Meet The Woman Behind Assam's Hargilla Army - Homegrown

Meet The Woman Behind Assam's Hargilla Army

‘Hargilla’ literally means swallower of bones in Sanskrit. The Greater Adjutant Stork, native to Assam, Bihar and Cambodia is called just that. Often dismissed as dirty and ugly, this winged scavenger was living in precarious conditions when people hungry to shed its blood were hurting them. Surprisingly, their depleting numbers have got a shot in the arm thanks to their human sister that arrived with an army.

The Hargilla Army of more than 70 women from 14 self-help groups in Assam doesn’t bear arms, what they do have are their songs, stories and culture that Purnima Devi Barman, baideu (sister) of the Adjutant Storks, has brought into their lives. Purnima is a wildlife biologist who works for the Aaranyak NGO (conservation) headquartered in Guwahati, Assam and has received many awards including the Biodiversity award from UNDP for the group’s conservation efforts. This large bird that weighs around 6-8 kgs has a wedge shaped bill, a pink bald head, a crooked neck, a big wing span and is not really known for its clean food habits. “During the breeding season, these birds feed on small prey, but most of the year they scavenge on garbage dumps. As they live in trees amidst human habitation and drop bits and pieces of rotten and stinking food below, they are unpopular with village folks. Irritated with the foul smell, the need for regular clean-ups, and the general cacophony made by the birds, the villagers would cut the trees to get rid of the birds,” The Weekend Leader reported.

With the population of the stork plummeting fast, Purnima had to do something about the birds she had fond childhood memories of. TWL reported that, “In 2015, Aaranyak has received the Future Conservationist Award. Significantly, according to a survey, in 2006, there were 28 nests in 12 trees in Dadara; these had grown to 171 nests in 55 trees in 2014.” Purnima works with more than 10,000 people apart from the women’s Hargilla army. “Hargilla Army is a weaving self help group formed in February, 2016. After eight years of working in this field, the State Institute of Rural Development provided 28 jacket handlooms, yarn and professional training in fashion technology to the people involved in the conservation effort. The people make the stork motif and design on the textile they weave and in exchange conserve and protect the trees that house these birds. Our aim is to support the livelihood of these people through stork designs and motivate them to spread awareness through their weaving,” she told Homegrown.

Purnima tried different tricks to get the tree owners to conserve the birds. She befriended the local women, held food making competitions, explained the importance of these birds in ecology by using mythological stories, prize distribution and reward programs. “The women become presidents of the groups on a rotational basis, we hold drawing competitions in schools and encourage children by giving them prizes. We targeted one school where the children had family or relatives who were tree owners. With relentless campaigning over the years, we are seeing considerable change in the attitudes. I even got an Assamase celebrity to felicitate the tree owners for not chopping the Hargilla habitat and we gave them the traditional Gamocha. They loved the experience and begun to understand that they are getting respect because of the Hargilla,” she said.

The stork resides in tall trees like tall trees like Kadam, silk-cotton tree, Dewa, jackfruit, Paroli and the Devil Tree, many of which grow in private property. Until a decade ago, these trees were cut for consumption or simply because people did not like the birds dropping food in their area. Purnima and her team started speaking to each tree owner personally and befriending them. Since 80% of all the bird population is found in Assam, the villages had to be sensitized and mobilized to care for the bird. When Purnima explained the biological need for a scavenger bird like the stork, the villagers were convinced. “We were awestruck ... by the newfound importance of our villages due to this bird and the trees,” recalls Nilima Das, a brigade member who’s now an active conservationist. “Soon we realized that the bird in our backyard is not ordinary. It is sacred, and with just a few hundred left in the world ... we are fortunate to own the trees where they breed,” she says with pride. After the women convinced their families to save the nesting trees, the people began developing a sense of ownership toward them—and since 2010, no one has cut down a tree, Barman claims,” reported the National Geographic.

Purnima says that local government bodies, youth conservators are coming together to place nets around trees in case some chicks fall to the ground. She gets help from the forest guards, police and the youth conservators who collect these fallen babies and bring them to the zoo. The babies are raised there and then they release them back. Her team also educates children about the birds who are encouraged to teach it to their parents. She began by convincing women to take care of their trees as they were the primary care-takers.

Today, these women hold God Bharai’s (baby showers for the stork) and sing Naam songs like they do for their own babies. “They exchange the words in their temple prayers and sing songs for the birds in my presence. They praise the bird and welcome them to their village and wish babies luck. They include facts about the birds in their songs like how many eggs it lays, how it may make our place dirty but it is important,” she told Homegrown. Aaranyak is also developing a rescue and rehabilitation program for the bird with the State Zoo in Assam.

Her journey was tumultuous as the support from her family was scarce. “I come from a remote area. My father is an army officer. My mother was very protective of us and when I decided to do this work both of them were concerned. They asked me to stop and not venture into the forest. They wanted me to get a good reputed job and settle down after my marriage. My husband and daughters supported me when I had to be absent for a long time when travelling to these areas. Recently my father asked me for the Stork design Gamocha and I cried. They have finally come to accept what I do and they are happy,” she said. “I am who I am because of the Hargilla,” she concluded.

All images courtesy of Purnima Barman

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