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