

Ali’s friend Syez Ziarul Haque used to be a tent dealer in Chaygaon town, but now sits alongside to sell fish. “There were no big weddings since March and no one required to hire a tent. I had to leave business. We buy fish from the wholesale market but often have to sell it for loss,” said Haque.

While Ali wants to get back to tailoring, Haque said he has no such plans until next year.

Also read: Traders pin hope on festive season sales, focus on cars, home appliances, low-value gold


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