Bird of honour: Women empowerment & saving endangered birds in this Assam village

Naini Rajbonshi didn’t know how to weave a cloth until four years ago. But a hand-operated loom sitting in a thatched hut adjacent to her home today tells an inspiring story of struggle and survival—not only of her own, but also of dozens of large birds flying in the sky above her picturesque village.

“The weaving work has given me a lot of respect in my family and village,” beams Rajbonshi, who was a homemaker before she joined a movement by women to save an endangered bird species in Assam’s Dadara village on the outskirts of Guwahati. The famous Assamese white and red scarf, locally called gamusa, woven by Rajbonshi and a few other women in Dadara is a tourists’ favourite for its bird motifs. “This work has also given me an opportunity to inspire others to conserve our environment,” she adds.

The passion and inspiration that Rajbonshi and other women in her village exude come from a desire to save the greater adjutant, a rare stork with a dangling inflatable air sack under its neck that has transformed life in Dadara and the adjacent Pochariya village in Kamrup district of Assam. Called hargila in Assamese (hargila meaning bone swallower), the greater adjutant has been on the brink of extinction a decade ago triggered by loss of their habitat and apathy of people. Today, the azure sky over Dadara and Pochariya are filled with the majestic flying storks, thanks to the Hargila Army of women who have taken a vow to save the bird.

Cleaning crew

“These birds are nature’s cleaning crew,” says Purnima Devi Barman, a Guwahati-based wildlife conservationist and founder of the hargila conservation project. Standing tall at five feet with a wing span of ten feet, the hargila is a scavenger feeding on carcasses, garbage, fish and reptiles. With a massive beak like a sword, the stork has deep blue eyes and a black and white band on its feathers. “They are very beautiful,” adds Barman. Globally, the hargila, which nests on trees in villages, is found only in three isolated pockets in India and Cambodia. In India, their habitat is restricted to Kamrup, Morigaon, Nagaon, Jorhat and Sibsagar districts of Assam and Bhagalpur in Bihar. The global population of the greater adjutant is 1,200 with as many as 1,000 of them in Assam alone. “The number of the hargila birds has increased ten-fold over the last decade,” says Barman, affectionately called the “Stork Sister” by Assam’s villagers.

The hargila was facing extinction when Barman heard about the plight of the bird from one of her zoology professors at the University of Guwahati a decade-and-half ago. “Everyone in conservation was concerned only with mega species like rhino and tiger. I wanted to do my Ph D on the hargila,” recalls Barman. Then one day, she received a distress call from a villager in Dadara. “I rushed there and saw that a man had cut down a huge tree that had many birds’ nests. Nine baby birds had fallen to the ground and five bigger birds had died. At that time I was a mother and it impacted me,” she says.

Changing notions

When she talked to the villager who had cut down the tree, he replied that the hargila was a “bad omen”. “I realised then that there was a huge lack of awareness. The villagers lived close to the bird, but they didn’t know the bird. Changing the mindset of the people was the solution. From that moment I got a mission in my life,” says Barman. Soon, she started meeting people to build a sense of ownership of the bird in them. In 2010, Barman formed a women’s group with 30 members in Dadara village. Four years later, she launched the Hargila Army of women for peace and nature, which today has over 10,000 members in Assam with 400 of them active daily frontline leaders. “These days, we can see 200-300 hargila birds flying above our village,” says Damayanti Das, a frontline Hargila Army leader in Dadara village, adding: “During Diwali we tell villagers not to use firecrackers. They listen to us.”

“I wanted to connect the bird to our culture and I realised that women can do that,” says Barman. “Women always have solutions to change society,” she adds. The Hargila Army has also trained its members in weaving and tailoring aimed at empowerment. During Covid-19 pandemic, a new Hargila Learning Centre was launched in Dadara that has pictures and posters of the greater adjutant and documentary films for creating awareness. “The hargila has become a cultural icon in Assam,” beams Barman. Tourists are arriving too to see the flying storks. During the Rongali Bihu festival in Guwahati organised by cultural entrepreneur Shyamkanu Mahanta early this year, a visit to Dadara to witness the work of the Hargila Army of women was an integral part of the festival programme. “Women empowerment was the key focus of the Rongali festival,” says Mahanta.

Five years ago, at the Royal Geographical Society, London, Barman was presented the Whitley Award—dubbed the Green Oscar—in recognition of her conservation work for the greater adjutant and increasing the profile of the stork worldwide. When Barman returned from London, there were hundreds of villagers from Dadara and Pochariya waiting to receive her at the Guwahati airport. “The villagers will be happier when the government declares the hargila as a national heritage bird,” says Barman, also a recipient of the Nari Shakti Puraskar from the Union ministry of women and child welfare. “It is our moment to honour this majestic bird,” she adds.

(Faizal Khan is a freelancer)

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