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“COVID19 Pandemic and Livelihood Strategies” – Practices of Karbi Women

Text by Trishita Shandilya

Photos by CBNRM Project KRB, Aaranyak

Karbi woman collecting wild edibles from the villages nearby forested areas

Covid19 pandemic creates a new context for every one of us. Probably, most of us are still searching for some kind of coping mechanism to deal with the new normal. It is very much vivid that lockdown, which was adopted as vulnerability reduction measure in the context of covid19 pandemic, fallout with livelihood, economic and social vulnerability to common people, where the marginalized sections have suffered more. However, there are some positive indications of coping mechanisms evolved with the traditional knowledge system of women belonging to indigenous communities, where they relied on biodiversity of their neighbourhood as sources of food supply by utilizing edible plants of wild origin. Certainly, it is not a segmental and momentary outcome, it is a part of the traditional knowledge system acquired by the women of the indigenous community for generations, which has been transferred from their mother and grandmother to them. The base of this knowledge system ultimately applies to developing a coping mechanism to withstand food supply of the families from wild biodiversity of the forest ecosystem. Present story is a reflection of coping strategies adopted by Karbi tribal women in Kohora River Basin area in the neighbourhood of Kaziranga National Park, located in Kaziranga-Karbi-Anglong landscape of Assam, India.

Being one of the significant indigenous groups of Assam, Karbis reside mainly in the areas belongs to Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council of Assam. The natural milieu is such that they generally live in the forest fringe areas. They are traditionally nature worshippers, they later have adopted Christianity from Lokhimon, Hindu religious beliefs. With the influence of new adopted religion, through their rituals and worshipping practices have changed over time, the cultural undertone prevails the same. Many people belonging to the community still believe in totemic mythologies which are mostly centred on nature. In the neoliberal economic structure, many Karbi men and women have been involved in various livelihoods practices. But, a large number of people still are practicing their traditional Jhum cultivation which they call as Ara Kheti. Along with that, most of the Karbi villagers collecting wild edibles from the nearby forested areas, a common traditional practice which is still prevalent. It is important to note that, both Ara kheti and collecting wild edibles are overwhelmingly the tasks of Karbi women. Though Ara kheti is not very profitable in terms of monetary exchange value, the practice of collecting edibles from the forest has become a very important source of earning for many Karbi households nowadays. In that context Karbi women are the sole earners for many households, who visit weekly or daily markets in groups or individually to sell collected wild edibles. Moreover, with various tourist lodges and restaurants coming up in the district, especially in the areas nearby the Kaziranga National Park, many Karbi women find place to supply their collected materials in bulk. With the lack of educational qualification, poor educational facilities along with lack of other so called modern livelihood opportunities, the vegetable or wild edible based business is the major source of earning for many.

Karbi women are engaged in wild edible vending in nearby market

In the Kohora river basin area, villages like Rongtara (situated at the hilltop), Hemai Lekthe and Phumen Engti (both these villages situated at the foothill) are three major Karbi villages. The residents of these three villages engage in vegetable or wild edible vending and they have been sharing a special relation of exchange and money transaction among each other. The women wild edible vendors of Hemai lekthe and Phumen Engti usually visit Rongtara to collect wild vegetables from the villages nearby forested areas. Usually two days a week the women of Rongtara visit these two foothill villages and sell wild edibles in bulk. This business relation among these villages is very significant, though, it does not cover all the households of the village. However, it is like a relation of network base cooperation, the households of the foothill villages situated at the peripheral areas do not come under such business relation. These households, though involved in vegetable vending, visit the forest on their own to collect edibles and sell them in the market. Due to the geographical location of Rongtara, aloof from transportation facilities and market places etc., this village heavily relies on the foothill villages. However, with the increasing need of money in present days, the women vendors of Rongtara had started to sell their collected edibles directly in the market without the mediation of women vendors of the foothill before the pandemic period.

In the period of lockdown, the avenue of vegetable vending came into standstill for Karbi women of the Kohora river basin. But, the general practice of vegetable collection from the forested areas and nearby vicinity increased among women with the closing down of vegetable markets (fig.1). Similarly, women’s engagement in Jhum cultivation has relatively increased during lockdown period than the pre-lockdown period (fig.1 and fig.2). At the same time, it is noteworthy that the Karbi households were heavily relying on their kitchen garden to maintain their regular food basket. This was distinct among the households living in the peripheral areas of the foothill villages.

Considering the perpetual interaction with or dependency on the nearby bio-resources, the elements of food basket among the Karbi households has not changed much during the lockdown, the diversity of food remained more or less intake (Table 1).

Table-1 Common ethnic vegetables collected by Karbi women from forest, village common land and homestead area in the period of Lockdown

In the post-lockdown period, some of the women of the foothill and hill villages have started reopening their vegetable vending business where they are relying on the traditional economic network between women of these two geographical areas. In comparison to the pre-pandemic situation, now their profit is meagre. With the financial crisis, along with restraints over venturing out on individualised vending business without confining to traditional networks etc. have built up an attitude of distrust among people involving in the wild edible collecting and selling business. The traditional ecological knowledge base of Karbi women have stood out to be the important safety net for building up resilience models to cope with the crisis situation during pandemic, but women’s responsibility to managing the households in the crisis situation has a ‘gendered price’ to it. In the traditionally patriarchal social setup, the whole process of maintaining a food basket is the sole task of women of the household and with the constant presence of all family members in the lockdown and immediate post-lockdown period, women are overburdened with the duty of managing the household in the crisis situation.

Women visit the forest on their own to collect edibles and sell them in the market

The lived experiences of Karbi women in the hill and foothill areas of Kohora river basin reflect one of the instances of dependency of indigenous communities on their natural milieu. Especially, the natural milieu of forest fringe villages reflects the reciprocal relationship between biodiversity and dwellers. The dwellers’ relative continuation of nature cohabiting lifestyle has crafted their epistemic privilege in the form of traditional knowledge over the natural resources which continue to define their culture, ritual and livelihood. In the perpetuation of traditional knowledge as well as formation of the very epistemology the indigenous women have the central role to it. With their major role in traditional agriculture, managing food basket etc., women of these indigenous communities have heavily relied on the surrounding biodiversity and the constant interaction with the natural resources for generations have led to their epistemic privilege in terms of their knowledge regarding plants and its conservation. In the present period of pandemic, the conversation over biodiversity conservation and sustainable way of life have become rejuvenated in the present discourse on coping mechanisms. While importance has been put on the concept of sustainable development model, climate change adaptation and resilience building etc., the traditional knowledge on ecology and ecosystem, its management has not given much focus. Women of various indigenous communities have been holding and pursuing this traditional knowledge base practices and have been transferring the same to the next generation. They have not yet got the required space in the climate change adaptation and resilience planning forum or in sustainable development planning forum as the producer of traditional ecological knowledge. Instead, indigenous women’s traditional knowledge base has been appropriated by others without giving proper rights and recognition to them as the original knowledge holders.

(The above mentioned observation and data are based on a short term rapid field study conducted in the month of May, 2020 in the Kohora river basin area located in the Kaziranga -Karbi -Anlong Landscape and the study was facilitated by the Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) Programme of Kohora River Basin, Aaranyak, Guwahati, Assam.)

About the Author:

Trishita Shandilya is an MPhil Scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai


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