Date of Publish: 15 November, 2016
Kishore Talukdar –
Massive degradation of forest land could well mean the death of Assam’s iconic symbols— the Japi
A little known palm plant has a big impact on Assamese culture. The Japi Pat, which goes by the botanical name, Licuala Peltata, is used to make the traditional head gear of the Assamese.The conical hat that represents Assam as much as the rhino does.Now, the worry.
The Japi Pat is shrinking fast from the natural green expanse of the State. Those who pick it are worried, and so also botanists. And, if it disappears completely, it could well be the end of the Japi in its purest form.
Forest dwellers who collect the plant to supply to the markets are the first to sound the warning. They feel it’s a bleak future facing the plant. Once found in abundance in the forest landscape of Assam, people are finding it hard to locate the plant. In the pre-monsoon season, people make the tough walk to the inaccessible hilly forests. January to June is the period best to collect the leaves. It’s also the time when the demand for the hat is the highest since it’s tilling season and the headgear is needed to keep the sharp sun away.
Hatigarh, Mayang-Garang and Bijulibari in Assam and Rajagumai in Meghalaya are the areas where it grew in abundance. But no longer.
Alarmed forest dwellers have started growing the plant on slopes to ensure it does not disappear altogether, says Debojit Nafa, a nature activist. People like Hitesh Rabha of Rajapara are growing it on small plots, supplying both mature and blooming leaves when the demand escalates during monsoon season.
What is causing the Japi plant to disappear is indiscriminate forest decimation and slash and burn farming, says Nafa. “The economy of a section of people has been badly hit with the rising scarcity,” Nafa laments. Timber smugglers are the other problem. After felling trees in the hill forests, the timber thieves use the shortest routes to deliver the smuggled logs, which means the plants in their way are hacked to make the passage.
The number of forest dwellers who used to collect the Japi pat is now down to double digits in Rajapara, Ranikhamar, Jaramukhuria, Jimirigaoan and Deopani along the Assam-Meghalaya border. According to an assessment of the India State of Forest Report, 2015, the area of degraded forest (canopy density less than 10 per cent) of Assam stands at 384 square kilometre, and 154 square kilometre net forest has been decreased. The decrease includes 3 square kilometre of very dense forest and 77 square kilometre of moderately dense forest.
Only the soft unfolded leaves are used in making japi. The mature plant comes into use for sewing roofs of dwellings. What pluckers make is Rs 50 for 20 leaves. When the season is over, all of them switch back to farming. But it’s getting tougher. A particular forest produce-cane which is used to bind the Japi is virtually non-existent, forcing the hat makers to use plastic. According to farmers, longevity and beauty of the Japi are both missing because of it.
Besides its utility, the Japi is seen as a work of art. Assamese artisans show their flair through it. Most importantly, their lives revolve round it. So, if the plant disappears, so does their art. nezine.com found that from the pluckers of Japi leaves to the makers, a crisis is looming large. It is no longer paying to make Japis. “A daily wage earner gets Rs 300 a day, a Japi earns us Rs 100. Making one Japi, big or small, takes more than a day.
Apart from the input costs, it’s time consuming,” says Jiban Kalita, an accomplished Japi artisan.
Thousands of men and women have been making a living making this hand-crafted product. But input costs are rising and the returns not rewarding enough. The younger generation is no longer interested in it. It’s about time the government spared a thought to a craft inextricably linked with Assamese culture. Save the plant first, say artisans. Or else, the Halua Japi and Garakhia Japi could well become extinct.
For the toiling farmer in sun or rain, there is nothing cooler, literally and figuratively, than a Japi.
Title Picture: Kishore Talukdar