“Every great idea, accomplishment, product or service started out the same…as a seed that needed to be planted, nourished and loved.” – Debbie LaChusa
A small village in Nagaland’s Phek district, Chizami, has been scripting a quiet revolution in terms of socioeconomic reforms and environmental protection for almost a decade. A model village in the Naga society, Chizami is today visited by youth from Kohima and neighbouring villages for internships in the Chizami model of development. This model focusses on health issues, women’s rights, community programmes, food security, and environmental conservation.
What is unique in the Chizami model of development is that economically marginalised women have played an important role in bringing about this transformation that is rooted in traditional practices of Nagaland.
The Chizami village is perched in the upper reaches of the densely forested hills of Phek district in Eastern Nagaland. It has around 600 households with a population of 3,000 that is largely involved in Jhum cultivation, a slash-and-burn type of agriculture that is traditionally practised in the hilly terrains of north-east India.
Chizami’s village council comprises of six khels (the Naga word for clans within the same community) who have equal representation in the council. The council plays an important roles in the village governance. The village council prohibits hunting and trapping of birds and animals and imposes strict fines on those violating norms as proclaimed by a sign board at the entrance to the village.
The seeds of socioeconomic and environmental reform in Chizami were planted back in the late 1990s. In 1994, Monisha Behal, women’s rights activist and founder of North East Network (NEN), landed in Nagaland to improve women’s health standards in the state. Noticing the collective strength of women in the Naga society, Behal decide to use it to do something about the deplorable health and sanitation environment that prevailed in the state that time.
In 1996, Behal met Seno Tsuhah during a workshop on organization building, reproductive health, tackling alcoholism and community development in Pfutsero town. Seno was a representative of the Chizami Women’s Society (CWS) and worked as a teacher at the government primary school in Sumi, a village adjacent to Chizami. Their interaction developed into a partnership that developed into a partnership that set up the Nagaland chapter of the NEN.
At that time, Nagaland was coming out of conflict after six long decades. Behal and Seno knew that the main challenges ahead was to engage and empower the youth to bring about socioeconomic change. After initially focussing on improving health, sanitation and nutrition, they expanded their work to other areas as well.
NEN, working with CWS, started skill enhancement programmes such as bamboo craft, food processing, organic farming, rooftop water harvesting and low-cost sanitation. Discourses on governance, women empowerment human rights issues were also organised.
It took eight years for Seno to convince the village council to accept that women are entitled to equal pay as men in unskilled farm labour. In January 2014, in a landmark move, the village council passed the resolution for equal wages in agricultural labour and next year, another milestone was achieved with the induction of two women as members in the Enhulumi village council.
In Naga society, women work largely in the unorganized sector that includes farming, food processing, and weaving, a skill that is omnipresent in every Naga household. Though Naga shawls and the traditional mekhela(wraparound) enjoyed cult status in the apparel market, traditional weaving in the villages was languishing due to the lack of viability and entrepreneurship.
In 2008, NEN started Chizami Weaves, a decentralized livelihood project to create sustainable livelihood opportunities for the marginalized women in the district as well as preserve the unique textile tradition of Nagaland.
Starting with seven weavers, Chizami Weaves today has a strong network of more than 300 women in Chizami and 10 other villages in Phek district. Realising that it was time to look beyond shawls, the weavers have diversified into products such as stoles, cushion covers, belts, bags, mufflers, coaters, table mats and runners that are now shipped to emporiums in New Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Mumbai. The team has also got experts from Delhi and Mumbai to help them develop new products and also to infuse new colours into the products apart from the traditional Naga red, black and white.
‘Chizami Weaves’ also promotes textiles made by one of the oldest looms – the loin-loom or the back-strap loom – that is still traditionally used by the Chakhesang Nagas and other tribes of the North East India.
The portable loom gets its name from the strap pulled around the weavers’ back that holds the whole structure of the loom with the required tension and enables a sturdy weave pattern. Due to the nature of the loom, the width of a fabric is normally woven at one time and do not exceed more than 18-20 inches. Smaller strips are stitched together to make larger pieces of fabrics.
The project has also helped bring in new perceptions of gender justice to women. Not only do the weavers support their families through their weaving, they are also making their presence felt within their homes and in community’s public spaces by raising their voices on issues of health, livelihood, and environment.
NEN is also working to address another major concern of the villagers – food security. The fragile mountain ecosystem in Nagaland has been increasingly experiencing the wrath of climate change with irregular rains and rising temperatures. Traditional farming practices have also declined in Nagaland with the advent of the more lucrative cash crop mono-culture, which gives better economic returns.
NEN is now working to revive millet-based biodiverse agriculture in the villages of the district. An integral part of Naga culture, millets are highly climate-resilient and nutritious crops.
Among crops, millet is the only one that is edible even after 30 years of storage and can provide nutrition at the time of drought. Efforts to raise awareness have resulted in 150 farmers from eight villages coming forward to participate millet-based farming.
Interestingly, a group of female farmers are spearheading sustainable agricultural practices by managing traditional seed banks in Chizami. These women can recognize indigenous seeds from other hybrid or inferior varieties. Not only do they select and store the best seeds for future use, they also share their knowledge with other farmers who approach them for help.
Chizami has also revived Ethsunye, a five-day millet festival, as step towards bringing the focus back on millets. Several other steps to revive and enhance traditional agricultural practices have also been taken. Alder trees have been planted in jhum plots to enhance soil fertility. The jhum farms grow paddy in the first year, millets in the second year is for millet and rice beans, or Kholar in the third year. Mixed cropping of leguminous and leafy vegetables that are a part of traditional Naga cuisine, such as edible ferns (Riikiga, Thenipiiga and Thusiigakhu), curry leaves (Gasii), and leafy green (Tsiiga), have also been planted.
The efforts of the NEN-CWS partnership to bring about a positive change in society have been recognized by the central government. The Ministry of Women and Child Development awarded Seno with the Stree Shakti Puraskar in 2004, 2005 and 2006 for her “dedicated and selfless work in the field of women development and empowerment in the face of extreme difficulties and challenges”. However, Seno believes that it is more important for the farmers to receive some kind of state recognition for practising sustainable agriculture.
Today, Chizami is at the forefront of championing women’s rights, supporting sustainable livelihood and restoring traditional food systems and agricultural practices in Nagaland. The NEN resource centre in Chizami, built in 2005. is a beacon of development and change in the state. The village also celebrated Chizami Za (day) for the first time on 8 January 2015 under the aegis of the Chizami Village Council. The colourful fiesta had a theme which reflected the aspirations of the model village – “Recognizing history, celebrating the present, and inspiring the future”.