With COVID-19’s first and second waves and less supply of bamboo, the Medha tribe’s art of bamboo weaving slowly withers away.

Medha tribal woman in green saree sitting with bamboo productsSindhu Nagaraj
Features Employment Friday, June 04, 2021 - 13:12

Papanna sits on a chair before a variety of bamboo paraphernalia that remains unsold. His face and arms tattooed with wrinkles glisten in the morning sun. His experience in the trade for over 65 years does not amount to much in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been affected to an extent that the bamboo trade seems uncertain. It was already affected because bamboo sourcing had become difficult, and the pandemic has acted as a double whammy. “My father and grandfather taught me the intricacies of this art, but my children and grandchildren are not as involved in this as I’d like them to be. You see, there’s not much profit and it takes a lot of hard work from our end, nobody would want to do it anymore. It is getting incredibly hard to continue doing what we do,” says Papanna almost on the verge of tears.

This art of making baskets, ladders, chicken coops, small idly containers, bamboo trays (locally knows as moras in Mysuru), baskets and handheld fans from bamboo is slowly dying. Without any support from the government, and with COVID-19 making their income worse, these basket makers who belong to the Medha tribe do not have any alternative occupations to rely upon.

Gopamma sits on a stone slab in the sun, keeping before her bamboo baskets and chicken coops with the hope of making some money. Her face giving away the years she has put into the trade, Gopamma looks tired at 10 in the morning. “It’s been days since I’ve eaten something, I don’t even make enough money to afford one square meal a day,” she says.

Without any construction activities and marriage functions, these bamboo items are not of much use to anybody. Uday Kumar sits under big ladders that are mostly used for construction activities. “Without any construction activities going on, people do not want to buy these ladders anymore. It has become very hard to manage, I don’t even make Rs 10 these days,” he says woefully. He adds that he used to make around Rs 1,000 per day in what he happily recalled the pre-COVID-19 days.

Medara Beedi in Nanjumulige is brimming with people on a Thursday given that the Mysuru district administration only allows marketplaces to open on Mondays and Thursdays. Not a single customer walks towards bamboo items even though the street is filled with people.

Chaya’s face lights up as she thinks a customer wants to buy something from her, but immediately falls when she realises that she is going to go home empty-handed as she has for a couple of months now. “We have not received any help from the government nor anybody else. We will die from hunger rather than COVID-19,” she says.

Medha tribe selling bamboo products in Mysuru/Image courtesy: Sindhu Nagaraj

The Medha tribe is entirely dependent on making and selling bamboo handicrafts and without proper support from the state government, it’s getting very hard for them to get bamboo, their primary resource.

The Medha tribe depended on the forests of Nagarahole and Bandipur for bamboo but with the Forest Department banning the cutting down of trees for this trade, they switched to local farmers who grow bamboo.

Papanna, smiling sadly, recalls the good old days. He says, “Even though we take bamboo from the local farmers, it’s not abundantly available anymore. When Mysuru was ruled by the royal family of Wadiyars before, they supported this art. They gave subsidies for bamboo and they also bought handicrafts for good prices. After the government took over the administration, the support dwindled and nobody even cares about it anymore.”

There are four streets in the areas of Chamundipuram and Nanju Malige in Mysuru known as Medhara Beedi (Road) and there are around 150-200 families of Medha community living there.

Prathibha, former Joint Director, Karnataka State Tribal Research Institute (KSTRI), Mysuru, says that the institute organises training programmes twice a year to equip these people with the latest technology. “We are doing everything we can to sustain the art from going extinct. We organise training twice a year to equip them with the latest technology, but given the age group of people involved in this art, the transition has still not happened,” she says.

After the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the KSTRI had considered providing the latest machines to the Medha tribe to effectively monetise their production but people in the trade say that they have not been provided with anything since the pandemic struck.

Rajesh Gowda, current Joint Director, KSTRI, says that until now the government has not provided any sort of compensation to any of the tribal communities. “The Medha tribe that predominantly is involved in basket weaving has been suffering a great deal because of the pandemic. Their livelihood has been affected, and we are thinking of including them in the proposal for compensation from the government,” Rajesh Gowda says.

Vijaya Kumar, one of the coordinators of the Karnataka Rajya Moola Adivasigala Rakshana Vedike in HD Kote taluk is saddened because of the government’s indifference towards tribal communities. “Tribal communities do not have any basic fundamental rights, and the idea of compensation is far-fetched. The Medha community work day and night across the year without basic support,” he says.

Someshekhar, another coordinator shares Vijaya’s emotion. “The government should at least include the Medha tribe under a bracket for the compensation, and the government should also come forward to form support groups and co-operative societies in Mysuru so that bamboo sourcing and trade would become easier,” he says.

There are not many NGOs or support groups working for the welfare of the tribal communities. For people like Papanna and Gopamma, getting any help from the government is far from reality given the precedence. “COVID-19 on the one side, hunger on the other, I don’t know which will reach me first,” Gopamma sighs, removing her face mask.

Also read: Tribal hamlets that escaped first wave of COVID-19 are now fighting second wave

Sindhu Nagaraj is a reporter based in Mysuru. She likes books, theatre, politics, and wildlife.