Her mission to grow bamboo finds echo in many villages
Rina Mukherji, Kolkata
August 7, 2017

Circumstances drew her attention to how locals were depleting the forests of foliage and destroying the soil. Conversing with forest-dwellers made her realise that it was the lack of livelihood that was at the bottom of such wanton destruction. And so, she set out to advise villagers to grow bamboo and restore the quality of their soil

Adversity is known to bring out the best in humans. Nothing can be truer than the case of Neera Sarmah, India’s very own Bamboo Lady. Married off immediately after completing her higher secondary education to a tea planter husband, she would have enjoyed the comforts of a cushy plantation manager’s life in the most beautiful parts of Assam and India’s Northeast. However, an alcoholic husband and a disturbed marital life got her to pick up the threads and put her life together for the sake of her three children whom she was determined to raise well. Even as she tried to wean her husband from alcohol and manage the depleting family finances, she worked hard to educate herself and qualify for a profession.

Meanwhile, Sarmah’s walks in and around the tea plantations her husband managed got her to notice how locals were depleting the forests of foliage and destroying the soil. Conversing with forest-dwellers made her realise that it was the lack of livelihood that was at the bottom of such wanton destruction. The forests needed to be saved, but growing trees was not an easy task. “As I got thinking of reversing the damage that had been done, I realised that growing bamboo was the only solution,” she tells me.

Neera Sarmah with a tribal girl
Neera Sarmah talks to a tribal girl about the benefits of growing bamboo.

A tree needs 30 years to grow, but bamboo thickets can be grown in just three months’ time. So Sarmah set out to advise villagers to grow bamboo, and restore the quality of their soil. Since bamboo is a cash crop that can be used to supplement meals by being combined with the staple diet, the idea readily appealed to the people.

Falling back on her artistic skills nurtured since childhood, Sarmah embarked on training local women to make jewellery, bags and utility products from bamboo, forest produce and other paraphernalia. Her father, a university professor himself, and her well-placed brothers encouraged her to complete her education, and qualify as a lawyer. Unfortunately, it did not help get back her husband’s share of the family property that rapacious relatives had taken control of. “I felt so helpless with the law that I resolved never to practise. Instead, I found joy in helping empower the underprivileged.”

One of Sarmah’s ventures was to help rural folk pack dry cow-dung cakes for being sold in cities as manure for gardening. The idea worked and she could successfully help supplement incomes. She next taught locals on how best to design their homes using bamboo and build foundations that combined the best of modern and traditional architecture. As her work received recognition, Sarmah resolved to fight the menace of depleting forests on a nationwide scale. Working in Gujarat, Kerala, Orissa, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, she taught locals how to make the best from bamboo.

Neera Sarmah training rural women
Sarmah in south Tripura surrounded by tribal women keen to learn from her.

Using her designing skills, Sarmah embarked on training the local craftsperson to make beautiful bags, earrings, bangles and the like for the national and international markets. She currently designs in cane, bamboo and wood for Shankar Dev Kalakshetra, Assam, and is a consultant for low-cost eco-friendly housing with the Arunachal Plywood Industries.

Sarmah conducts workshops across India, teaching crafts persons skills to make utility handicrafts to supplement their incomes. Her workshops have been held in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, the various Northeastern states. She runs a handicraft unit, Neera’s Collection, backed by the Government of Assam’s Department of Industries. Her work has earned her accolades in India and abroad, even as she represented India’s National Bamboo Mission at the World Bamboo Congress in 2009.

Sarmah has also worked as a designer and facilitator for the socio-economic development of rural populations for the Gujarat State Rural Development Corporation and the Fibre and Bamboo Development Board of the Government of Uttarakhand. She has been a part of the Government of Tripura’s JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) Project conducted under the aegis of the Forest Department’s Forest Development Agency as a part of its Joint Forest Management programme.

Today, Sarmah’s children are all well settled abroad and she is a fond grandmother. Yet, not one to rest on her laurels, she intends to set up a production unit for bamboo artefacts at her hometown, Tejpur (in Assam), to train the underprivileged and help supplement their income. “I am in the process of finalising details for the same,” she says, a warm smile lighting up her beautiful face.

July 2017