Granaries of hope
The concept of Kongali Bharal is helping some farmers in Assam to avoid taking debts to meet their everyday needs during the annual lean season
Not for nothing is one of the three Bihus of Assam called Kongali. It comes every October; a time when the crop is in the field, meaning, the farmer’s granary is nearly empty.
So Kongali, which in Assamese literally means abject poverty, ends up as the most subdued of Bihus, with hardly any festivity around it.
For someone whose living is agriculture-dependent, this period of time can be particularly trying. In the rural belts of Assam, where the main means of livelihood is farming, this is often the reality for a large swathe of people. Habitually dependent on their granaries to put food on the table, it is during this time the rural poor ends up borrowing money at high interest from local lenders. They thus fall into a vicious cycle, as year after year they use the money gotten from selling crops during the harvest period to pay back the borrowed money with nothing left, yet again, for the Kongali period.
A bout of fresh thinking is, however, quietly breaking this vicious cycle in some parts of rural Assam. Under the banner of a non-governmental organisation, Northeast Affected Area Development Society (NEADS), an effort is on at least in two districts of the State to help people stock enough grains to see through the lean period by setting up a mechanism called Kongali Bharal or a granary for the times of abject poverty.
The man behind the brainwave is Girin Chetia, highly driven by his understanding that the system of borrowing year after year has nearly broken the backbone of Assam’s rural poor. “They have very little cultivable land of their own. Add to it poor soil condition, perennial flood and erosion and health problems, and they are left to forever struggle to survive. In the process, they never have sufficient buffer of food which push them to a debt trap, sometimes from generation to generation,” states Chetia, the director of NEADS.
It was this trap that had historically led to the system of Pike or semi-bonded workers in the State. The situation worsened when during the British rule in the region, beginning around 1850, a new crop of moneylenders entered the scene. Remnants of those times can still be seen continuing in some form or the other.
Chetia says when the volunteers of NEADS had formal and informal meetings with the rural poor to get an insight into the issue, “it emerged that it is during October that the farmers’ stock of grains of the last year dries up fully and their other resources get invested in the farming of the current season.”
He explains, “This is the time when they lack resources even to survive till the harvesting time. If around this time, there occurs any unforeseen incidents, like an accident or health related emergencies, they find themselves in an even more helpless situation, leading them often to the moneylenders’ door. This often manifests as either borrowing in high interest, keeping valuables in pawn or selling the future product (in this case the harvest) at a minimal price.” He says, in certain cases, the rate of interest is hundred percent. “All these make them so vulnerable that even when the harvest takes place they can hardly enjoy it.”
NEADS realised that the solution lied in micro-financing but it had to be cash-less since the target community was poor who might divert the money for some other necessity. Since availability of sufficient grain was understood to do the trick, it saw a solution in establishing a common stock of grains for the annual season of crisis. Thus born the concept of Kongali Bharal from where marginal farmers could borrow grain from the common stock with the condition of returning it during the harvest time.
NEADS first established Kongali Bharals for some villages of Pirakota area in Jorhat district in 2006. Already having the experience of organising awareness campaigns on health, education and the rights of the poor in that area, NEADS had the ready advantage of both understanding the reason behind the vicious cycle of poverty that the people suffered from there and the potential ways of breaking it.
It bestowed the responsibility of running these granaries on women self-help groups (SHGs). The organisation mentored these groups for the next two-three years before they could handle the functioning on their own.
“To establish the first Kongali Bharal, we formed a women’s group called Nabaratna Samanwaya Samitee to create as well as manage it in Brahman Gaon in Pirakota. The members of nine SHGs of the area came together to establish the granary to help people from the village and nearby areas. As expected, it helped people to come out of the vicious cycle of indebtedness to a large extent,” says Anu Gogoi, the secretary of that Samitee.
Encouraged by the initial results, NEADS took the concept to some remote villages in Sadia sub-division of Tinsukia district. Presently, there are ten Kongali Bharals functioning in Sadia area.
The concept is hinged on an idea long identified as a possible solution of human development by many experts. Even in “Glimpses of World History”, the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that it was the introduction of surplus grain that would lead all the revolutionary changes in the history of human civilisation. In that book, he explained how the early human society, during its transition from hunter-gatherer mode of livelihood to dependence on production of grains, hugely benefited from their surplus time. This surplus time later provided the human beings an opportunity to observe, reflect and innovate. And, this, he said, was the main principle of creating wealth as well as the grease which made the bigger wheels of civilisation march.
It is this path of human development that the dedicated workers of NEADS are helping some rural poor of Assam, albeit in a small manner.
( Nayanjyoti Bhuyan is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. His focus area is rural reporting, specially, on the rural poor and marginalized sections of the society. )