The villages of Assam are beautiful.
Surrounded by lush green paddy fields, bamboo clusters and tall slim Areca (betel) nut trees define the boundaries of each village, and within the village of each homestead. Eco friendly, and customised to suit Assam’s climatic conditions, the walls of houses are built of bamboo, and covered with mud. Roofs which were traditionally of thatch, from the tall elephant grass native to the area, are gradually being replaced by tin roofs. Each home generally has its own water source in the form of a well or a hand pump and sometimes more affluent households also have a small fish pond.
Adjacent to the house is a small vegetable garden, a few fruit trees (typically mango, banana, pineapple, Assam lemon, and Areca nut) and an animal shed (most homes have at least one cow, a few goats, and a few chickens or ducks, and if it is a tribal home often a few pigs). There is usually a small bathing space adjacent to the well, with walls made from dried Areca leaves. The boundary wall of the homestead is constructed of similar material, providing privacy yet easy passage.
A homestead traditionally consists of 4 rectangular rooms built around a courtyard. The first is the living room, the second the kitchen, the third the store room and the fourth a shed that houses the family loom and farm implements. At the centre of the courtyard is the place of worship. In Bodo households this takes the form of a Cactus (zizu tree) which is the symbol of Bathou their supreme God. In Hindu households one usually finds a Tulsi plant (holy basil) taking centre place. In the homes of the tea tribes one finds further elements of decoration with designs on the walls often embedded with small pieces of glass. Betel leaf (paan leaves) are grown as creepers on the walls. Flowering plants are found in every home, providing both fragrance and beauty.
Assamese villages are not just aesthetic but also very clean. Homes here, like in villages everywhere in India, are spotless. What is noticeably different, is how clean the common spaces and pathways are. This is true across the board, of tribal villages, migrant villages and mixed community villages. Homes are generally organised in a geometrical grid, on either side of straight pathways, overlooking their own farms. Land holdings vary quite considerably in size, with the average size across Assam (as per official statistics) being 1.1 hectares.
Every village has a common community hall, adjacent to a small temple or namgorh. Most of the meetings I had with Women’s Self Help Groups and Farmers clubs were held in such halls. Open sided and airy, but covered with a sturdy roof, to keep out the rain, these provide an all weather meeting space, for the village. They also serve as the community space for music, dance, theatre and religious discourse in a tradition established by the great Assamese Bhakti saint Sankara Deva who provided Assam with a sense of cultural identity and unity in the 15th century.
I was also delighted to find that every village has a Primary school (up to Class V) with spacious play grounds. Mid day meals are provided free of cost and attendance is good. Teachers are usually from the village itself. Many of these schools are set up as “Venture” schools, whereby some resources are provided by villagers, and the state provides a grant in addition. This seems to provide the much needed element of local parental control to ensure the desired quality of education. Middle / High schools usually serve a cluster of villages and are generally within a radius of 5-7 kms. Both children and adults use bicycles to commute and the quality of roads (as attributed through sign boards to the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna !) is excellent.
In contrast medical facilities seem sparse and inadequate. Where Primary Health centres exist, they are usually unstaffed or at best staffed by a compounder. Many villagers attributed this to past insurgency where doctors were often victims of kidnapping or extortion. Though the region is rich in medicinal herbs, practitioners of traditional medicine, were few and far between. Thanks to the national Maternity health program that incentivises delivery at a hospital rather than at home, mid wives are also a vanishing breed.
Families are generally small with an average of 2-3 Children. Elders seem to be an integral part of the household, and are treated with obvious respect and care. There appeared to be no gender bias, with girls and boys treated with the same amount of affection and provided with equal access to education. Villagers acknowledged that there was a cultural bias towards superstition, and many spoke in hushed voices of black magic and witch hunts.
Several villages have been provided electricity through the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojna, though electricity supply tends to be erratic. Villagers pay for electricity, reporting rates of between Rs 4.20 per unit to Rs 9 per unit ! Construction of toilets is limited – ranging from 10- 40 %. Penetration of mobile phones was high, averaging 75-90%.
There has traditionally been no culture of individual savings, but over the past year the women have taken to the concept of Savings cum loans SHGs enthusiastically. Average savings range from Rs 10 – Rs 25 per week. Loans are granted to members at interest rates of 2 %. – 4% per month. When I expressed surprise at the high rates, they patiently explained that it made calculation easier ! They also explained that as profits would be shared amongst members of the SHG, the rate in itself did not matter…a good lesson in the principles of co- operative banking. No more than 2-3 women in each village had a bank account, and there was a general complaint that banks were both too far and too unresponsive to be useful (average of 5 day long trips to open an account).
Identity papers in the form of ration cards, or voter ID cards were rarely available. No one had heard of the UID or Aadhar project. Job cards were available with BPL families but usage of the MG NREGS scheme was limited – and experience of receiving payments was poor. The general perception was that there was a fair amount of corruption associated with the scheme, though on probing there was very poor knowledge about the actual details.
Mahatma Gandhi describing the ideal of Gram Swaraj, said ” Independence begins at the bottom… A society must be built in which every village has to be self sustained and capable of managing its own affairs…”
Viewed from this perspective Assamese villages and households are almost completely self sufficient. They grow their own rice, vegetables and fruit, get fish and shrimps from the village ponds or paddy fields, milk from their cows and egg and meat from the animal they rear. They build their houses themselves from local material, and spin and weave their own clothes. Many traditional homes rear silkworms for the golden Muga or durable Eri silk, which forms a secondary source of income. Most households are also able to generate surpluses through the sale of rice, vegetables, meat and fruit, or of woven cloth bamboo and betel nut.
Not surprising therefore, that at the time of Independence Assam had a higher per capita income than the national Indian average. Given the relatively non feudal and egalitarian nature of Assamese society, and the self sufficient prosperity of its villages, Gandhi ji is said to have described Assam as Ram Rajya.
Regrettably the problems of the past few decades have disturbed this idyllic paradise. Ethnic tensions and violence have disrupted not just peace but traditional local self governance structures. There is little faith in the Village Council Development Committees (VCDCs that operate in Schedule VI districts such as Bodoland) where members are selected rather than elected. Though the performance of villages where there were Gram Panchayats with elected Panchayat members seemed to inspire more confidence, the general impression conveyed was that once appointed / elected local representatives got arrogant and corrupt.
Depending on where one was, there was a sense of reserve and wariness, and in a few cases of resignation and despair in the eyes of villagers. Though peace has returned to the region there is an under current of fear that this is no more than a temporary armistice.
This is truly a pity – for this beautiful state has much to offer its citizens and the rest of the country. Assam has the potential to become if not the food basket, the fruit and vegetable basket of India. With abundant rainfall, fertile soil and favourable climatic conditions the potential of this state is enormous.
To unleash this potential will take statesmanship – and also leadership in tackling issues that have reminded un- resolved for too long.