The introduction of rubber plantation by Sister Rose, in villages across the northeast of India, brought in progress to the lives of villagers. Residents not only improved their economic status but also ended their dependence on moneylenders who used to cheat them.
“We would still have been poor, working for others if Sister Rose had not entered our lives”, said Jengsang Marak, sitting on a designed teakwood sofa on the veranda of his concrete four-room house. When Rose Kayathinkara, a medical mission nun, first came to Chiramdare, Jengsang’s village 32 years ago, he and more than 500 families lived in one-room bamboo huts. “We used to struggle even for one meal a day”, he remembered.
That was before Kayathinkara, who is popularly known as Sister Rose, introduced rubber cultivation to them. Today, concrete bungalows dot the village that sits on the slope of a mountain in the East Garo Hills district of Meghalaya state, which means “the abode of clouds” in Sanskrit, in the northeast of India. Its residents now proudly display their bank accounts with thousands of rupees to their credit.
Like them, thousands of residents of 20 other villages, spread over 2,950 square miles in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills, now lead prosperous lives. They belong to Garo, one of the three main matriarchal tribes of Meghalaya who inhabit East, West, North and South Garo Hills, one of the wettest regions in the world. Divided into five civil districts, it is an area with poor road connections.
Jengsang, who is now 65, still recalled Sister Rose’s first visit to his village to introduce rubber cultivation. “She spoke to us about this new cash crop and its advantages. We did not believe her words initially”, he said. So the nun came back with officers of the Rubber Board in Kerala, her native state in southwestern India where people have made rubber cultivation a lucrative business for more than a century.
“After she left us, we met with our village chief and decided to give it a try”, recalled Jengsang who was the first to plant rubber saplings in his village. His room window now opens to rows of tall rubber trees, as old as 29 years, planted on slopes with cups tied to them to collect latex. His sister, Palmaris B. Marak, said her husband was sceptical and travelled to Kerala, more than 2,000 miles southwest of their village, to get a “first-hand experience of a rubber plantation”.
Sister Rose also took a group of villagers to Kerala herself, because she was desperate to end the poverty among the Garo people. She came to the region in 1972, equipped with a degree in social work. She was first posted at Rajabala in West Garo Hills and lived in a one-room hut perched on a tree. “I found them too poor and tried helping them through animal farming and vegetable cultivation”, she said. “They were spendthrifts and would not save for the future. I had to find another method to improve their income”.
After 12 years, she was transferred to Mendipathar in North Garo Hills, 93 miles east, where she joined Nedungat who had been visiting local families for several years. “We stayed with the villagers in their houses, sharing what they would give. We had to wait until evening for them to return from the field, to talk and eat with them”, Nedungat says.
To instil in them new financial habits, Sister Rose started the Mendipathar Multipurpose Cooperative Society in 1990. The society runs stores that sell daily provisions at a minimum price. It also collects rubber and other farm products from the villagers and sells them in the open market. It has warehouses and stores, and also runs a stationery and dispensary in Mendipathar, creating employment for the youth and women of Garo. The numerous self-help groups set up around these activities also campaign for gender equality, and spread awareness in the fight against domestic violence prevalent in the villages.
Church people in the region applaud Sister Rose, who is now 73, for fostering faith among the people. “What Sister Rose has done is a different kind of evangelisation. People need not only catechism but also food. She has filled her lamp with the oil of good deeds that has raised the economy of the Garo Hills”, said Bishop Andrew Marak of Tura Diocese which covers the region.
Fr. Salnesh D’Sangma of St. Mary’s Church, Chidimit village, also appreciates Sister Rose’s work among his people. “Sister Rose has contributed to the 60 percent economic growth of this area”, the Priest said. His people, he says, were “very poor” until the nun started working among them. “Sister Rose has helped them become rich. They now own cars and jeeps and educate their children”.
What has impressed the Priest the most is that the Garos have become strong in their Catholic faith as they prospered in life. “Earlier, their faith was shallow. Now, they attend all church services. They love priests and sisters. They contribute generously to the church”, he said.