Rural Livelihood Complexes: A Perspective on Mishing Livelihood System


Pritom Jyoti Sarmah

Ph.D Research Scholar, Department of Geography, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Meghalaya, India



North-eastern India, despite its multifaceted potential, is one of the most underrated and least explored regions of the country. In terms of natural resources, the region is identified as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. This immense potential, however, is yet to be interpreted into economic prosperity. The very concept of livelihood in North-East India is related to the natural resource potentials at the sub-community level. The Mishing in Assam is a riverine tribal community living at the confluences of rivers like Brahmaputra, Subansiri and their tributaries. Their livelihood system is composed of simple resources. The main objective of the paper is that by taking an example from Mishing one examines the complexities and livelihood linkages of a rural system in order to understand the survivability aspects of rural communities in totality. The paper is mostly based on observations made from primary sources of information. The paper concludes with a broad generalisation on how rural tribal communities like Mishing realize their livelihood from a web of five main resource complexes and have survived and lived over the years by productively utilising these livelihood resources in whatever form they may be available.


KEYWORDS: Capital Assets, Livelihood, Sustainability.



According to Chambers and Conway (DFID, 1998), a livelihood “comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources) and activities required for a means of living”. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, both now and in the future, without undermining the natural resource base (cited in Salagrama, 2006:1). Following this definition the issue of rural livelihood complexes is related mainly to enhancement and diversification. The livelihood system of tribal rural communities in north-east India is complex, dynamic and multi- faceted. The perception of live and livelihood varies with respect to topographic location of habitats, type of community, customs, beliefs, tradition, practices, religion, fluctuations in resources, social, cultural, economic, ecological and political determinants. The livelihood system of Mishing community in Assam is characterised by diverse activities and intertwined with urban opportunities. Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for the Mishing in Assam. Mostly land based and agrarian activities form the basic structure of Mishing livelihood system. Besides this informal economic activities both farm and non-farm also determines their livelihood. The Mishing as a community have passed through several stages of development and their economy and livelihood system has changed over time from hunter gatherer to settled agriculture.

In a rural economy like the Mishing a host of factors together combines and forms the entire livelihood mechanism. Their livelihood system is an interlink of natural, physical, human, social and financial assets. Together they form their entire rural livelihood complexes of Mishing in Assam.



The main objective of the paper is that by taking an example from Mishing one examines the complexities and livelihood linkages of a rural system in order to understand the survivability aspects of rural communities in totality.



The paper is a part of a Doctoral Research based on a comparative study of two Mishing groups residing in two different geographical locales. One group comprises of those households who live in Majuli Island which is a water lock area and the second group resides in Gogamukh which is a land lock area. Majuli Island is located in the Jorhat district of Assam and it is the largest river island in the World.  It is located between 26° 45'N to 27° 12'N latitude and 93°39'E to 94° 35'E longitude and 84.50 meters above mean sea level. The total population of the island is 1, 68,000 (2011 census), out of which 40 percent comprises of the Mishing tribe. Majuli Island is within River Brahmaputra in southern direction of Assam and is also surrounded by River Subansiri (a tributary to the former) in the north. Gogamukh is a revenue circle in Dhemaji district. It is the administrative headquarter of the Mishing with Mishing Autonomous Council being located. Gogamukh lies to the North of River Brahmaputra. It is located between 27ş44' N to 27ş43' N latitude and 94 ş 32 ‘E to 94 ş 31’ E longitudes. The elevation above mean sea level is 102 meters. Its geographical area is 478.28 square kilometre. The total population of Gogamukh according to 2011 census is 98,760. Forty percent out of the total population here too belongs to Mishing tribe.



The study is empirical in nature. Considering the theoretical aspects of the present paper the methodology for the discussion is mostly based on secondary sources of literature. Only the factual part in most instances is based mostly on primary source.



The inputs to the livelihood system are resources and assets. Resources can be seen as immediate means needed for livelihood generation. Household is the main unit of livelihood generation. The ability to pursue different livelihood strategies is dependent on the basic material and social, tangible and intangible assets that people have in their possession. Drawing on an economic metaphor, such livelihood resources may be seen as the ‘capital’ base from which different productive streams are derived from which livelihoods are constructed (Sconnes, 1998:7). Assets may be tangible, such as food stores and cash savings, as well as trees, land, livestock, tools, and other resources. Assets may also be intangible such as claims one can make for food, work, and assistance as well as access to materials, information, education, health services and employment opportunities (DFID, 1999 cited in Kalimang, Kihombo and Kalimang, 2014:1). Once the key characteristics of different groups of the poor have been identified, the livelihoods of these different groups can be analysed in more detail. The objective of carrying out a livelihood analysis is to provide a picture of the linkages between institutional factors and people’s livelihood from the point of view of poor people. This will ensure that subsequent analysis of institutional factors remain focused on the influences they have on poor people’s livelihood and is not diverted towards looking at broader institutional issues for their own sake(IFAD:1).


Different geographical habitats provide different sets of environmental conditions to different rural tribal communities who reside in them. So they have access to diverse sets of livelihood assets and resources which they can use in the short and long term basis to create a viable livelihood not only for their present generation but also for their future generations to come. Material resources like land or tools are not only important but capacities and capabilities of people are also important in creating a sustainable livelihood. The Mishing tribe in Assam is a hard working prudent agrarian community with a simple livelihood structure. On the basis of IFAD’s livelihood asset pentagon this short paper attempts to combine different capital assets which serve as a livelihood resource for the Mishing community and forms the livelihood complex of their entire system. Each of these capital assets is so broad in definition and measurement that it is not possible for the present study to go into this beyond a certain limit. These five livelihood assets are Natural, Human, Physical, Social and Financial.


5.1 Natural Capital:

In any rural livelihood system Natural capital mainly comprises of land, forest, fish, wildlife, air and water. Although these resources are renewable resources and can be renewed by natural processes, they can also be depleted as a result of over use by humans.


Figure 1: IFADs Livelihood Assets Pentagon


Both Majuli Island and Gogamukh comprises of a rich and diverse natural ecosystem. It is from their immediate natural ecosystem habitat that the provision of food, water, wood, fibre and essential ecosystem services and functions are derived by the rural Mishing households. And they must be maintained in order to support Majuli and Gogamukh population into the future. Simultaneously, it is from the land that 60 percent of the people directly derive their livelihood – in the form of agriculture, forestry and other natural products. Land is the most important natural capital for the Mishing households. The land holding measuring unit is Bigha. The land holding size varies from small to moderate to large size holdings. Both natural and anthropogenic factors play an important role in determining the land holding size for the Mishing. In Majuli Island it is the natural factors like flood and rapid erosion by Brahmaputra and Subansiri rivers which has led to drastic reduction in land holdings of the Mishing tribe who lives on the island. Similarly in mainland areas like Gogamukh it is mostly the anthropogenic factors like growth in family size have mainly resulted into fragmentation of large holdings into small cluster holdings.  In Majuli Island about 49.38 percent of households have small size holdings and in Gogamukh 55.63 percent have small size of holdings. Another 37.51 percent in Majuli have moderate size holdings and 28.13 percent in Gogamukh have moderate land holding size. The percent of households with large size holdings is small in both the areas. In Majuli 13.13 percent have large holdings as compared to 16.25 percent in Gogamukh. So, land is the most important natural capital of sustenance in a rural economy.


Similarly, common property resources (CPR’s) like community farming lands, grazing and fodder lands, char lands, access to woods and fuel and ponds and other water bodies etc., also constitutes a vital natural capital in a tribal economy like that of Mishing in Majuli Island and Gogamukh. It is observed during the study that in both the areas households have an equal access to village CPR’s and they differ only in usage of these CPR’s. The Mishing households in Majuli Island are more dependent on CPR’s than the Mishing in Gogamukh. There are 65.63 percent of households in Majuli Island who regularly use village CPR’s as compared to 31.88 percent in Gogamukh. The poor typically are much users of these common property resources in attaining sustainability.


In line with CPR’s Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP’s) are also vital in a rural economy. Most of the households in a tribal economy like Mishing derive a significant portion of their income and livelihood directly or indirectly from NTFP which are locally available within the vicinity of their habitats. NTFP’s are critical to Mishing livelihood system as they are found to provide the rural Mishing folks with important subsistence resources like bamboo, cane, fuel wood, fruits, edible plants, fodder, herbs and medicinal plants which serve as a source of cash income for them.


5.2 Physical Capital:

Physical capital in a rural economy constitutes those assets which aids in the process of production. In other words physical capital helps in the conversion of raw materials into finished products and services. Availability of physical capital boosts productivity and enhances income earned by a household. Physical capital allows the work to be accomplished faster as well as for diversification (Mphande, 2016:20). For the Mishing tribe house and land forms the main physical capital around which their livelihood depends. Beside this agricultural assets (like ploughs, tractor, irrigation pump, carts/boats, weaving gear etc.), household items (like electric bulb, gas stove, radio, mobile, television, kitchen utensils/vessels etc) and livestock (like cows, goats, pigs, chicken, ducks, pigeon etc.) are other important physical capital that plays an important role in their livelihood production. The types of physical capital found in the Mishing economy are greatly valued by the households and these assets are stock resources for them. But, to be able to make a fully utilisation of physical capital, there is a need of human capital as well. It is only through human capital the physical assets can be managed and utilised ushering prosperity of the households in deriving livelihood and sustainability from the same.


5.3 Human Capital:

Human capital is a combination of knowledge, habits, social behaviour and personality that contribute to economic benefits for an individual and/or community (Ellis, 1996 cited in Mphande, 2016: 20). Human capital also includes skills both traditional as well as modern. Human capital is increased by investment in education and training, as well as skills acquired through pursuing one or more occupations (Ellies, 2000:33, 34). For the Mishing tribe in Majuli Island and Gogamukh area of Assam labour and household relation forms the main asset of human capital. For the Mishing labour as a human capital is assessed mainly from the point of view of health conditions. Work efficiency can only be attained by being free from illness and debilitating health problems.


Assessment of quality of human capital in Majuli Island and Gogamukh among the Mishing household is done on the basis of age group and household size, health, education, occupation, skills and training. Maximum percent of population in both the areas are found in the young and middle age group working population of greater than 20 years and less than 60 years. Traditionally known to have larger families the Mishing groups of the present generation shows a remarkable change in terms of household size. The concept of join family has slowly and gradually been replaced by nuclear family thereby, leading to division of labour and fragmentations of total land holding sizes which impacts their livelihood. The education level of the household is assessed by taking into consideration the education status of the head of household. It is found that in both Majuli Island and Gogamukh 75 percent of   household have some formal educations. Among this maximum percent of head of household have attained education up to secondary level (8-10). The percent of household with higher education is quite low. It is noted that only 3.75 of household in Majuli Island and 13.13 percent in Gogamukh where the head of household is a graduate. Since maximum percent of household are found to possess low levels of education therefore agriculture and non-formal occupations predominates their livelihood system.


The Mishing of both Majuli Island and Gogamukh are well built energetic hard working community. One finds that 60 percent of Mishing in Majuli Island and 69.38 percent in Gogamukh have good health. Another 34.38 percent in Majuli and 27.50 percent in Gogamukh have moderate health. Only about 5.63 percent in Majuli and 3.13 percent in mainland Gogamukh have poor health. So the quality of human resource in both the areas in terms of health condition is quite appreciable.


But the actual assessment of human capital in any rural livelihood system can be made only by the skills known and practised by the households in deriving their livelihood and by the occupational structure of the households. In the study it is found that the Mishing tribal households of Majuli Island and Gogamukh are well acquainted with traditional skills like farming, weaving, animal rearing, fishing, basketry, house-building which are practised by almost every Mishing households in deriving their livelihood. But knowing and practising these traditional skills do not ensures them of a sustainable livelihood as they contribute minimally to their income and earnings. The traditional skills are practised at a household level and are crude and lack refinement. The percent of household, who possesses knowledge of modern skills like poultry, piggery, dairy farming, fisheries, horticulture, vegetable farming etc., is significantly considerable in both the areas. But a good majority of the household are not being able to utilise the learned modern skills to earn a livelihood. In Majuli Island 66.88 percent of Mishing household do not practise the learned modern skills and in Gogamukh 73.13 percent do not practise. The reasons for this are many. Paucity of credit and loan facilities, low demand of the local products, high transportation costs, natural calamities etc., are some of the identified factors which have hampered the livelihood earnings of the Mishing in Majuli Island and Gogamukh.


The occupational structure in Majuli Island and Gogamukh does not exhibit any characteristics significantly different from the characteristics of any other rural economy across the country. Subsistence agriculture and allied activities are the main occupation of the households in both Majuli and Gogamukh.


Both quantity and quality of human capital is essential in maintaining a sustainable rural livelihood system. Increased human capital leads to more intensive work, while quality human capital leads to increase in production capacities. The Mishing livelihood system is greatly influenced by its human resources.  The main factor of their human capital affecting their livelihood system is the division of labour due to break in join family system affecting the total landholding structure which in return seems to affect the household income and welfare.


5.4 Social Capital:

The roots of any human civilisation are strengthening by the organisation of its social structure. Social capital plays a vital role in livelihood promotion among the rural tribal societies like the Mishing. Social capital is defined by Moser (1998) as ‘reciprocity within communities and between households based on trust deriving from social ties’ (Moser, 1998, cited in Ellies, 2000: 36, 37). The term social capital attempts to capture community and wider social claims on which individuals and households can draw by virtue of their belonging to social groups of varying degrees of inclusiveness in society at large (Ellis, 2000:36). The Mishing society is a close knit society where personal and family networks form the social ties. Elements of mutual understanding and trust flow within the social networks of the Mishing. Participation of household in social networks is active among the Mishing tribe. Both society and social bonds plays an important role among the Mishing culture and life. In fact, it is found during the course of the study that the inter-village relationship among the Mishing is very cordial and strongly marked by a sense of brotherhood and oneness in both Majuli Island and Gogamukh.


5.5 Financial Capital:

In most rural livelihood system a host of elements combines together in serving as financial sources for the households. Financial capital is mostly in the light of income, investment, cost and consumption levels of households in a rural economy. For rural Mishing households of Majuli Island and Gogamukh financial capital is mostly savings and access to credit facilities like loans from banking institutions, local bodies like cooperative societies, self help groups and moneylenders. But neither of these is directly productive forms of capital and plays their role in the overall assets portfolio of households. 60 percent of income of the Mishing households in Majuli Island and Gogamukh comes directly from agriculture and the remaining 40 percent comes from various agricultural allied activities and services. Investment level of the households is low in both the areas. Input cost level is also low. Only those households with large land holdings are found to incur every year some input costs in the form of purchase of seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and labour costs (outside family). The consumption levels of households in both the areas show variations. Consumption is mainly in relation to expenditure on food, clothes/household items, education of children and medical expenditure. In fact, overall it is observed and found that the financial resources of the Mishing community in general is very limited and mostly confines to and depends on agriculture. Investment, cost, consumption intrinsically not only depends on income of the households but are also in accordance with the income of households respectively.



The present paper on rural livelihood complexes by taking an example from the Mishing community of Assam presents one with a more of a theoretical perception on how rural tribal communities across the globe realize their livelihood opportunities mainly from the web of five main capital assets as discussed above (see figure 1). Such rural livelihood systems evolve with specificities of their resource conditions.  Dynamism (i.e., diversity over time) is a key feature of rural livelihoods in the developing world. The capacity to move the emphasis of any particular element within the livelihood system or to introduce new components has been central often to survival itself. But the Mishing in Majuli and Gogamukh are as yet, less concerned about it.



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Research J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 8(4): October -December, 2017, 465-469.

DOI:  10.5958/2321-5828.2017.00068.7

Received on 29.08.2017

Modified on 19.09.2017

Accepted on 15.10.2017

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