Rubber Rose, the Kerala nun who planted seeds of change in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills

Sajin Saju

There are parts of the Garo Hills that resemble the rubber-growing areas of Kerala. And this is no coincidence. In fact, this is all the handiwork of a Kerala Catholic nun, who moved to Meghalaya in late 1970s, and has since been at the forefront of an instrumental change in Mendipathar where she introduced rubber plantations. The plantations have now spread to almost every nook and corner of the Garo hills.

At 77, Sister Rose Kayathinkara’s tireless enthusiasm elicits admiration and inspiration in equal measure. From overseeing daily business of her brainchild co-operative to performing a nun’s church duties, Sister Rose is quite adept at multitasking. “It’s not at all difficult as I consider them my family,” she says about co-workers in the enterprise she set up over two-decades ago “to liberate marginalised rubber farmers from the manipulation of middlemen and moneylenders”.

In Meghalaya’s densely forested Garo Hills, once infamous for being a breeding ground for insurgent activities, the Mendipathar Multipurpose Co-operative Society (MMCS) has emerged as a success story in the midst of oft-repeated tales of underdevelopment and unemployment. Situated some 226 km from state capital Shillong, on the Meghalaya-Assam border, the MMCS today sustains hundreds of Garo tribal families.

A rubber grower makes a cut in the bark of the tree to harvest the latex.. (Express Photo by Sajin Saju)

It was in 1977 that Rose, a member of the Medical Mission Sisters congregation, was assigned to Garo Hills. The extreme poverty at Rajabala in West Garo Hills district, where she started working, left her worried and thinking. Despite introducing several integrated community development programmes, her initial seven years in the state were not fruitful. In her own words, “they made no tangible change in the lives of the people”.

After being transferred to North Garo’s Mendipathar in 1984, Rose realised that it is the poor marketing system that kept the tribals poverty-stricken. “My conviction was that no development programmes could bring a change in their lives, unless they are provided with a fair and reasonable price for their farm and agricultural produce," she says.

Having seen rubber farmers benefit from the cash crop back in her home state, Rose realised the Garo hills’ huge potential because of the large tracts of uncultivated fertile land. With the assistance of the Rubber Board (the Ministry of Commerce), she went on to help 500-odd families in 21 villages plant rubber. “It was difficult for them to embrace the idea of rubber cultivation as they had been doing jhuming (shifting cultivation) till then. Besides, a rubber tree has a gestation period of seven years before the tree is ready to be tapped,” she recalls.

To dispel their doubts and give them training in cultivation, Rose subsequently took 21 Garo farmers to Kerala in 1987 for an exposure programme aided by the Rubber Board. Even as the discussion surrounding the cultivation was on, getting land for the same became a roadblock. “The whole tribal land belongs to the clan and the nokma (village headman) has the sole authority to distribute the land to villagers. Nokmas were initially reluctant on giving them the land due to their apprehensions about the motive,” she says.

In 1987, a group of 21 rubber growers were taken to Kerala by Sister Rose Kayathinkara for motivation and training in rubber cultivation as an alternative to jhuming. (Archives)

A few years later, she noticed that people from other states had started taking rubber gardens on lease by paying very little returns to farmers, who lacked technical know-how of home processing of rubber. To ward off this threat, a rubber growers’ society (unregistered) was set up in 1997 with 35 members. She persuaded then Rubber Board chairman K J Mathew to take up the marketing of rubber. Following this, a rubber depot was opened in Guwahati.

Signs of green shoots started emerging when the society, the precursor to MMCS, started giving farmers Rs 35/kg of rubber, an almost three-fold rise from what they used to get previously. "The good news spread like wildfire, within three months people began to come in with rubber sheets and scrap from all over the region," she says.

Sister Rose (right) supervising a rubber loading during the formative years of the MMCS. (Archives)

A year later, the fledgling society was registered under Meghalaya Co-operative Societies (Act 1971) in the name of MMCS. With this move, the society was able to get a legal status as well as avail government support and finance. As a working capital, the society was given Rs 3 lakh from the Rubber Board upon registration.

At present, the society has 265, mostly Garo members and 55 employees. The MMCS, which now has five branches across Garo Hills, posted a turnover of Rs 22 crore during the 2017-18 financial year, up from 1.61 crore in 2001. A thrift savings scheme, rolled out to encourage saving habit and avoid moneylenders, turned out to be one of the noteworthy features of the co-operative. As of now, the society has received deposits up to Rs 1.5 crore. “More than 1,000 members have contributed towards the scheme which fetches them yearly dividends according to their share deposits,” she adds.

A view of the Mendipathar Multi-purpose Co-operative Society. (Express Photo by Sajin Saju)

Besides collecting rubber sheets, the thriving co-operative runs a store that sells daily provisions at a reasonable price. It also dabbles in poultry, dairy and pig farming, in addition to engaging in the marketing of black pepper, turmeric and arecanut. It had also formed over 150 self-help groups in 30 interior villages to build sustainable communities. It often ties-up with the state government for various projects.

Rose’s journey has been nothing less than a roller coaster ride. Her dive into entrepreneurship initially was not well received by some in the Church—to an extent that she earned an unflattering sobriquet ‘Rubber Rose’. “A sister’s primary duties usually involve teaching students, giving medical care, and Catechism work. Initially, it was tough for them to accept that a sister is going beyond the underlined set of work. With time, they started appreciating my efforts,” Rose remembers with a chuckle.

Winnowing out middlemen meant she had their feathers ruffled. In 2012, Rose narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt by suspected extortionists who tried to abduct her companion Sister Cecilia Nedungat, mistaking her for Rose. She would have been whisked away had the convent’s occupants not intervened promptly. The episode had triggered widespread condemnation, with the police giving her protection.

Having seen rubber farmers benefit from the cash crop back in Kerala, Sister Rose realised the Garo hills’ huge potential because of the large tracts of uncultivated fertile land. (Express Photo by Sajin Saju)

Having invested her time in Mendipathar for decades, Rose had long yearned for a success story from this belt. “Though there are around 2,000 registered co-operatives in Meghalaya, success stories are very few. Most of them die premature deaths. Hence, I started working towards it,” she says, pointing out that MMCS has become a reference point for other Northeastern states.

“The situation was very dire when we came here. Things have changed now. Rubber growers have improved their economic condition considerably and become self-reliant. They started sending their children to better schools and construct good houses,” says Sister Cecilia, who had accompanied Rose on their village visits to convince tribals to take up rubber cultivation.

"Sister Rose's initiative to introduce rubber cultivation among Garos has significantly improved our lives," says Jengseng Marak, who used to be a daily wage worker before taking up rubber farming. Today, Marak owns a house and a vehicle and has also ventured into the arecanut business.

Drying of rubber sheets under sunlight before they are lodged in the godown. (Express Photo by Sajin Saju)

For S K Marak, another rubber planter, Sister Rose is a motherly figure who offers “financial and technical support”. “But she has aged now and I am concerned about the MMCS's future when she steps down from the co-operative."

Rose’s pioneering work in Garo hills has earned her multiple honours, including the prestigious Pa Togan Sangma Award in 2012. But not one to rest on her laurels, the MMCS’s septuagenarian chairperson has the task cut out for herself—to lead the co-operative till the time it finds a suitable successor and find more avenues to enhance people’s livelihood.