In her early forties, Bhagya Rabha sells vegetables on the pavement in South Sarania at Guwahati, close to the Kasturba Gandhi Ashram where Mahatma Gandhi once stayed during his visit to Assam. The mother of three children who hails from Bhalukmara village of Boko, some 55 kilometres from capital Guwahati, started her business of selling vegetables in the capital city as an experiment.

“During the Covid times, I along with a few other women from our village thought of selling vegetables in the capital city. At that time the city used to be empty and we could put our stall anywhere and the demand for vegetables, especially the indigenous ones, was high,” said Bhagya Rabha.

Gradually the experiment in the trying times turned into a full-time profession for Bhagya and a few other indigenous women like her. Today, there are many squares and pavements in Guwahati where the search for fresh and local vegetables ends with these indigenous women from Boko and adjoining tribal areas. From bottle gourd to taro, from pineapples to peaches and plums, everything is fresh, local, and organic.

On an average day, dawn breaks at 3 am for Bidya Rabha when she goes to the local Boko market to get supplies to be traded in Guwahati.

“The vegetables are normally collected earlier in the evening and brought to the market. It’s normally what the villagers grow in small quantities that are collected so it’s totally local and cultivated with cow dung manure. My husband has a mini-truck on which we travel to Guwahati. By the time we reach home, it’s almost 11 pm. I hardly get three to four hours of sleep. Both my girls are happily married but my 12-year-old son is hearing impaired and I struggle for him,” said Bidya Rabha.

Six women from her village have formed a group and work collectively. According to her, at the end of the day, she saves five hundred to thousand rupees.

Bidya belongs to the Rabha community of Assam. The Rabha is a Tibeto-Burman community indigenous to the Indian states of Assam, Meghalaya, and West Bengal. They primarily inhabit the plains of Lower Assam and the Dooars, while some are found in the Garo Hills. The Rabha community has a rich, multi-faceted, and distinct culture of its own. The Rabha society is matrilineal and the village economy is based on agriculture.

Today many like Bidya Rabha come to the capital city every day to sell vegetables, which are not sprayed with water, are fresh, and come for a price.

“Our vegetables are organic and we do not spray water on them to keep them fresh. These vegetables are harvested the previous evening. Therefore our vegetables cost a bit more than the vegetables you find in the city which come from the riverine areas,” added Bidya Rabha.

Recently, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma blamed the ‘Miya’ Muslim community for the inflated prices of vegetables in the state.

“The vegetable rates are lower in the rural areas; however, the prices are increased when they are brought to the urban places. ‘Miya’ people have taken control of the local vegetable markets,” mentioned the CM. He also urged the Assamese youths to come forward and learn from the ‘Miya’ Muslims to be industrious.

‘Miya’ Muslims are descendants of migrant Bengali Muslims who lived in the Brahmaputra Valley during the British colonialism of Assam in the 20th century. These migrants came from the divisions of Mymensingh, Rangpur, and Rajshahi in present-day Bangladesh.

The chief minister said, “We have seen on the recent Eid, most of the roads in Guwahati were vacant as they were celebrating the festival and were absent from work.”

The CM’s remarks came after the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief Badruddin Ajmal said that the Assamese community is incomplete without the Muslim people.

The Assam chief minister said that the state and its people need to accept that the work culture of the Assamese community is slowly diminishing for which a particular community has started to have a hold on the financial conditions of the state.

“Instead of feeling envious, we need to compete with them. Lower Assam especially Guwahati is dependent on Kharupetia for vegetables. However, news reports in various newspapers and channels are suggesting that excessive fertilisers are used in these vegetables. As a result of this, we are infected with diseases related to the liver and kidneys. Even after being aware of the matter, the Assamese youths refuse to grow their own vegetables in their backyard.

Women like Bhagya Rabha not only have made a mark in the streets of Guwahati and among her customers but also have realised the wish of chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

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