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Silk for all seasons

Jan 30, 2010

Unpredictable rain patterns and persistent droughts with its damaging effect on seed and cocoon production is compelling muga cultivators in India’s north east to opt for alternative livelihoods. An experiment by a local couple however resulted in a healthy, sustainable and disease-free silk that resists extreme weather.

Boko, Assam: Konika Rabha, 35, and her husband Pankaj, 42, made a decision recently. This traditional 'Muga' (Antheraea Assama) silk-growing couple living in Batakuchi village - which falls 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.

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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.

Their hope was that the eggs thus produced would ensure disease-free silkworms that were resistant to climate change. Their gamble paid off. In fact, the 'Muga' seeds produced experimentally in their private laboratory also brought in a good bit of money. The couple sold around 80 kilograms of 'Muga' seed at Rs 12,000 per kilo (US$1=Rs 45.6), double the market price fixed by the Department of Sericulture in the state, to a network of buyers. Elsewhere, 'Muga' seeds produced by authorised seed-producers of the state government, despite following the guidelines of the Central Silk Board (CSB), met with failure.

"The result of our experiment was amazing. Seeds produced from seed-cocoons collected from areas that are serene, isolated and free from human interference, proved to be healthy, sustainable and disease-free. 'Muga' is a wild variety of silkworm... it should get a natural and pollution-free environment for survival," says the couple.

Assam has a rich tradition of 'Muga' silk-growing and accounts for 90 per cent of India's total 'Muga' production. There are six 'Muga' production seasons of which only two - 'Katiya' (September to November) and 'Jethua' (May to July) are the commercial seasons.

However, a small amount of commercial 'Muga' is obtained from the other seasons when only seeds are cultivated. 'Katiya' being the most productive season contributes to more than 60 per cent of the total production. The state has over 30,000 'Muga'-silkworm rearing families. Interestingly, it is the women who dominate the industry, doing a range of sericulture-related activities associated with 'Muga' silk - from the rearing of the silkworms; to the reeling of the cocoons; to the weaving of the traditional Assamese 'Muga mekhela chador' and 'Muga' fabric.

In addition to their seed-supply business, Konika and Pankaj also cultivate 'Muga' over six hectares of land covered with plantations of Som ('Persea Bombycina')  - a tree species on which the silkworm feeds. They enjoyed a bumper production of nearly 6,00,000 cocoons last 'Katiya' spread over September, October and November. The rate per thousand cocoons in 2009 was between Rs 1,100 and Rs 1,400.

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The success story of this couple in both seed and cocoon production 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 total rain it was expected to receive, given the forecasts of the Indian Meteorological Department. This adversely impacted the wild silkworm that can only be reared in the outdoors and is known for its high sensitivity to climatic conditions.

The silkworm needs temperatures around 30-35 degree Celsius and humidity levels of 80-85 per cent in order to thrive. With last year's drought, only 500 of the 1,500 silk-rearing families in the Boko Revenue Circle could produce silk during 'Katiya', according to Dipak Sarma, Extension Officer, Department of Sericulture.

Furthermore, a large number of these families were compelled to opt for sharecropping work because of the scarcity and high price of 'Muga'-seed, that was hiked from Re 1 to Rs 4. Those who got hold of the 'Muga'-seed, even at the higher price, were the lucky ones. Many others, despite offering to pay double the new price, could not purchase any seeds, so widespread was the scarcity.

Baby and Ranjit Rabha, are a young, traditional silk-grower couple with a 1.5 hectare silk farm in Khatalpara village, a little distance away. Khatalpara village, which has 250 silk-grower families, produced only 1,000 cocoons against projection of 20,000 last year.

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

When compared to the yield of the year before, it was a huge disappointment. During the earlier 'Jethua' season, Baby's family had produced 25,000 'Muga'-cocoons, selling each at Rs 1,100 and had made a few thousand through the sale of 'Muga'-seeds. The couple tried to apply the innovative measure of keeping the plantation areas moist by spraying water during the rearing season but even that didn't work.

This failure has had a visible impact on the ground. Baby points out how the gradual loss in 'Muga' cultivation has compelled a number of families in her village to opt for alternative livelihoods.

However, even as they do this, they keep their plantations intact in the hope that the good days will return. Hopefully the good days will indeed come back, but until that happens life continues to be uncertain. Developmental work in the area adjacent to National Highway No. 37 has only added to the problem. Boko is now prone to air and noise pollution that have an adverse impact on the highly sensitive wild silkworm.

Says Ranjit, "'Muga' is the pride of Assam and the demand for 'Muga' has been growing by the day. If we want to save this silk we must work toward improving the general environment." His words reflect the tenuous link between local farmers, the silkworm and the increasingly fragile habitat.

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