Development Debates, Disaster and Assam: Chapter IV Livelihood in villages of Uttar Mohura

Prashant’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

What is the meaning of ‘livelihood’, and why does it matter in social development? The dictionary definition of livelihood is a ‘means to a living’, which straightaway makes it more than merely synonymous with ‘income’ because it directs the attention to the way in which a living is obtained, not just the net results in terms of income received or consumption attained (Ellis, 2000). There is a big difference here. 

To understand livelihood of a community, it is essential is to ‘live’ like the community. This is what I do as a social worker and an AIF Clinton Fellow. The day to day schedule offers much deeper insights as to how livelihood is woven around lives of the people. As I walk along the terrain, I see people engaged in various activities. Our village being inaccessible by road has been an example of sustainable living. The linkages that people have established with the local resources, are awe-inspiring. 

So how can this shape the way that we look at ‘livelihoods’? As often, I find some answers in literature. Chambers and Conway (1992), for example, define livelihood as one that ‘comprises of the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living’. Their definition clearly establishes linkages between the resources that people own and the alternatives that they can practice in order to earn a livelihood. In other words, livelihood is associated with the available and accessible to the person in terms of resources and opportunities. In the case of the Bamunchapori village, people are using the available resources – land, bamboo, livestock and Brahmaputra – to the best of their abilities.

Moreover, Sen (1993; 1997) refers to capabilities as the ability of the individual to realise their potential as human beings, both as a being and doing. This idea relates to the personal self of the person and their actions to earn income for sustenance. ‘Being’ here means adequately nourished, illness free etc and ‘doing’ means exercising choices, developing skills and experience and participating in society. In essence, ‘capabilities’ refer to the set of alternative beings and doings that a person can achieve with his or her economic, social and personal characteristics (Dreze and Sen, 1989). In theory, livelihood does seem to be closely associated with the capabilities and capacities of the person. It is essential to look at this from the perspective of entitlements in order to build the capacities and capabilities in the individual. The people in the Bamunchapori village cultivate the land for the necessary staple diets – rice, black gram, mustard etc – on a yearly basis. In addition to this, they raise livestock – pigs, hens, ducks, cows, buffaloes etc – for milk and meat. The community also produces traditional drinks – such as apong and saah – from rice. The women from the community are trained weavers who create clothes for the family. They generally practice weaving on a need-to-do basis. I often inquire from the people I meet about what they get from the market, to which they often respond with ‘chai patta (tea leaves) and nimok (salt)’.

Image 1: A farmer cultivating his field using a pair of bulls. [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]

Image 2: An agricultural field of the Mising community in the area. [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]

Image 3: The set up for fishing by the community in the stored flood waters of Brahmaputra. [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]

Image 4: Kitchen garden of the Mising household. [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]

It is important to learn from the Mising community about the idea of shared and sustainable living in the village of Bamunchapori. I have gained a lot of insights and had a good experience in trying to understand the avenues of livelihood in order to look forward to contribute to the community in ways that supplant the incomes of at the level of the household. During the participatory actions research exercises that I conducted with the communities, different ideas have been proposed by the community members. As we engage in discussion over the coming times to further delineate particular areas of possible livelihood activities, it is important to keep the existing sustainable framework as the basis. The people draw the strength from nature of livelihood activities they have been practicing for decades. A sheer attempt to introduce market forces or increase dependencies might trigger faults in the fragile relationship with the ‘new world’.


Ellis, F. (2000). Rural Livelihoods and Diversity in Developing Countries. Oxford University Press. Print.

Sen, A. and Dreze, J. (1989). Hunger and Public Action. Oxford University Press. Print.

Chambers, R. and Conway, R. (1992). ‘Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century’. IDS discussion paper, No. 296. Web.

Prashant has a Master’s of Social Work from the University of Delhi. It is one of Prashant's goals to enable and capacitate people for a sustainable livelihood in accordance with the local ecology. He feels that the current systems in place have not been able to provide the marginal sections of the society their rights. Instead, there has been a sense of exploitation of the people and the ecological systems. This need inspires Prashant to work towards human development in order to build a just and equitable society.

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