Like last year’s lockdown, the ongoing restrictions, being imposed by the government due to the prevailing Covid19 situation, have hit the Jaapi makers of Assam’s Lakhimpur district.
Arun Saikia (58), an impaired person in Simaluguri village under Telahi Rural Development Block in Lakhimpur district, was seen quickly digging a small pothole with his knife to put his heel to fix the bamboo frame to have the crown of the Jaapi he wanted to finish.
For the last four decades, Saikia has been making Jaapis to earn a living with no agriculture land.
With the help of his college-going son and elder brother Tarun Saikia (63), another Jaapi maker, he said due to Covid19 restrictions, his earnings are drastically dropping.
“Bohag (April-May) to Bhada (August-September) is the peak of our Jaapi making business when my brother could make 12,000 pieces,” said Tarun Saikia.
“One Jaapi fetches Rs 100 if collected by buyers from home, otherwise, we can sell them directly at haats at Rs 120. But since the imposition of Covid19 restrictions, the buyers are not coming and we too could not move out from the village,” said Saikia.
Dulal Dutta (70), another fellow Jaapi maker of Simaluguri village, said due to the restrictions, he is earning only Rs 80 per Jaapi.
“I’m depending only on the free rice that I receive as a beneficiary during this time,” informed Dutta, whose son runs a small chemist store in the village.
About 120 families of Simaluguri village are engaged in Jaapi-making, a traditional headgear made from bamboo stripes and palm leaves and is used extensively by open air workers in ploughing and tea plantations in Assam.
Besides selling to peasants across many villages in the district, the Jaapi makers of Simaluguri send thousands of the Jaapi to tea estates of Zoihing, Koilamari, Dolahat, Deejoo and Harmutty in Lakhimpur district.
Every tea estate buys 2,000 Jaapis annually from the makers of Simaluguri, though they could not supply them directly due to middlemen and brokers.
But like the lockdown imposed last year and the restrictions, currently being imposed due to Covid19 pandemic, have brought tremendous loss and economic hardship to these Jaapi makers.
“Customers fear of buying Jaapis from me when I enter a neighbouring village to sell the same. So I have to sell my Jaapis at a lower price,” said Kumud Kalita (50).
To meet his losses, Kalita travels to North Lakhimpur in search of daily wage work, which too has become scarce due to curfew from 11 am to 5 pm.
The same is experienced by other Jaapi makers.
“The tea estates have barred our entry since the Covid restrictions and we cannot sustain with our limited crops affected by the flood waters of river Subansiri almost thrice every year,” informed Padma Kalita (70), a veteran Jaapi maker.
Putul Kalita (60), his neighbour, lamented that Jaapi making was fast losing its craft due to lack of interest by their younger generation who has been migrating to Hyderabad and Bengaluru for growing economic hardships in their village.
Jaapi is one of the cultural representations of Assamese identity.
Its making requires skilled handwork, involving a meticulous process of collecting the Tokow Paat (Trachycarpus martianus) — a large palm leaf at the cost of Rs 5 per piece, soaking it on overnight dew and drying under sun for pest control, making the frame of the headgear with smoked bamboo stripes and cane strands during Aghoon-Pooh (November to January) season.
What is alarming beyond the current pandemic landscape in the village is the unorganized status of these traditional artisans and their lack of awareness about the available schemes offered by the state in establishing MSME units, providing financial assistance, skill development and marketing.
The categorization of Jaapi under the Bamboo and Cane Works by the state industries and commerce department, is not known to them.
Schemes under the Industrial and Investment Policy of Assam, 2019, start-ups like Sarothi-2016-17, the Boneej scheme, which includes bamboo and cane products, promotional schemes like Biponi are all unheard by these Jaapi makers of Lakhimpur.
The DICC-Lakhimpur too has been conspicuously dormant in their activities to reach out to these potential craftsmen as rural entrepreneurs.