In Bengaluru's Northeast Bazaar, Bonding Over Tea and Retail Therapy

 Pi Dari lives in Kammanahalli, a quiet locality in the bustling IT city of Bengaluru, the state capital of Karnataka. Living far away from her home state Mizoram, in the northeast, she keeps the taste of Mizo cuisine alive by maintaining a flourishing kitchen garden in her backyard where she cultivates a variety of vegetables and herbs found back home. Her friend, Pi Zami, too, makes batches of fresh pickles and keeps a ready stock of dried ingredients, such as banana flowers, samtawkte (bitter gourd) and bekang (soybean), which are essential to their traditional recipes but are hard to find in the southern city.

Whereas earlier, the two women used to keep these home-grown and homemade products for their personal use, these days they bring them over to Pi Kaitei's home, also in Kammanahalli, for a weekly sale held there. In fact, every Friday afternoon, Pi Kaitei's garage is where all the action takes place. From 3pm onwards, women slowly start trooping in with bags bursting with goodies and make themselves comfortable as their gracious host serves cups of steaming hot tea and snacks that remind everyone of home. As the numbers grow happy chatter fills the room - some animatedly exchange news or discuss the latest happenings in their community, others begin unloading their bags to set out boxes of sticky rice, bunches of bean leaves and phuihnam (wild shoots), varieties of chilly, bottles of chutneys, and tins of ngari (fermented fish), among other traditional food items.

"This is the Northeast Bazaar, which opens up for two hours every week giving an opportunity to women from the northeast region to interact with each other and buy foods from their home states that are otherwise extremely hard to source in Bengaluru," explains Rini Ralte, social activist, academic and the brains behind this unconventional market.

Ralte, who came over to Bengaluru from Mizoram over two decades ago, understands what it's like to come to a place so decidedly different from one's hometown that the process of adjusting to a new life in the new town becomes tougher than it already is. "Today, there are hundreds of people from the northeastern states living in the city. Some are here for higher education, others in search of good livelihood opportunities. But being so far away from home can be very difficult and lonely, especially when the local language and customs are so different and distinct from one's own. That's why we decided to set up the Northeast Bazaar where women can meet up, talk to each other, and, at the same time, get a taste of home cuisine," she elaborates.

Just a couple of years ago Bengaluru was in the news for incidents involving the targeting of youth from the northeast. As a fallout, nearly 30,000 people belonging to the northeastern states had leftthe city in haste fearing for their safety. Ever since then Ralte, Pi Dari, Pi Zami and others were trying to figure out a way in which they all could connect with each other on a regular basis and derive a sense of support. Today, the bazaar allows them to do this and much more. "However, conceptualising the project was far simpler than turning it into a reality. Our main challenge was finding the right place to set everything up. It had to be big enough to accommodate many women and, at the same time, economical," shares Ralte, who has initiated several northeast solidarity networks in Bengaluru. This critical problem was solved when Pi Kaitei offered to lend her garage. "This proved to be a perfect solution for us. We got down to cleaning it up and then rearranged everything to turn it into a cheerful and inviting space. And the best part, it was rent free!" recalls Ralte.

The Northeast Bazaar formally opened its doors to the community women in July 2014 and since then has gained immense popularity. "We spread the word telling friends and family and through social networking sites. The response has been quite amazing. I remember on Day One, we had sold offeverything that was on offer within one hour," remarks the ingenious activist.

These days, the Northeast Bazaar is the place to pick up an array of authentic ingredients native to the region. There's everything from samtawk (bitter wild berries from Mizoram), satinrem (egg plant), behliang (a verity of peas), bahkhawr (herb) and pardi (herb similar to celery) to lengser (leaves used to flavour meat and fish curry) and chhangban (Mizo bread made from sticky rice) available on sale. "Most of these are brought over by the women themselves. So, in a sense, this is one way in which they get to earn a small sum of money for themselves. Incidentally, the pickles, chutneys and veggies that Pi Dari and Pi Zami bring are very popular," informs Ralte with a smile.

As women browse through the selection of items Pi Kaitei brings out tea and sanpiau (rice cake) for everyone. Eventually, they get talking about the latest happenings in the city apart from swapping personal news and giving each other some well received advice. "The bazaar has become a major hub for information - whether it is finding a suitable job, searching for a safe place to live or just getting updates on things happening back home. Everyone really looks forward to coming here on Friday," says Ralte.

For now, the Northeast Bazaar is operating on a small scale. The money to keep it going comes from small donations generously given by the visitors themselves. The amount collected is also used to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. Shares Ralte, "If anyone needs emergency legal fees or money for food or shelter, we give it to them from this kitty." And are there any plans to expand? "Presently, we cater to only the northeast community because we do not source and sell huge quantities of products. Whatever we offer is always sold out. There is a space constraint as well. We can't afford a bigger place right now and we certainly can't cram up in Pi Kaitei's 20 sq ft garage. So we are keeping a low profile," she says.

Nonetheless, the women do feel excited about spreading out their operations in the future. "It would be wonderful if we could bring over a larger variety of products from our home state and showcase our food and culture to a wider audience. This is one way in which we can successfully bridge the gap between the locals and the northeast community. It will aid in a creating better understanding of each other and increase tolerance," signs off Ralte, on a positive note.

(© Women's Feature Service) February 2015


Education is not about competition or merit; It is about development

Private schools and academic institutions are mushrooming in Manipur, both in the hills and valley. The costs of learning in these private institutions were high and are concentrated in the urban areas. Though there are  Government schools in both urban and rural areas, private schools were a preferred choice. Parents, who could afford, send their wards to these private institutes, rather than government schools. 

Most of the primary government schools are situated in rural and semi rural areas in Manipur. These schools were functional but it has only primary level standards/ classes. Moreover these rural primary schools have no concrete infrastructures and facilities. Reportedly in most cases either there are no teachers or if any, were on a contract basis. 

It may also be mentioned that most of these government primary schools were shut down in conflict areas - interior villages in the hill areas, such as Churachandpur district. These are mostly during the early and mid 90s during the peak of insurgency and ethnic tensions. Once shut down these schools never bounce back. Furthermore these rural schools are mostly occupied by security forces in conflict and violence prone areas. 

As far as admissions to schools are concern, no doubt, all children in the villages were enrolled in these government primary schools. Apparently they are still small for agricultural activity and other domestic chores. At times children were sent to these shabby schools as the parents were out in the Jhum ( shifting) cultivation fields the whole day. After completion of primary class they have no opportunity to go for higher education as it will requires to leave the village. 

For those who could afford, go to towns and cities for higher education. But for those who can't afford were left behind. Most importantly girls do not go for higher education. Beside poverty, when they attain teenage they become helpful for house hold chores and agriculture/cultivation work. 

It is also alarming to note that in recent times there has been a massive migration from rural areas into the towns and cities. This migration is not for education but for livelihood. Gouzamang Guite , Executive Member of the Churachandpur Autonomous District Council told this writer that there is a huge migration from interior villages into Lamka town - the District headquarter . 

According to Guite these migration is due to the fact that their main occupation- Jhuming cultivation - is the unstable , besides the requirement of hard labour. Socio political conflicts are another reason, he said. Therefore there has been a continuous movement out of the villages into the city / towns, observed Guite. Earlier only those who are well off moved to the urban areas from rural villages , but today there is huge migration of people who are below poverty line, basically with a hope that they could earn some income in towns and cities. Some hoped for better education for their children while most of them just throng into the towns and urban areas for a living. 

Most of the villagers, though, when they arrive in the towns or urban city ended up as vegetable or roadside vendors, domestic helpers, rickshaw pullers ( three wheelers ) etc. Sending their children to schools thus became an unrealistic dreams, said Guite, when these villagers could hardly sustain only two square meals a day , education became secondary . Though there are numerous schools and academic institution available, they could not afford to enrol their children due to the high expenditure. 

There are many drop out children due to migration and unstable livelihood even after they come into towns, said Guite. Furthermore, given this context Guite stated that several socio-economic issues are interlinked in this situation. 

Talking of education in the Hill areas of Manipur , Guite who goes all the way out to the extent of providing land, to initiate the first ever Sarva Shiksha Abiyan (SSA) in New Lamka, Churachandpur district - , feels that it is not only about enrolment in schools or sitting in a class room , it is about development and social justice. 

"Education is not only about merit", said Guite. Education is the fundamental rights of children, he asserted. The very concept of education as a competition also needs to be re-looked , otherwise it is deepening the hierarchical divide within the society feels Guite. A residential school such as SSA is an attempt for promoting social justice through basic education, he adds. In a situation of poverty particularly in the hill areas of Manipur , Guite said SSA is one of an alternative development. 

The Sarva Shiksha Abiyan was launched in 2004/05 in Manipur to ensure enrolment and provide education for children in the age-group of 6-14 years under the provisions of Article No. 45 of the Indian Constitution and 86th Constitutional Amendment Act. SSA was conceptualised to bridge social, regional and gender gaps with the active participation of the community in the management of schools with the purpose of providing useful and relevant education. 

In the current scenario where competition is the mantra, where government schools lack far behind the private institutions, both in terms of quantity and quality there is huge challenges for Guite, where SSA do not have much opportunity to compete with private schools. 

Guite is not deterred , SSA in New Lamka with classes from 6th to 8th standard has completed two years he says with confidence, "there are over 100 students already, and there is a huge demand from communities for more enrolment and up-gradation" said Guite. Speaking enthusiastically of SSA as a community based center of education and learning , a passionate Guite stated that the SSA New Lamka ensure that there are teachers for all subject. There are also an equal number of male and female teachers. 

Interestingly, the SSA New Lamka residential school enrolment has more number of girls. The free education has provided an opportunity for girls. 

As per Guite's observation and findings , the SSA system of compulsory and free education has an indirect positive impact apart from academic learning. He explained that a poor family who send their children to SSA for free education are saving their small income, "apart from a welfare approach, it is an investment, children are our future" said Guite. There is a need to change the very meaning of Education - that is an all round development- and the mis-conception of government schools, feels Guite. 

It may also be mentioned that the UN Millennium Development Goal report 2014 release in July last year shows India's poor performance. India figures in the top five countries with extreme poverty. It is extremely important to note that enrolment in schools have considerably improved but simultaneously high drop out rate. Only 1 % of Schedule Tribe girls in rural India passed class 12th. Drop outs students are mostly in conflict areas, finds the UN report. Moreover about 50,000 girls became mothers at the age of 15-19 in rural India. 

The Sangai Express
February 2, 2014