It all began in July 2020, when torrential rains inundated Assam, crippling a state that was already reeling from the onslaught of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. For small-scale net makers like Inawara Khatun, the losses just seemed to keep mounting.
A resident of Rupakuchi village in western Assam, Inawara, mother to a seven-year-old girl, was at the end of her tether. Though she continued to sew fishing nets, she struggled to find customers. Most village inhabitants were battling the Chaulkhowa, a tributary of the Brahmaputra that had overflown its banks, engulfing homes and fields. Her husband, who had been working as a daily-wage labourer in Meghalaya, had lost his job.
The pandemic just heightened the vulnerability of residents of many of the 2,500-odd villages in Assam’s Char Chapori belt. Like them, the Rupakuchi village, located near two tributaries of the Brahmaputra, is threatened by floods every summer as Char Chaporis, the riverine sand belts deposited by the Brahmaputra, are prone to erosion and submergence. And as the climate changes, the state is expected to be even more vulnerable to extreme events such as floods, droughts and cyclones, according to a study by a Delhi-based think tank, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.
The residents are used to the cycle of floods and temporary relief assistance. July 2020 was no different initially. Then human rights activist Manjuwara Mullah, busy with relief work, was stopped by a group of women pleading for a long-term solution to their financial plight. Manjuwara’s phone was buzzing with calls from women complaining about unemployed husbands beating them.
Looking to divert her mind from the worries of the women, she picked up two worn-out white bedsheets and needles. She quilted the bedsheets with parallel lines of stitches, using strands of red embroidery thread. The contrast of bright red on off-white, and practising the generations-old craft of kantha, calmed her. It was then that the idea struck—she could help the women by reviving a craft they were familiar with, one-handed down generations.
Traditionally, kantha is a form of embroidery used in Bengali households to stitch light covers for mild winters or for swaddling babies. The kantha cloth is made by stacking together five to seven old saris and creating colourful motifs with a simple running stitch. The version practised by the Bengali Muslim women in Assam is kheta.
In September 2020, Manjuwara returned to Rupakuchi village, where she began training 10 women, guiding them through popular designs, and set up a collective, Amrapari. “The training was not much of a hassle as the women were already familiar with the craft and had seen their mothers and grandmothers sewing,” explains Manjuwara.
Today, Amrapari has grown to include 40 women artisans from the flood-prone char areas. They produce a range of products, including masks, saris, bags, pouches, blankets, bedsheets, dupattas and apparel. The 40 artisans are divided into eight groups. Each group makes five-six quilts a month, each priced between ₹3,000-5,000, as well as other products. The finished items are sold on e-commerce websites such as Flipkart, apart from Amrapari’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram. A portion of the sale proceeds goes into buying raw material, the rest is divided between the artisans, says Manjuwara.
Rahima Khatun says her association with the collective has changed her life. When she finally mustered the courage to leave her polygamous spouse, her husband cut her off financially and she began working on farms, earning ₹200-250 a day. This stopped when the lockdown was imposed. Now she is able to sustain herself, even paying for a recent health crisis, she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford medicines if Amrapari hadn’t recruited me,” she says.
NGOs have come under scrutiny in recent years, with complaints that very little income actually trickles down to artisans. Rudabeh Shahid, a non-resident fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre, sees this as a promising movement to generate income for flood victims, especially women, and reduce forced migration to cities.
For Manjuwara, the purpose behind Amrapari products is not commercial. Her focus is on empowering women, allowing them to own their skills and decisions, earn their economic independence and help them assert themselves.
Take the case of Inawara. Till the pandemic, she was able to earn ₹1,000-1,500 for every net she wove, and she usually sold just one a month. Now she earns ₹3,000-4,000 a month. At one time, the collective had bulk orders for 11,000 masks from hospitals and they had to work around the clock. Now the sole breadwinner for her family, Inawara is able to run the household and pay her daughter’s school fees. “I would lose sleep over financing my daughter’s education, as my husband was jobless. Now, I can have enough savings even to overcome flood-related woes,” she says.
Aatreyee Dhar is an Assam-based journalist.