A couple growing the delicate Muga silk in Assam has put up a valiant and ingenious fight to safeguard its livelihood against unpredictable weather conditions..

Ratna Bharali Talukdar

Konika Rabha, 35, and her husband, Pankaj, 42, made a decision recently. This couple which grows the traditional ‘Muga' (Antheraea Assama) silk in Batakuchi village — in the Boko Revenue Circle of Assam's largely rural Kamrup district — resolved to no longer silently suffer the negative impact of climate change on their livelihood.

The vagaries of the weather, especially unpredictable rain patterns and persistent drought, had damaged their Muga cocoon production last year. So the duo decided to experiment with Muga seed (silkworm eggs) production. They travelled to remote and inaccessible areas in the Garo Hills along the Assam-Meghalaya border to collect wild, healthy seed-cocoons for mating. They hoped that these eggs would produce disease-free silkworms resistant to climate change.

Their gamble paid off. Moreover, the Muga seeds produced experimentally in their private laboratory also brought in a good bit of money. The couple sold around 80 kg of Muga seed at Rs 12,000 a kg, double the market price fixed by the State's Department of Sericulture. Elsewhere, the Muga seeds from authorised producers met with failure despite following the guidelines of the Central Silk Board (CSB).

Wild and disease-free

The couple says its experiment showed that seed-cocoons collected from areas that are serene, isolated and free from human interference produced healthy, sustainable and disease-free seeds. It meant that the wild Muga silkworm requires a natural and pollution-free environment for survival.

Assam has a rich tradition of growing Muga silk, accounting for 90 per cent of its production in India. Of the six Muga production seasons, only two — Katiya (September to November) and Jethua (May to July) — are suited for commercial production. Katiya contributes more than 60 per cent of the total production. The State has over 30,000 families rearing Muga silkworm. Interestingly, women dominate the industry and are involved in activities ranging from rearing of silkworms to the reeling of cocoons, and weaving the traditional Assamese Muga mekhela chador and Muga fabric.

Bumper turnaround

In addition to their seed-supply business, Konika and Pankaj also cultivate Muga over six hectares covered with plantations of Som ( Persea Bombycina), a tree species on which the silkworm feeds. They enjoyed a bumper production of nearly 6 lakh cocoons last Katiya. The rate per thousand cocoons in 2009 was between Rs 1,100 and Rs 1,400.

This couple's success story comes at a time when the entire State has been experiencing a crisis in Muga silk production due to drought and extreme weather. In the previous monsoon, the State received only 73 per cent of the expected rain, and this adversely impacted the wild silkworm that can only be reared outdoors.

The silkworm thrives at temperatures of around 30-35 degrees Celsius and 80-85 per cent humidity. Following last year's drought, only 500 of the 1,500 silk-rearing families in the Boko Revenue Circle were able to produce silk during Katiya, says Dipak Sarma, Extension Officer, Department of Sericulture. Furthermore, many families were forced to opt for sharecropping work owing to the scarcity of the Muga seed which pushed prices up. But even those willing to pay nearly double the new price were unable to find any seeds.

Protecting a sensitive species

Baby and Ranjit Rabha are a young, traditional silk-grower couple with a 1.5 hectare silk farm in the nearby Khatalpara village. The 250 silk-grower families in this village produced only 1,000 cocoons against the projected 20,000 last year.

“This was because of an unknown disease that had spread during the different stages of rearing,” explains Baby. “Although we had ensured that all the scientifically prescribed methods were practised while producing the Muga seeds — my husband is a government authorised producer — production was very poor in this village known for its rich tradition of Muga rearing.”

The previous year, during the Jethua season, Baby's family had produced 25,000 Muga cocoons. The couple tried, in vain, to keep the plantation areas moist by spraying water during the rearing season.

Baby says the gradual loss in Muga cultivation has compelled a number of families in her village to opt for alternative livelihoods. Meanwhile, they continue to keep their plantations intact in the hope that the good days will return. But that appears uncertain at the moment. The developmental work in the area adjacent to the National Highway 37 has only added to the problem. Boko is now prone to air and noise pollution that adversely affect the highly sensitive wild silkworm.

As Ranjit says, “Muga is the pride of Assam and its demand is growing by the day. If we want to save this silk we must work toward improving the general environment.” His words reflect the strong link between local farmers, the silkworm and the increasingly fragile habitat.

© Women's Feature Service

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 5, 2010)
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