Over the last decade, Assam has become one of the fastest-growing economies across the country, thanks largely to the growing tourism potential, tech ecosystem and burgeoning industrialisation. But it is also abundantly clear that if the state wishes to become one of India’s top investment destinations, it would require wholesome development across suburban and rural communities because development is only meaningful when it follows a bottom-to-top approach. Beyond the efforts of the government at the central and state levels, social entrepreneurs, self-help groups, and developmental actors are pushing the agenda for grassroots development in rural Assam through social and economic activities.

Imparting local communities for rural development

Salien’s fortunes would’ve nosedived but for the timely intervention of Woolah Truedip Tea, a startup in Sivasagar, which helped him with proper guidance and training. Now a passionate organic farmer, Salien’s journey to becoming wholly organic came with several challenges. Tea drinkers were unwilling to pay more for organic tea and his revenue dropped from Rs 4 lakh when he planted and sold inorganic regular tea to Rs 2 lakh a year after he switched to organic farming. His story has since changed for the better after the encounter with Woolah, culminating in a revenue of Rs 12,00,00 in the last financial year.

Salien represents one of several local farmers and traders impacted by Woolah. More than 70% of India’s rural population depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Through its innovative and sustainable Truedip Tea, co-founders Anshuman Bharali and Upamanyu Borkakoty have been able to empower local tea farmers and workers who now earn up to six times more income than their counterparts.

Woohlah Truedip Tea team

“Additionally, the rural women working with us have made significant strides, earning 30-40% more than the industry standards because of the productivity-based fair wage model that we have introduced. Some of them have also been able to improve their livelihoods by using scooters to transport their children to school and commute to the plantation,” says Upamanyu.

Just like farming, the handloom and handicraft sectors are a major activity in rural India. This is where brands like Brahmaputra Fables — founded by Dhruba Jyoti Deka — are leaving a lasting mark on the lives of artisans. As a tech-driven platform for handloom and handicraft products, Brahmaputra Fables has onboarded more than 3,000 artisans in their database, exhibiting and helping them get buyers swiftly and at fair prices. In 2020, Dhruba was featured on Facebook India billboards across the country for his extraordinary work.

With plans underway to establish Bellsmith Co, a D2C subsidiary under Brahmaputra Fables, bell metal artisans from Sarthebari in the Barpeta district can be captured in their database as well. 

“In the pandemic era, masks were sold in bulk. Our artisans made more than Rs 2 lakh by selling handloom masks through Fables during the pandemic. That is an impressive leap for many of them,” says Dhruba.

Dhruba Jyoti Deka of Brahmaputra Fables

Dhruba’s story is similar to that of Meshar, a bamboo weaver whose utmost life ambition is to ensure his two children become graduates. From earning peanuts selling his woven baskets in fairs and local markets, he has now become the chief artisan at KraftInn, a visionary Jorhat-based brand founded by siblings Parikshit and Pramathesh Borkotoky that has managed to merge Assamese handicraft with contemporary lifestyle. 

His association with KraftInn has certainly impacted his revenues, as the brand currently generates sustainable livelihood for 60+ families and indirect impact to 300+ families.

“We aim to create a sustainable livelihood for 10,000 artisans in Northeast India. After associating with Kraftinn, the artisans’ income increased three-fold and is sustained throughout the year. Our work culture also allows them to pursue their dreams outside work. Enabling new micro-entrepreneurs, farmers and harvesters, we mobilise the overall development at the cluster level. This generates vast employment of craftsperson in rural villages and semi-urban areas while preserving their cultural heritage,” notes Parikshit.

Many such social ventures have also come to realise the importance of collaborations. No one understands this better than Porisoi, a Guwahati-based venture created by husband-wife duo Kaushik Goswami and Jesmine Kalita. Apart from their primary work, they also partner with NGOs to provide clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in communities. There are also plans to provide health and eye checkups in collaboration with other bodies. Starting in 2021 in the Nalbari district of Assam with two weavers, the venture now covers five villages and supports 40 weavers.

KraftInn workers

“We want to ensure that when you think about hand-woven products, Porisoi is what comes to mind. This is not just because we provide homemade quality, but also because we’re socially conscious and responsible. Our venture is unique in a way that we don’t just sell products but we share the experience of how our customers are impacting the lives of our weavers. We are working on a 2-way model wherein equal emphasis is given to our customers and weavers. We have successfully delivered to over 500 happy unique customers to date with 40% repeat orders from them,” says Jesmine.

Collaborating for opportunities and growth

Whether it’s a self-help group like Moromi in Goalpara or a conscious brand like Tholua Pratisthan Private Limited in Guwahati, the importance of building capacity and creating structures for development in rural India cannot be overemphasised. Shehnaz Hussain is helping members of Moromi SHG to secure loans from banks so that they can start their businesses, while also building their capacities for expansion.

“Recently, a Moromi SHG member under Balijana Development Block has been provided with a Mudra Loan amounting to Rs 1.99 lakh recently from Bank of India, Goalpara branch for setting up a paper plate-making unit and now the unit is running more effectively as a result of more funds. They have been able to expand the unit by commissioning paper glass making, tissue roll making machines,” she says.

Tholua products

In a similar vein, Trailukya Dutta’s Tholua Pratisthan Private Limited is revolutionising the garlic subsector through the production of commercial black garlic. The company sources 99% of its fresh garlic from local farmers in Northeast India, thereby empowering them with a ready market for their produce. As Dutta says, “The company has impacted the lives of 1000 households accounting for 5000-8000 lives by partnering with different growth drivers.

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“These include Dhemaji Farmers & Agro Producing Society, West Karbi Anglong Mahila Farmer Producer Company, Chabua Women Self Help Group, Mizoram One Organic Partnership, Jaintia Hills Producers Society, and several others. At Tholua Pratisthan, we aim to improve the Human Development Index (HDI) of the region, where Assam ranks 25th by minimising post-harvest waste that will lead to the creation of wealth and micro-entrepreneurs,” he adds.

Morigaon-based Gawonliya, a sub-brand of Jolkuwori LLP, aims to conserve Assam’s cultural legacy through the promotion of native rice, pulses, cold-pressed oils, and other traditional Assamese food staples. A brainchild of Barnadhya Bardhan Deka, Dipankar Kashyap, Jyotimoy Baruah, and Sasanka Sankar Deka, Gawonliya’s work is centred around community upliftment. Jiten Barua, a farmer in the Biswanath district, had a difficult time supporting himself by simply cultivating conventional crops. Jiten gained knowledge about the advantages of growing indigenous rice types after attending one of Gawonliya’s workshops. The team at Gawonliya mentored him and he soon saw a big rise in his revenue. Jiten is currently one of the area’s top producers of indigenous rice, and other farmers have been motivated to imitate his success. “We aid in the development of small companies while assisting in the creation of economic prospects for local farmers by directly collaborating with them and utilising locally farmed ingredients. This in turn supports sustainable development practices and boosts community growth through a steady source of income,” says Dipankar.

Also Read | Assam: SeSTA, Axis Bank Foundation launch rural livelihood project

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