In a world where people chase after the conventional, it is not always easy to break the chains and take the path unknown. But that is exactly what sets achievers apart from the crowd. One such achiever who made her own path is Neera Sarmah. Hailing from Tezpur, she started her skill enhancement initiative for the underprivileged in 2003. Her aim was to empower artisans across the country to earn a decent livelihood, and as for her weapon of choice, she opted for bamboo. Back then, artisans only used expensive cane and had little knowledge about bamboo jewellery, because it was still a relatively new concept. It was Neera who helped them see the benefits of making jewellery and other crafts out of bamboo.
In the initial years, she was working extensively in the remote areas of Tripura and then extended to other states such as Gujarat. When her work started receiving attention, various government bodies started reaching out to her. Eventually, she came to work with communities in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, and Meghalaya, among others. She helped bring quite a change in the lives of the impoverished unemployed in the Northeast, so much so that she came to be regarded as the ‘Bamboo Lady of the Northeast’.
A Neglected Gem
Oil, coal, and natural gas are resources that are highly regarded across the planet but bamboo is often overlooked. ‘Nobody cares about bamboo like they do for other natural resources. People need to recognize that bamboo is also a big source of energy, and I’m fighting to make that happen.’ There is no doubt that the Northeast can benefit from utilizing bamboo to its true potential as it is plentiful in the region, but she is also certain that bamboo can be an important resource for the whole nation.
Since ages, bamboo has always been a resource that could be adapted to different human needs from storage to construction. ‘Nowadays people are used to storing things in plastic boxes, but back in the day, people used to keep valuables in bamboo boxes instead.’ Apart from generating awareness about bamboo, she also had to ensure that artisans of the craft receive proper wage and respect for the hard labour that they put into their creations. Therefore, Sarmah helped them directly sell their work in the bigger markets across the region without the interference of a middleman.
The True Growth
Sarmah works with more than 20 NGOs all over India. Even though she has helped hundreds realize their dream of becoming self-reliant, she still has to put up with people who make fun of her low earnings in spite of her skills and talent. But she remains undeterred. ‘The artisans earn from the craft and give me whatever they want to, and that is all that I earn. My motive is not to become rich, but to reach remote areas and guide or encourage the people. They should be the ones who make money. I have enough for myself.’ She is content in providing livelihood to people, especially empowering young girls in villages who are usually married off at a young age.
One of the biggest reasons why she wanted to help people in remote villages was because she thought alcoholism in villages was leading to dangerous circumstances. ‘People in the villages would spend whatever money they would get on alcohol, which would lead to mental illnesses and depression.’ She wanted them to be more engaged and practise a craft that would distract them from bad habits.
In the Northeast, Tripura has been a battlefield. ‘Due to lack of awareness and literacy, I have had to face quite a few challenges but I continue to fight.’ She was also approached by the Meghalaya government to conduct four workshops.
To no surprise, the job has not been an easy one, but Sarmah is adamant about bringing a change. ‘I stay in villages where there are no toilets, and no running water. I need to carry sleeping bags wherever I go. People always ask me how I manage. But I am determined to follow through on the idea.’ She shares that the inspiration to keep going, despite the obstacles, comes from her father. ‘My father has always been passionate about social work. Looking at him, I thought that my life should be meaningful. We are always doing things for ourselves. Why not do something for others?’
The Blooming Future
She has received invitations from Bangladesh and Nepal, but before she takes her talent elsewhere, she first wants to improve rural employment in India. ‘India is massive and there are places that I haven’t touched yet. So, my endeavour will not stop.’ No one can say what the future holds, but one thing is certain, Sarmah will keep fighting. She may not have any superhuman abilities but she is a hero in her own right. A hero who hopes to help more and more unemployed people find their purpose and become self-reliant. A hero that the Northeast, and India, desperately needs.
Words: Anindita Hazarika
This feature was first published in Eclectic Northeast July 2019 issue