Rubber nun brings hope to northeastern India
Now 70, the Medical Mission nun goes around with armed security guards provided by the Meghalaya government. Thereby hangs a tale.
Over the past three decades or more, the die-hard Catholic nun has used innovative methods to help hundreds of thousands of villagers in Meghalaya state’s Garo Hills become self-reliant.
In the process, she rubbed the wrong way those who wanted to keep the people poor and miserable forever.
In May 2012, a group of underground militants tried to kidnap her at night, but the alertness of others in her convent in Mendipathar saved her.
The incident prompted the government to insist that she should keep security forces.
“There were 10 security men around our convent for two months. Now there are six keeping night watch,” Sr. Anita, one of her companions, told mattersindia.com. The guards also accompany her on her travels.
The militants have a reason to target her.
Sister Rose, as the local people call her, runs a multi-million project at Mendiapathar that has revolutionized the lives of people in Garo Hills.
It all began soon after Sister Rose landed at her first place in northeastern India, Rajabala in Garo Hills.
“I was shocked to see people living in utter poverty,” she recalled. The young nun then realized preaching the good news to an empty stomach would not get her too far.
“Practically all the missionaries were focused on proclamation of the Gospel and many had heeded them and followed Christ. But I was touched by their poverty and sought ways to improve their economic situation,” she said.
She began visiting houses and suggested various ways for people to break free of poverty. None bought her ideas, initially.
She pleaded them to buy a piglet that then cost only 12 rupees. Even that, people could not afford and Sister Rose was particular not to give anything free as was taught in her social work classes.
Finally, a few people managed to buy some piglets. After a year, they sold each of them for 800 rupees.
That was the icebreaking point. People began to trust Sister Rose more and they reaped the fruit.
After gaining people’s confidence, Sister Rose moved into cultivation and poultry farming.
People’s economic conditions began to change, but the growth rate was slow.
It was then the idea of rubber cultivation stuck the nun, daughter of a rubber plantation owner in Kerala state’s Kottayam district.
The Rubber Board of Kerala backed her idea and she took up cultivation seriously from 1987.
She organized a meeting of the villagers to explain about rubber. “Nobody had heard about rubber trees at that time. Some asked me what they would get to eat from the rubber,” she recalled.
The nun said it took her time and patience to convince the people. She provided them free rubber saplings and funds to start cultivation. “Many used the money for other purposes since they were in dire need of looking after their stomach,” she explained her initial hurdles.
Again, people’s attitude changed after a few villagers began to tap the rubber and improved their economic status.
As people took to large scale rubber cultivation, middlemen too emerged on the scene to fleece them. A kilo rubber fetched 45 rupees in the market, but the middlemen gave the cultivators only 12 rupees. This happened because the people had taken advance money for their daily needs from the middle men.
Once again, Sister Rose came to the people’s rescue. She bought their produces at the market price. To help them meet their needs she launched a multipurpose cooperative society.
“Lack of proper marketing system in East Garo Hills led to businessmen and moneylenders exploiting people. People got only one third of the actual price,” Sister Rose explained the reason for starting the Mendipathar Multipurpose Cooperative Society.
The society was started in 1998 to liberate marginal farmers from the clutches of the middlemen and moneylenders. “The improvement in human living condition is possible through a proper marketing system and empowerment of people at the grassroots level,” Sister Rose asserted.
Others vouch that the nun’s initiative has completely changed people’s lives.
“The work of the Society has ushered a silent economic revolution in the Garo Hills,” says Christopher Fernandes who has been living in the area for the past 12 years. The society, he added, has “changed the lives of poverty stricken Garo who had been always at the receiving end.”
F.W. Momin, who represents the area in the state legislative assembly and cultivator of more than 10,000 rubber trees, thanks Sister Rose for changing his family’s fortune. “In 2011, my family got the award from the Meghalaya government for the best rubber grower in the region,” he told mattersindia.com.
‘Rubber revolution has brought in tremendous progress in our area. I have seen how poor people becoming self-sufficient and economically climb the social ladder,” he added.
Pootu Momin, 27, who began working with Sister Rose ten years ago, says he has built his house, bought a motorcycle, a laptop, a video camera. “I also look after my family, including my parents,” he said looking gratefully at his mentor.
John Alexander, who joined the society as a staff a year ago, says making people self-reliant is their prime goal. The society also tries to empower people through information, education and skills training. It networks with other NGOs and governments at state and national level to promote health, nutrition and sanitation.
It encourages thrift savings and self-help groups based on the cooperative principles. It supplies farm inputs for rubber tapping and processing and lend power tiller, water pumps and other equipment to facilitate agriculture and farming. The Society also imparts technical guidance to the farmers and others by conducting trainings, workshops, and arranges field visits and exhibitions.
Alexander says the “Rubber Sister” is farsighted and takes risks for her people’s sake. She is now busy building a multistoried building. “She has foreseen that a railway line is coming up in Mendipathar and the railway staff would require lodging. By the time the need arises our building will be ready.”
He says the nun requires around 2.2 million rupees every week to run her various centers. “Here no one sits idle. They have grasped the spirit of Sr. Rose,” he said pointing to the society’s staff busy making envelops to pack things in the store.
Sister Rose has liberated her people from poverty after firming up their lives with rubber. However, the question lingers: Will her opponents see reason and leave her to preach that good life is possible here on earth as well as in heaven?