Mothers' market and the winds of change

ninglun hanghal

WITH the reconstruction of the old Khwairamband Bazaar in the heart of Imphal completed, the women vendors of the 150-year-old Ima Keithel (Mothers’ market) have been hard hit. In September this year, delegates of the Khwairamband Nupi Keithel Vendors’ Welfare Association addressed the media in Delhi and submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister to intervene in the mismanagement at the new complex. A month later, the Kabui Mothers’ Association called the Ibobi Singh ministry’s attention to seat allocation for 200 Kabui women vendors in the new set-up and the Chiru Women’s Welfare Centre is the latest to demand 30 seats for its members. Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi recently inaugurated the new complex.

Since 2005, after the MoU between representatives of women vendors and the state government to reconstruct the Keithel, the Imas have continued their business in and around the Khwairamband Bazaar complex. While some 4,000 permanent licence holders shifted to a temporary market on the District Hospital campus, an estimated 10,000 “displaced” vendors conducted business along the pavements and roadsides of Imphal. There were several confrontations with the police and conflicts among vendors. “We were herded and chased like cattle,” one Ima vendor told a press conference in Delhi, adding that misunderstandings arose among themselves in their struggle for space in the temporary market and on the roadsides.

Though the new three-storey market was believed to create more space for some supposedly privileged 4,000 licence-holders, about 500 vendors’ registrations were reportedly either manipulated or cancelled. KNKVWA president Meme Devi’s licence, registered under the “Jewellery” trade, was changed to “Kon” (utensil) on renewal after her shifting to the temporary shed. The hundreds of displaced less-privileged roadside/ street vendors comprise seasonal and temporary retailers or suppliers from the vicinity of Imphal. The latest voices of discontent are from displaced vendors from the Kama and CWWC who belong to an ethnic tribal community, of whom a few have licensed seats.

For as long as one can remember, business in the market has been carried out by women. Even among permanent vendors, trade has been passed on to the women in a family. Today, both permanent licence-holders and temporary vendors pay tax to the state government. With the increase in business, the number of small-time traders and roadside vendors has multiplied. More so because of the rural urban migration and, of late, the sizeable number of widows. More than 1,000 tribals are vendors at the Ima Keithel.

Permanent vendors trade in items ranging from vegetables, utensils, traditional clothes to jewellery and the non-licenced section sticks mostly to vegetables, seasonal products and local delicacies like ngari, yongchak and thangjing. Permanent vendors carry on their trade for as long as 12 hours and earn between Rs 3,000-5,000 a day while the temporary and roadside ones make a maximum of Rs 100-200 daily.

The Keithel opens early in the morning and business continues till into the evening. Customers address vendors as Ima (mother), whether they are married or not. The collective identity at this market connects buyers and sellers, not only in terms of business but also creating a bonding. For Manipuri women, life revolves around the Keithel. Besides being the main commercial hub of the state, this unique market is run exclusively by womenfolk and was the epicentre of the 1904 and 1939 Nupilan (Women’s war) – a historic revolt against the British, the reason being forced labour, price rise and illegal export of rice from outside what was then the Manipur kingdom. Vendors at the market share their joys and sorrows and the daily gossip.

Wherever one cares to look in Manipur, women are key players and such local bazaars gradually evolve to become an extension of the producer-consumer chain. While their main role and contribution remain confined to the four walls of their homes, local business centres serve as a source of income and engagement outside the household, giving them a sense of independence and empowerment.

The new tribal market in a separate area in New Checkon, Imphal, could well be an attempt to accommodate several displaced tribal vendors and provide new space for them. Yet such segregation and categorisation of women and local markets could aggravate the already existing patriarchal and hierarchical society of the state.

After a five-year wait, the new look could disrupt the very essence of the vibrant and happening Keithel. With the current set-up comes suggestions of new names and the once-upon-a-time Ima Keithel will now probably be another chapter in history. Generation next will miss the “uniqueness” of the all-women market: the aesthetic beauty, traditional touch and the relationship between customers and vendors.

The writer is a freelance contributor
The statesman, November 21, 2010

Regional remorse in mainland metros

ATIN Hongray’s sister, Ramchanphy Hongray, was allegedly raped and murdered in her rented flat in October 2009 by an IIT student in Delhi, and every fortnight or so she attends the Patiala Court hearing. She works at the QBA restaurant/bar in Connaught Place and obviously wants to forget the terrible ordeal and leave the capital for good, but she is determined to battle for justice for her younger sister.

It was because of many cases of this nature on North-east women that the Delhi North East Support Centre and helpline was born in 2005 in the aftermath of the infamous Daula Kuan rape case, in which a 20-year-old Delhi University student was gangraped by four men in a moving car. In 2005 alone there were 10 sexual harassment cases reported to the support centre and between October 2007 and July 2009, it recorded 23 cases of which 80 per cent were sexual/physical attacks. Filing cases at police stations is altogether another story as the support centre functionaries themselves have had more than their fair share of humiliation.

In response to the problems faced by the North-east populace, the Delhi police in 2007 released a booklet, “Security Tips for North-east Students/Visitors in Delhi”, with dos and don’ts, such as food habits, behaviour, dress. As much as it drew much criticism and continues to do so, the problems have multiplied.

Abuse and attack of various forms meted out to North-east women do not end in Delhi. They are haunted in other parts of India as well. As recently as in October this year, 11 girls/ women between the ages of 18 and 30 years from various North-east states were reportedly rescued from beauty parlours in Goa. According to media reports, while the girls from Mizoram were repatriated, the parents of the Nagaland girls rescued and kept in “protective homes”, surprisingly, requested the Mapusa Deputy Collector to hand them the girls and not the Nagaland police. They alledged that the girls had been falsely implicated in a “trafficking case”.

According to the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Goa, the “rescue” raid was conducted upon intimation from the police of the girls’ home state, and that, in such cases of trafficking, the victims invariably manage to escape and inform their parents/relatives who, in turn, report the matter to their respective police stations.

In an attempt to tackle such issues, the Goa police instructed owners of “beauty parlours and other private enterprises employing North-eastern girls” to obtain verification endorsed by the authorities concerned. That was how the seven girls from Manipur, working at “Rich Beauty Parlour” and who went to fill “verification forms”, were detained at Panjim police station on 11 October 2010 until the process was completed and credentials produced. On conditions of anonymity, a relative of one of the detained girls told this correspondent that the girls were subjected to queer and weird questions, such as whether “you have come from Nagaland to do the same job?”

Down south, about 15 Manipuri boys and girls were working at “Mocha – coffee and conversation”, in Nungambakkam in central Chennai. According to Suanlian, their supervisor, many youths, including girls, live in the city with neither any directions nor clues and struggle with odd jobs. Many of them land in the city, either through or with “acquaintances” or “relatives” but are left to fend for themselves. Most of them are academically weak and from remote North-east areas.
Many women from the region perforce fall prey to the lure of jobs and employment. Conflicts induce displacement and economic reasons further add to their vulnerability.

Issues apart, cases such as that of the Goa beauty parlour involve deeper dimensions. Despite the “good intentions” of “good Samaritans”, girls are caught up in a complex web of human trafficking. Which, in restrospect, indicates that “human trafficking” is being categorically cited as a means to explain the abuse and harassment of women from the North-east. The so-called “protective homes” remain suspect, given that the girls are detained for weeks. The six rescued were not released even after their parents arrived from Nagaland and reportedly requested the deputy collector for their custody. A local daily said the Nagaland police was likely to take up the matter for further investigation.

Besides having to brave attacks by so-called mainland Indians, women from the region are subjected to reactions from their own community too, more so as they are reduced to being the “object under scrutiny”. It needs to be mentioned that the now infamous Daula Kuan rape victim was said to have been “packed off” from Delhi by her community leaders.

For the young and educated, India’s metros are seen as dream destinations for higher learning as well as for employment opportunities. Many North-east women venture out to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Goa, Chennai, Hyderabad for employment and the hope of a better life. And despite these attacks by mainland Indians, specifically men, they continue to strive to make a living amidst hardship, harassment and discrimination. They work in various mega market complexes, hospitality sectors and business outsourcing centres. Living modestly in shared rented rooms, they continue to send home that “little extra” to keep fires burning back home.

The writer is a freelance contributor
The Statesman, November 8,2010