Bamboo crafts bring down migration, improve access to nutrition and education, and raise morale of residents from Korku community in Gulaimal village of Khandwa
By Mohammad Asif Siddiqui
Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh: Living in the remote forest village of Gulaimal in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh, Prakash Barole (41) crafts decorative items from bamboo to earn a living. He acquired this relatively new skill after making up his mind to stop working as a migrant sugarcane cutter and find employment in his own village.
Prakash and his wife Sangeeta Barole (34) used to migrate to Beed district of Maharashtra for four months annually to work as farm labourers. Despite working for over 18 hours a day, they could barely make ends meet. During the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent lockdown of 2020, they found themselves stranded in Maharashtra with their employer denying them full wages. They were forced to return to Khandwa on foot — a journey of over 100 km — along with 10 others from their village. They had no money, not even to buy food.
‘We both used to get Rs 10,000 per month, but we did not even have a day off. Most of what we earned was spent on lodging and food,‘ he recalls. ‘Just 10 days into the lockdown, our employer told us that he could not pay us anymore.’
Prakash then decided to fend for himself in his own village, even if it meant learning a new skill in his late 30s. His determination paid off as both earn around the same amount every month by making bamboo items for Gulaimal-based non-government organisation (NGO) Manmohan Kala Samiti (MKS). ‘We work for eight hours daily and get a good price for our work,’ says Prakash, who saves a large part of his income and manages to send his children to school.
Seeds of change
The NGO was established under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) and operates under SFURTI (Scheme of Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries) of the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, which assists traditional industries such as khadi, coir, handloom and handicrafts by providing grants of up to Rs 5 crore. The NGO set up operations in the district in 2020 under the nodal agency Council for Handicrafts Development Corporations. A Bamboo Craft Centre was established, with a 90% Central grant under SFURTI and the remaining investment from MKS.
Of the 150 families employed by the NGO in Gulaimal, about 60 work directly at the bamboo centre. The rest make the products at their homes. Most of them are Korku tribals. The centre purchases the bamboo planted by village farmers at a price equal to the minimum support price. Until the establishment of the centre, around 40% (1,100 people) of the village population used to migrate for work.
Pradeep Awase (27), a resident managing the bamboo art work under MKS, used to go to Pune. ‘I worked at a local furniture firm. Most of what I earned was spent there and despite having worked with the employer for a long time, I was deserted when the pandemic struck. I was forced to walk back home. The employer did not even bother to arrange a transport facility for me,‘ he says.
Pradeep joined MKS and honed his management skills in the last three years. He now imparts training to new artisans and organises local craft exhibitions with the help of MKS.
According to a survey conducted by the NGO, migration has reduced by half since its inception, as the locals earn a monthly salary of Rs 6,000 to 8,000 at the centre. However, not all villagers are into bamboo crafts. Due to the surge in bamboo-related work, other trades and businesses have increased in the village, thereby providing a source of employment to many .
To increase their income further, locals have started planting native bamboo varieties such as Katanga (Bambusa Arundinacea) and Deshi (Dendrocalamus Strictus) on the margins of their fields under the guidance of MKS. This will reduce the need to get bamboo from other villages. When needed, the MKS also provides them with bamboo seedlings.
Furniture, toys, home decor, reception, office and coffee house items are produced at the centre and sent to NRLM sales centres. They are also exported. MKS director Mohan Rokade tells 101Reporters that the NGO expanded to accommodate more artisans in 2021 and that its annual income has soared to above Rs 50 lakh.
‘Bamboo craft has been a part of the village culture for generations. But people were making only specific items such as mats and baskets that were useful to the village community. When the availability of bamboo reduced, people migrated in search of employment. After the NGO formation, we distributed bamboo seedlings to the locals at a minimal cost, leading to a surge in bamboo production,’ Rokade says.
Earlier, farmers sold their bamboo to the forest department or in the market. Raju Vaskale, a farmer from Dhimaria, located four km from Gulaimal, says he now gets money immediately after selling bamboo unlike in the case of the forest department. ‘We do not have to bear transportation costs as the centre collects bamboo from our fields. Katanga bamboo is priced at Rs 80 in the market, Deshi at Rs 100 and Assamese bamboo at Rs 220. We get the same price from the centre,’ he says.
Prakash has also planted bamboo saplings on his two-and-a-half acre plot. He plans to sell it to MKS. Apart from Gulaimal, bamboo clusters are functional under SFURTI at Hoshangabad, Betul, Chhindwara, Balaghat, Seoni, Ratlam and Burhanpur. Last year, Harda district was included in the cluster.
Life gets better
When she migrated to Beed, Sangeeta used to leave her five children in the custody of their grandmother Lalitabai. This affected their studies as the older children would often be occupied with taking care of their younger siblings and miss out on school.
‘I at least had my mother-in-law to help out, but the mothers with newborns and those with children under five years of age had to take them along when they migrated. Life as a farm labourer is difficult. Sometimes, we have to survive on just one meal. So, even the babies could not be fed since the lactating mothers barely ate,’ highlights Sangeeta.
New mothers who were forced to quit work due to these challenges are now joining the NGO as it has a secure campus for children with proper facilities and caretakers. The centre is spread over five acres of land, where a factory has been built on an acre.
‘Since new and expectant mothers can stay in the village and make bamboo crafts, they have also registered at local anganwadis, thus bringing them under the government’s nutritional programmes. They get fortified milk powder and nutrition-rich food from anganwadis,’ she adds.
Young women who used to be either married off right after school or were forced to join their parents as farm labourers are now enrolling in colleges to find well-paying jobs. ‘Working on the field with my parents was tiresome. We did not even have enough to fulfil our basic needs, so college was a distant dream. But now I work with the NGO, while pursuing my post graduation in commerce from an open university,’ says Usha Barole.
Madhuri Awase and Aarti Barme earn Rs 7,000 each and are able to keep some money aside for their children’s education. Even specially-abled people have got a chance to earn through the NGO.
The products such as table lamps, clocks and showpieces produced by the company were showcased in the Parliament House, New Delhi, and exhibited at the Dubai Expo alongside products from 190 countries last year. Artisans add that they were not skilled at anything and were looked down upon, but they enjoy a newfound respect in their communities and feel proud of the work they do when their handcrafted products are admired at both local markets and international exhibitions.
‘Once awareness about the sustainability of bamboo products versus plastic pollution increases, and the new electricity grid comes into operation, I think we will be able to expand operations and hire more people,’ says Rokade.
Mohammad Asif Siddiqui is a Madhya Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.