Over 1,100 members of 20 women producers groups in the tribal villages of Odisha‘s Mayurbhanj district are diversifying the utility of Sabai grass and bringing eco-friendly furniture, bags, boxes, tablemats and other items to the shelves. The grass was earlier used only for making ropes. Around 15 local women of the district formed the first self help group in 2006 to cultivate the art of weaving the grass into useful goods and decorative items, said Kalpana Jena of Kujidihi, the leader of one of the organisations. Now, hundreds of women in tribal-majority villages such as Asanabani, Pathara and Andharisole are engaged in the art.
The sabai grass is a perennial clump-forming plant with blades 30-80 centimetres long. It is cultivated in the less-cultivated highlands and consumes less water than most species. “These strong and durable craft items made with natural fibres are making waves. Many people are preferring them as the products are biodegradable and reduce the use of plastic,” said Biman Mal, chief executive officer of Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society, a government organisation of Mayurbhanj that trains the locals.
Revival of the traditional craft has provided livelihoods to several women across villages. “Earlier, middlemen used to purchase the goods from us for a song and make huge profits by selling in big towns and cities. Now the government organisation buys from us directly,” said Rajlakhi Das, 34, secretary of Ma Laxminarayan Self Help Group in Pathara village. Each craftsperson makes Rs 4,000-7,000 each month, Das added.
Overall, the organisation sells sabai grass goods worth Rs 3 crores every year.
Lockdowns to contain the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic dented the age-old craft as many artisans stopped work. Kanaka Jaraka, 28, from Andharisole village was not an earning-member of her family till a few months back. She found work as a sabai grass weaver at a local self-help group when her husband lost his contractual job in Jajpur and returned home. “I earn Rs 4,000-6,000 a month,
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