Perhaps Ima Keithel is among the most popular commercial center and tourist attraction in Manipur. The literal translation of Ima Keithel is Mother’s Market and it is also often called Ima Market. The market is known for being solely run by women. Thousands of vendors make up this market, and the market is a gallery of colors and contrast exhibited by the merchandise displayed for sale. To add to the colors are the aromas of food that are distinctly sweet, pleasant, subtle and even pungent which waft around the market. Ima Keithel signifies economic progress, empowerment and financial independence for the women. North East Guide reported in 2017 that the vendors in Ima Keithel make an annual profit ranging anywhere between INR 70,000 and 2,00,000, and the annual turnover of the market was estimated to be between 40 and 50 crores.
The mobility of these women is not restricted to the economic realm. They also step into the political realm as evident in the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill where women not only protested in the streets but also raised their voices as they traded in their vendors. However, these scenes and figures were of the days before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the nationwide lockdown in March 2020, Ima Keithel has been mostly closed. On 15 February 2021, it reopened but it was closed again due to the second wave of COVID-19. The market was closed on 21 April and the market building once again looked like an old abandoned house. Wind can rush through whistling and whirling up a dust storm. But we don’t hear any whispers and no one passes through the building. And it is always silent like the night. The economic charm of this market is reeling under the pandemic, and so is the economic independence and dignity that it brought to the women. With some signs of reopening on the horizon, a survey would be insightful to understand the economic conditions of the women vendors at Ima Keithel.
Ima Lourembam Jeeni (53), who sells items such as sarong, towel, mosquito net and others, said: “Before the lockdown, I was able to sell things worth about INR 2000 every day. Today, I can’t even sell things worth 200 or 300.When the lockdown started, my children helped me selling goods in the neighborhood, but there are no buyers now. And when the market opened for a short time, precautionary steps by the government to control the virus have cut down public gatherings and we were not able to sell much.”
On the question of government aid, she responded, “We are thankful to the central and state governments for the financial aid and food essentials. We have received the vendor scheme of INR 500 started by the Modi government and also the state government supplies of rice, dal, oil and potatoes. These relief steps have been helpful, but they are not just enough. The cost of living is too high. Often, we had to ask from family members and relatives, although they don’t decline because everyone is sufferings, it has reduced our self-esteem.”
Ima Ahal (72), who takes cares of a temple at Ema Keithel and sells religious artefacts, stated, “In the two lockdowns we had, I was left with no income. I could not set up an alternative or sell my products. I lived on people’s grace and ration that was distributed. I am lucky to have survived this lockdown but not all my friends were. It gets very lonely and depressing to think about our friends who had passed away due to COVID-19. I am waiting for the market to reopen with great hope but I also have fear about the talks about the third wave.” Ima Ahal is one of the many women who could not avail the financial aid handed out by the government because she does not have a bank account. And the process of registering one’s details online has also been a hinderance because these women either don’t have access to smart phone or they are not informed enough on how to apply for aid.
Elsewhere in India when the lockdown started, a lot of street vendors ventured into new enterprise. For instance, in Mumbai people selling panipuri and dumpling transitioned to sell masks and vegetables, and some even started cooking channels in YouTube. These vendors were able to make optimum use of web 2.0 technology and delivery partners. One of the reasons why women at Ima Keithel failed to transition in any form during the pandemic is because it is avery traditional market. That is, financial transactions and marketing rely heavily on cash money and print advisements and hence, there is a deep chasm between a traditional market and an advanced market. This chasm is created by the technological and scientific innovations that drive modern market. Women in general who are engaged in Ima Keithel are semi-literate and they have poor knowledge about the features of the Internet. Although they are aware of eCommerce and other social media apps, their lack of knowledge has hindered the transition into a market driven by technological innovations.
But since the pandemic, some goods which are typically sold in Ima Keithel have surfaced online. Facebook and Instagram are two popular networking sites people have taken recourse to for selling their goods. Marketplace Manipur, Manipur online buy/sell/share/auction, and Manipur Basket are some of the online pages that are selling indigenous products. Marketplace Manipur is a public group on Facebook. it was created on 6 September 2020 and it currently has 101,466 members. The group description reads that it provides platform to sell and buy any kind of products among the Netizens of Manipur.
Atim, the group admin of one of these online shops, said, “We started this group because life must go on despite the COVID-19 restriction to open shops and markets. This group is an open one, people who are interested can send in request to join, and once we approve, they can post, share and sell their products.” About the limitations, she remarked, “Our members operate mostly in the valley areas. And during strict lockdown and curfew, it is difficult to get delivery pass unlike Amazon and Flipkart.” Here it is important to note that Manipur valley is surrounded by hills, and the hills constitute about 90% of the state’s territory.
And also, not all the traders in the group are registered in the state’s shop and establishment roll to procure permits to deliver goods. Manipur Basket is an Instagram handle started by a person whose mother owns a vendor at Ima Keithel. However, the handle has been inactive since December 2020, and plans to expand the sales into a proper ecommerce platform has stalled as the web page shows that site is under maintenance for quite a long time.
Some of the women have provided few insights as to why online marketing has not clicked among the women at Ima Keithel. Ima Khomdombi (44), a vegetables seller who is now vending in the streets, “After Ima Keithel was closed down, my business went down by 70% during the lockdown. I could barely sell anything since I don’t have a shop. Those who have smart phones they sold their products online but for those who do not have like me, we have to wait for sunset so that we can go door to door after it gets dark. Even now while selling on the streets we are not able to sell much because the police will chase us away.” Likewise, Ima Loitam Bina (63), a cloth vendor, said, “My customers are limited to people who reaches out for religious observations. Some observations and rituals are incomplete without the use of clothes that I sell. So, we are surviving on this only. We have not tried to sell my clothes online because they are not fashion clothes and I don’t think people will search for them online. To put picture, find people to wear clothes, and delivery them are things I don’t know how to do, and my children are also quiet about selling online because it’s a lot of work.” Both the women are waiting to receive the financial aid promised to the street vendors by the central and state government.
Despite the odds to sell online, there is desirability for goods sold at Ima Keithel. Priyadarshini Sarangthem, a school teacher, stated, “Ima Market deals mainly with local goods, traditional clothes for both men and women. These goods are absolute necessity in various religious ceremony and they are rarely found elsewhere except in Ima market. So, it would be great if these products are put up for sales online. Hopefully we will soon have entrepreneurs who are not merely satisfied with opening vendors but to revolutionize the sale of goods online.”
The plight of women vendors from Ima Keithel resonates across the state. Ima Malasana (58), a vegetable vendor at Changangei Market, said, “Since my supplier could not send me vegetables because of the troubles he faced from the police, I started working in the paddy field and wherever there is a daily wages job. If there is no work outside, I weave clothes at home. Some of my friends are planting flowers to sell but I cannot put my money in things that take week for return.”
In conclusion, the common threads among the women vendors of Ima Keithel are: they are not living but surviving, relief is given but it is not enough, they do not have the resource or knowledge to start an alternative business, they face harassment from the police because there is no proper guideline to reopen, sales have gone down by 70 to 90 %, there are no proper delivery partners, and there is hope in reopening but there is also anxiety about the third covid wave. And women like Loitam Bina and Lourembam Jeeni will take longer to recover the losses because they just do not have the resource to invest again.
Whatever they could earn from selling their goods are spent on food, and there is no extra money to restock the goods. They are pinning their hopes on the INR 5000 assured to them by the state government under the COVID-19 Affected Livelihood Support Scheme which was approved in July 2021. However, the one positive thing in the wave of uncertainties is that these women are not looked down upon as economic burden. Bina admitted that before the lockdowns she had the freedom to do anything she wanted because she had the money and she took pride in community events. But despite the change in fortune, she has not been subjected to any abuse, discrimination or harassment from the family, relatives and community.
These are accounts of few women but there are many entrepreneurs especially migrants who have taken up street vending and have suffered equally or worst because many of them are not registered vendors. Armed with sanitizer, gloves, mask and vaccination, we can only hope that these women can grace the historic Ima Keithel again and keep the cultural DNA of the Manipur running through their trades.
Boniface Gaiguilung Kamei is a senior research scholar in the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. His research interest lies in the relationship between sovereignty and literature that takes into account how people are governed and how people counteract. His other interests include gender disparity, diaspora studies, tourism and the role of civil society. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can find him on Facebook.
Featured image source: adventure.com