How exactly do people live in the hills? Do they have access to all kind of necessities? Do they survive by stocking things they need? What about the extreme weather conditions? These are questions I had asked as I was on my way to living in the hills in Assam. Climbing up the mountain to reach the top and enjoy a beautiful view is something that I had done before. But this time the journey while walking up seemed to be more enlightening. I not only soaked in the natural beauty but also saw things that explained the lifestyles of people living there.
Covering a distance of 3 kms takes me a whole 45 minutes. The area I visited is Birubari in Guwahati. On my way, I saw the different type of houses where people live. One of the residents, Kaashi was hard at work building the roof of his house that had broken away due to heavy rainfall. “It takes two whole days to make the roof and just few hours of rain destroys it completely,” he said, smiling at me. And not just him, many people in the neighbourhood share this fatalistic cheerfulness. They are prepared for calamities that can destroy their world.Kaashi at work!
While taking Kaashi’s picture I heard giggles and laughter. I turned around and saw two children walking up holding hands. They were returning from school. When I asked, they told me they walked up and down the mountain every day to go to school. Their school bus picked them up from the main road and dropped them back at the same point in the evening. “We are used to walking so much didi,” said Nandita. This place had such bad public transport that the main mode of travel for people living here was on foot. The roads have deep pits and potholes. "Rahul is my best friend" - Nandita
I continued walking with the children. They told me that there were two schools in the locality that provided education till class four. The schools don’t have enough space to accommodate a larger number of children. Initially, the children used to find it difficult to walk up and down the hilly area but they are used to it now. By the time they reached class four, they are accustomed to the lifestyle there. There are better schools in the main city, and parents prefer sending their children to those schools. So the demand for a local school is not very shrill.
On the way, Rahul and Nandita told me about their family, friends, daily activities and their interests. The children described how their parents went all the way to the main city to buy grocery, clothes, vegetables and other necessary household items in bulk. Like everyone else who lived here, they visited the market once a month and stocked up for the entire month. Then, they carried back all their purchases on foot. The 3km uphill walk that took me 45 minutes! They must keep themselves well stocked at home. There are small grocery shops in the locality but it has limited products. They mostly stock emergency items like biscuits, candles, match-sticks, rice, pulse, chips, soap, etc. Their goods are also sold at a very high price, due to the additional labour charge.
I continued to walk and a bit further, I saw a woman drawing water from the well. She told me that there was no pipe water supply. But most houses have a well nearby that they can draw water from. There is also no power back-up in the area, but due to careful maintenance, there is very less load shedding.
Drawing water to drink!
When I finally reached my destination, I saw a group of women, sitting together, drinking tea. I started talking to them to know about them, and how a loan impacted their family. Their responses were warm and friendly. One of them asked me to sit beside her and join in for tea. With tea in a mud-cup, I started talking to them. All the women had used the loan to set up their own businesses. I learnt that all of them were engaged in pig rearing. "Since it is so cold here, pig rearing is very good business", one of them said. These Milaap borrowers use their loans to buy piglets for pig rearing.
They buy piglets from the city, feed them and provide them comfortable living. The piglets are bought for about Rs 2,500. Once the pigs grow, these women sell them to meat shops. The price is dependent upon the size and weight of the pig. They carry the pig to the city, go to different shops and sell it to the highest bidder. Grown pigs can be sold for as much as Rs 10,000. They are fed with a particular kind of stale rice that the women prepare themselves. The entire process takes up the larger part of the year, about 8-10 months.
Bihu is a very important festival in Assam when most people near Guwahati go to other villages to be with their families. But these women need to stay back, because the festival is a good time to make a good profit. Prices for each pig start from Rs 12,000 bringing them back a neat return on investment.
Members of Purnima Burman and Group
All these women live on temporary houses in the hilltop and raise pigs. They go back home to their respective villages once in two years or sometimes even four years. They send back a portion of what they earn to their family to help them cover the household expenses and make some savings. These women never fail to impress with their drive to toil day and night to earn well at the market in Guwahati. They live far from their families and many of their children grow up not seeing them. All this hard work is to earn enough money to secure the futures of their children.
The visit could not be complete without a trip to the top of the hill. It was calm, windy and cold but the sun was golden. It was beautiful! The tiring walk, the struggle, the breathlessness was worth all that I learnt today. Met the beautiful sky!