Continuous improvement in technology makes water hyacinths transform from a waste to boon
How often do we get to see a complete waste, turning out to be of unsurprisingly great use? Not often, right? Let me take you on a tour of the Northeastern Indian valleys. But before that, I have a question for you. Do you remember those dark green leafy plants in your neighbourhood ponds? The free floating ones with dazzling lilac flowers surrounded by a rosette of green leaves, forming thick mats and covering the entire surface of ponds? Yes, the water hyacinths?
The Northeastern states have always been suffering from the problem of these water hyacinth plants, the world’s worst aquatic weeds, in their floodplains. They can grow to a height of 3 feet, duplicating themselves every five days and can be found anywhere, from shallow water to muddy streams, from ponds to spoiling your boat rides in the lakes. Besides directly clogging the waterways, affecting the irrigation and hydroelectric generation, destroying the natural wetlands and also hampering the aquatic habitats, they have a role to play in the increase of diseases caused by mosquitoes. Introduced by the colonisers, this most successful coloniser in plant kingdom soon started getting called as the ‘Bengal Terror’ or the ‘Blue Devil’.
Until a decade ago, during the Northeast India Investment Opportunities Week organised in Bangkok, Thailand, the officials of NEDFi (North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd) were attracted by the high-quality bags and basketry produced by the water hyacinth. Envisaging the potential back home, they soon zeroed in on this wonder weed which since then has changed the lives of thousands. Having a reputation for providing financial assistance to micro, medium and large enterprises for setting up industrial infrastructures and agro-allied projects in the Northeast India, NEDFi soon began a joint initiative with North Eastern Council (NEC), Ministry of DoNER and Govt. of India to popularise the art of water hyacinths for making eco-friendly handicraft products in the region.
This was because Northeast has always been dependent on cane and bamboo for the production of handicrafts but their irregular supply had always been a cause of concern for the artisans, whereas, there is an availability of water hyacinths as raw material in abundance. People realised its capability to replace jute, cane and bamboos. Women in these villages were already well versed with knitting, braiding, weaving and other similar crafts, therefore, they showed interest in learning this new skill once provided with the training. Therefore in no time, this proved to be a success. It was effectively utilised to make and promote eco-friendly products, which in turn rejuvenated the environment and especially empowered women in rural areas.
The continuous improvement in technology and design intervention by the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, not only helped in improving the process and productivity but also in gaining popularity among consumers. So much so that when a representative from UNIDO, the same group which inspired the NEDFi officials couple of years ago, visited the water hyacinth craft gallery in Guwahati in 2011, got so impressed that a year later, Thai experts visited it and did a workshop with craftsmen here. This helped the rural artisan in learning techniques and designs which were prevalent in Thailand, a country where the craft has been in practice for more than 40 years.
NEDFi soon started participating in different exhibitions throughout the nation. This popularised the products and gave an exposure to the artisans. They now have their own ‘Craft Gallery’ in Guwahati. A permanent exhibition platform named ‘NEDFi Haat’ also thrives in the heart of the city, a common facility and research and development centre at the Assam-Manipur borders of Khetri along with a number of showrooms across the northeastern region. Besides NEDFi has now started NE-SHILP (North East Society for Handicraft Incubation and Livelihood Promotion) under their CSR activity for promoting crafts of the eight northeastern states of India.
‘It was both fun and challenging. Our initiative was to create a miracle from this menace,’ says Saurav Sarmah, Assistant Manager, NEDFi, who is the treasurer of NE-SHILP. Talking about the interesting story of NE-SHILP, he adds ‘In 2012, we were awarded the prestigious Rural Innovation Award from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). This gave us a platform to exhibit our products. During these exhibitions, we noticed that despite being good at their craft, the rural artisans could sell their products confidently as well. This was both logical and problematic. So we used the award winning amount and came up with NE-SHILP to counter this problem.’
Manisha who is in her early 20s and works at the Khetri centre, says ‘We can now earn Rs 200 to Rs 250 in a day. The more we work, the more we earn. We usually make hats and fancy bags from water hyacinth stems, which sell like hot cakes in the market. Priya, who transformed from being a zero income homemaker shares, ‘There are a lot of women coming here, ranging from the age group between early 20s and late 50s.’
‘One of the best parts of this craft is that it is flexible. There is no fixed time for the artisans to make their products. We work hard when there is a bulk order. Further, the artisans need not come out of their houses in search of jobs, maybe that’s why this craft receives such prompt and wide acceptance among rural women,’ says Bicky, one of the mentors at the Khetri centre.
‘Mentor’ is another introduction by NEDFi to help the artisans. Their job is to regularly visit the artisans, guide them to improve the quality of their products and finally collect their products for sale. The mentors also create awareness among the artisans regarding the need for small savings. The NEDFi officials organise regular meetings between mentors, master artisans and the marketing team to discuss technology, review prices and other matters relating to the craft.
Bicky, with his training from Thailand and National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, says ‘On an average an individual artisan earns over Rs 7-8k per month, which is a modest income for any village woman. Besides, NEDFi from time to time arranges phase wise training programs for hundreds of unskilled artisans in the district.’
‘But what differentiates us from others is the ability and agility to produce. People who spend lakhs in educational institutes many times do it all for the wrong reason. Whereas our reason is just one–we have to do it and we will do it,’ he adds.
Today, the water hyacinth has become the ‘Pearl of Water’, covering over 1,500 skilled and expert artisans in the five northeastern states: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura and Manipur.
Written by- Pritesh Gupta