From the first Nupi Lal – movement against a British order on forced labour – in 1904 to Irom Sharmila Chanu’s marathon fast against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, women in Manipur have often demonstrated their fighting spirit. Through Ima Keithel, or Women’s Market, they have also shown enterprise.
The dawn-to-dusk Ima Keithel is more than just an all-women market in Imphal, the capital of the northeast Indian state of Manipur. The market is a vibrant commercial hub with some 4,000 women vendors from both the Imphal Valley and the hills of the state catering to thousands of customers daily. It is also a critical centre for deliberations on important socio-political issues of the State.
Ima Keithel is a tourist attraction too, presenting a unique human experiment of ‘unity in diversity’ where women from different ethnic groups – Meitei, tribal and Meitei Pangal (Muslim) – and different religions come together to share and manage a socio-economic space.
The market has survived the onslaught of disruptive forces over centuries. Since their ascendency in 1891, the British began to control trade and commerce in Manipur, thereby undermining the business potential of Manipuri women. The women withstood the exploitative policies of the colonial power and launched Nupi Lal (Women’s War) in 1904 and 1939. Post India’s independence in 1947, Ima Keithel continued to be under constant threat of displacement or relocation.
In 2003, when the Government of Manipur planned to replace Ima Market with a modern supermarket, the Khwairamband Keithel Nupi Marup, a frontal association of women traders, sat on dharna and sought preservation of the pristine condition of the Ima Market. Through thick and thin, the Ima Keithel fraternity has drawn strength from discipline and promoting the spirit of solidarity. The women know that power lies in their collective strength and unity.
In the Manipur of yore, a tradition called Lallup required adult male members of the Meitei community to serve the King. They would stay away from home as and when called by the King. In the circumstances, it became imperative for the women to switch from the traditional jobs of housewives such as weaving, paddy cultivation and household chores to outdoor economic activities. This instilled in them the confidence of running a market in the heart of Imphal.
A wide range of commodities are traded in Ima Market – vegetables, spices, fruits, fishes, eatables, toys, earthenware, textiles, and other locally produced garments. It is not only about the women selling and buying goods, but also about the men and women producing these commodities. Studies on women entrepreneurs of Ima Keithel suggest that 66.60 per cent of them are in the age group of 38-62 years, and 62.00 per cent earn Rs 73,000-219,000 annually.
Yengkopam ongbi Lokeswori, an educated mother of two, sells locally produced textiles and averages a profit of Rs 35,000 per month or Rs 420,000 per annum. Like other women entrepreneurs in the market, Lokeshori started her business with family support and without any loan, though she had the option of accessing credit provided by private micro-financing individuals or groups at 5% monthly interest, i.e., 60% per year. The case reveals that variables such as education, family size and support, and socio-economic status had significant influence over the entrepreneurial behaviour of women. Odds notwithstanding, Ima Keithel is thus a place for demonstration and affirmation of the women’s critical role in the production, use, and management of consumer goods.
But Ima Keithel is under threat from large-scale penetration of cheap products and new technologies from elsewhere in India and other countries. Retail chains trading imported goods at competitive prices are adversely impacting local production and indigenous markets. Besides, the women traders are facing the challenge of reducing dependence on exploitative local moneylenders. Private micro-financing organisations, without any social obligation or motivation to promote the women traders, operate like such moneylenders. Most of the women traders, therefore, fall back on personal savings for credit requirement. The traditional Marup – a rotating system of sharing savings among the members – does not provide any option for long-term savings.
Given the fact that the credit requirement for the women traders is comparatively small, the banks and micro-financing institutions can come up with innovative ideas to salvage the situation. Otherwise, reasonable insurance cover for women entrepreneurs and their families assured under a liberal policy regime could help the poor and credit-starved women traders and their households indirectly.
The Ima Keithel gives shelter to the women in pursuit of livelihood in a State that has been hit hard by decades of violent conflict, poor governance and lack of development. The long spell of stress and strain due to armed conflict, enforcement of stringent laws and rampant corruption at all levels of administration have crippled the economy of the State. Ever-increasing unemployment has made the youth more restive, a problem which has been compounded by indulgence in crimes, drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. The high probability of men becoming victims of insurgency or HIV/AIDS, the women are left to bear the brunt and to do something to sustain the family.
The vanguards of women entrepreneurship at Ima Keithel are not merely petty vendors. They are at the core of Manipur’s economy, culture and politics. In spite of the unceasing onslaughts of modernity, e.g., the new mammoth market building in Imphal’s Khwairamband Bazaar, our women have been able to sustain, rather strengthen, the age-old tradition and maintain the indigenous way of life. It is the strong spirit of Manipuri women that holds them together to make the State more progressive.
Ima Keithel, a symbol of Manipuri women’s empowerment, is indeed the pride of Manipur.
(Dr Shristi Pukhrem is an independent Researcher who has been recently awarded doctorate from the Centre of South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her areas of interest cover the current project on Asian Highway, issues related to its connectivity, North-East India, South Asia Politics and Security Studies, internal security issues)