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Kishore Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2016-12-22

Timber shortage pushes  away Assam's traditional bullock cart from village roads    

Bipul Kalita of Jejarbori village in Assam’s Kamrup district had only two options -  either to spend Rs. 6000 for hiring a carriage van or spend at least Rs. 12000/13000 for repairing one of the damaged wooden wheels of his bullock cart for bringing home stacks of harvested paddy from his 20-bigha plot of land. Logically, he chose the first option. With it came to end the family’s long tradition of using bullock cart with wooden wheels for agricultural and other farm activities.

Photo - Kishore talukdar

Shortage of Sal (shorea robusta) timber has pushed the farmers in the state to fast replace the traditional bullock carts either with carriage vans or modified bullock carts with rubber wheels. 

“The wheel is made of swan sal timber which gives longevity to the cart. There is no suitable substitute to this timber for making wheel barring the timber of Sisu tree (Dalbergia sissoo),” says, Bashanta Das, who makes wooden wheels of bullock cart. To make two wooden wheels about 7 cubic meter timber is required the cost of which is Rs 25,000 in today’s market. Only mature tree (of four feet girth) can be used in making the wheel, adds Das. Once found in abundance, timber of mature sal tree has become a rarity. Massive deforestation due to illegal felling has resulted in the scarcity. Now, every cubic meter sal timber cost Rs 2000 which a farmer cannot afford. Rising cost of steel has also pushed the overall making or repairing cost of a traditional cart. A steel frame is also fitted on the outer surface of the wooden wheels.

Photo - Kishore Talukdar

There are two types of wheels for bullock cart. While wheel measuring 4.5 feet is designed for big looking bullock, 3 feet wheel is made for small size bullock. A traditional bullock cart can carry up to 10 to 12 quintal weight.

Some farmers are seen continuing to use the old bullock cart by simply replacing the wooden wheels with rubber wheels. “However, rubber wheels cannot take much load and often crash on a pot-holed road and in such a case dragging the load adversely affects the health of the bullocks,” says Ramesh Das.

Photo - Kishore Talukdar

“Those having their own bullock carts, can transport harvest from the fields in accordance with their own schedules. However, we can hire a carriage van only for fixed hours. So, we need to pay both carrying charge to the hired van and loading charge for engaging labourers for loading the harvested paddy on the carriage van within the fixed hours. More trips by the hired vans mean more expenditure,” adds Das. 

Photo - Kishore Talukdar

Tradtional bullock cart was used by farmers in Assam not just bring home the harvest it from the fields, it was also essential for trade and commerce. Memories of village brides travelling to their in-law's residence on bullock carts while the grooms coming to marry riding on elephants still have not completely faded away in rural Assam. In far flung and remote underdeveloped areas it is still the only mode of transport for medical emergencies. Memories of village farmers using the bullock carts during night while camping on their paddy fields far away from their homes are still frsh among many elederly farmers of the village. The day's hardwork on the field the farmers would fall asleep on the cart immediately after loading the harvest.   "The bullocks know the direction and would bring home cart with the bells around the neck making soothing sound and a kerosene lantern hanging from the cart lighting the road," recalled Das and underlines the need for making the use the tradtional bullock cart sustainable "to keep alive some of our rich traditions."  

Kishore Talukdar

(Kishore Talukdar is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. His areas of interest include Development journalism and Environment journalism. He can be contacted at tdrkishore@gmail.com )

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