Sticking to the broom
Many villagers along the Meghalaya border in Assam are taking to broom grass farming
It has brought luck to Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party; it’s the symbol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission. Now, people in Assam are hoping it will make a sweeping difference to their economy too.
And, it’s tiny Meghalaya, that’s showing the way to its big neighbour. In areas bordering Meghalaya, particularly in Goalpara and Kamrup district, fields after fields are now growing Thysanolaena maxima. The grand sounding plant is the very ordinary broom grass found in every home in India. In Assam, its economic potential is just being discovered.
Growing broom stick has double benefits, people are realising. Besides it being a revenue earner, it takes the pressure off forest-based products like sand and timber. In Longshai, Kamrup locals tell this reporter how it all began. When they visited Meghalaya, they saw how growers were getting huge returns from this non-timber forest produce. In Kamrup, where unemployment is high, this could be the game-changer. With the demand for brooms never going to end, what could be better for forest dwellers than switching to cultivation of this grass?
Aditya Rabha explains why growing broom grass is so attractive. From 1 bigha he plans to extend his broom cultivation to three bighas. All you need to do, he says, is fence your fields and clean it. No other costs required. Fence, too, is only required to keep away cattle as broom grass is a delicacy for cattle. Being confined to paddy farming has its own ups and downs for farmers. Even those reluctant to switch over from paddy are now giving broom grass a second thought, Manik Chandra Rabha, a teacher in Kamrup, says.
Narayan Rabha of Batabari has four large patches taken on lease in Meghalaya. He has a booming business supplying brooms to Shillong. The move to grow broom grass has a big ecological angle to it. In Meghalaya, Rabha says he has seen people abandoning slash-and-burn farming for broom cultivation. Then, it takes away the anthropogenic pressure alarmingly mounting on the rivers for sand. “It is high time all of us spare a thought to find out substitute sources of livelihood. If we could achieve commercial success in broom cultivation, the strain on the river, including other forest resources, will whittle down,” Debojit Nafa, a student leader says. Not the least, broom grass cultivation stops soil erosion on hilly slopes.
Climatic conditions favour the Northeast which roughly grows more than 125,000 tonnes of broom grass a year. The non-perishable and perennial plant panicle is harvested once in a year between January and March. From plucking, sun drying and packaging, all it requires is two weeks of labour. Yes, sunlight is the soul of harvested broom and cold weather or rain is the curse. Quality takes a plunge if harvested brooms are exposed to fog or water. “The first two hours after harvesting is crucial because if the plucked brooms are not dried within two hours the quality suffers,” Idrish Ali, a trader of Dhupdhara in Goalpara says. The life span of quality broom is up to 15 months. Ali’s group supplies about 50 tonnes every year to retailers in Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Low maintenance, high yield and rich dividends -- in these times of farmer suicides in parts of the country, what more could somebody living off the land want. And, the bonus is the important environmental protection role played by the farmer. Any more proof? The lowly broom is linked to Lakshmi the goddess of wealth. The popular belief being that Lakshmi visits only if the house is clean!
( Kishore Talukdar is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. His areas of interest include Development journalism and Environment journalism. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )