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Manufacturing Poverty: A Case Of The Women’s Market In Manipur

All over the North East the forces of globalization, privatization and liberalization acting through public [i] and private corporations, backed by the Indian State’s encroaching hegemony over local economics and self-sufficiency are ousting indigenous women’s markets and production centers. Poverty is being created, intensified and deliberately entrenched. In its new avatar it is feminized poverty that is being sought to be perpetrated.

This article explores the case of the ‘Sana Keithel’ in Imphal town, which was one of the most vibrant women’s markets in Manipur till it was bulldozed by the state urban development authorities (MAHUD, the Manipur Housing and Urban Development Corporation [ii]) in collusion with neo-liberal market forces. This article explains that the assault on the Keithel is not just an assault on a system of trading; it is a systematic and strategized attempt to destroy a way of life, a society.

Introduction:

The Global market is neither abstract nor intangible as it is often projected. It occupies real space: physical, economic and cultural. Where such space is already occupied by local traditional and indigenous systems and practices, it must be sanitized and cleared to make way for the global market. In the majority of the cultures of Northeastern India, indigenous women traditionally manage trade and commerce. They are also producers of many goods including textiles, food, earthenware, for consumption, local exchange and the larger, even regional, markets. They are the most active conservers of biodiversity (agro, wetland and forest), both through their framing practices, which nurtures it, but also through their active promotion of the local food cultures. These markets called ‘Keithel’ in Manipuri are an example of this sophisticated system of trade.

The term ‘market’ in fact is highly inadequate to describe what a Keithel is and the role that it plays in the local economy, culture and society. It is a site for the affirmation of women’s control over the production, use and management of consumption patterns. It represents the attempt of communities to assert their food sovereignty, economic self-determination and cultural diversity. It is for this reason that the Keithel of Manipur have been under attack frequently through history. As the economic exchange, bankers and advisory to the ancient chiefs and their councils, successful occupation or colonization has demanded the alliance, destruction or subjugation of the Keithel women. Without control over the Keithel, the subjugation of communities that live around it can never be complete. No subjugation is complete without economic dominance and the Keithel forms the backbone of the local economy.

Throughout history, a favored tactic has been displacement and re-location. Ever since the British decided to take a direct hand in Meitei politics, the Keithel as institution and as a collective of women recognized as a threat to the dominant, invasive economy has militantly defended itself. The famous ‘˜Nupi Lan’ (wars) of Manipur in which at least on three distinct and celebrated occasions during the 19th century, the women confronted artillery of the British forces with sticks and implements. The colonists recognized that this system had to be taken over, destroyed or brought under a more pliable economic system that could be more easily controlled and infiltrated.

Ironically, the struggle of these women is acknowledged by the Government of India, which has built a monument to these women. Yet it has not hesitated to replicate the tactics of its predecessor colonists. On at least three separate occasions, it has tried to break this institution, by attempting to physically displace it.

The reasons of the state onslaught on these markets are primarily because many sites traditionally devoted to these markets are located in the centers of towns. Soaring real estate prices make them vulnerable to land sharks and corrupt state officials. For modern day colonists and neo-liberal market forces, it is difficult to see the land as anything other than a piece of real estate, waiting to be ‘developed’ into shopping malls and retail spaces. They cannot see these Keithel as not just hubs of commerce, but also of information exchange and socio-political processes. Or perhaps they can and they have learnt well the lessons of history from colonists.

Since 13 July 2003 women of Sana Keithel maintained a 24-hour vigil at the Keithel agitating to retain their physical space, to defend the keithel from demolition at night by Government agencies. Sana Keithel (Women’s market) is the second largest woman market in Asia and is fighting for recognition from the deliberate erosion of the indigenous production systems and the monopoly over the local economy exerted largely by Indian trading communities with a fundamentally patriarchal ethos. Repeated attempts have been made to take over the very precincts of the Keithel by the Manipur government to demolish the Keithel and replace with a modern supermarket with a promise to compensate. The Sana Keithel until April 2005 occupied an area equivalent to three city blocks in the heart of Imphal.

On 24 November 2004, the state Government of Manipur demolished the old district Hospital to pave the way for construction of a multi-storied Market Complex at Khwairamband Nupi Keithel. Women of the three markets located next door, were to be shifted to the hospital premises temporarily for construction of the new market complex under financial assistance from the Union Urban Development Ministry.

Strong confrontations have taken place since then between those with a vested interest in constructing the supermarket and the women opposing the demolition of the traditional heritage of the ‘Keithel’. The women sat undeterred in their agitation for the right to preserve their heritage even under threat of the use of force by government and the armed forces. On 20 December 2004, the Khwairamband Keithel Nupi Marup [iii] appealed to the state Government to preserve the Nupi Keithel as a living museum since it has taken up ambitious plans to preserve the Kangla [iv] and other indigenous historical sites. This cry has gone unheeded so far by state authorities who are firmly in the grip of land sharks, the construction industry and realtors.

History and background:

The ‘market woman’ of Manipur is a living legend, an inimitable figure of Imphal City. She sits, typically, in Sana Keithel, the Golden Market, and the second largest women’s market in Asia. What is this force in Manipur, the ‘market women’? Is she a petty trader/ vendor as classified by the municipal authorities? Could she have started two wars against the might of the British if she were merely a petty trader?

The Keithel of Manipur was not a vending place or a retail outlet. It was the centre of finance and commerce, rather like Bombay Stock Exchange and the Bankers’ Federation rolled into one. This Market Women’s Guild, like the Chambers of Commerce or like the great trading guilds of pre-industrial England, controlled prices, wages and stocks of goods. In the context of advisory and lobbying capacity with the administration also set revenue policy and maintained buffer stock for times of shortage. It also, inevitably, contributed to decisions of war and peace. It controlled all goods that went in, came out and passed through Manipur. The Keithel was anything but an association of shopkeepers and vendors!

Each sagei or clan at the Keithel has its own specialization: rice and rice products, textiles and cotton, ceramics, fresh produce and so on. It was organized. The wealth of the clans is managed in the Keithel, by the senior daughters-in-law, who, after years of apprenticeship and initiation were accorded the right and responsibility to represent their families by sitting in the Keithel, to deal on their behalf and to influence the economic policies of the state, in their favor. The vast networks of Keithel over the valley were integral components of this sophisticated commercial infrastructure. Each outlying Keithel specialized in a particular group of products according to their sagei-leikai. So the Lamlong Keithel was the bourse of rice trade. Literally dozens of varieties of rice, perhaps hundreds were brought and sold there. They were traded, not retailed. So Wankhei and Maibam leikai were centers of textiles, cotton and silk in the same way that each of the other Keithel was a unique centre for a particular product or trade. This rim of specialized bourses was linked to the Sana Keithel, presided over by the Queen mother of the Meitei chieftains, her assurance that their interests would be protected in the councils of chieftains.

It is no wonder then, that the British, after being exposed to the ire of the ‘market woman’ in 1904, for daring to encroach upon their preserve, and that too with disastrous effects, established ‘Maxwell’s Bazaar’. It was an integral component of the strategy to break the economic backbone of Manipur – the Market Women’s Guild. This was the beginning of the engineered decline of the Keithel. With State patronage of their bourses eliminated, with new revenue laws, individualizing land holdings and privatized asset ownership patterns, with the control of finance and trade taken away by the British and their feudal representative, the Keithel was starved.

The ‘merger’ of Manipur with India struck another lethal blow. Colonization of the Manipur economy, of its trade and finance, has left the Keithel debilitated. The financial support to Indian traders by Indian banks, policies supporting private and male ownership by non recognition of the scope of collective rights, and denial of support to indigenous trade efforts have crippled it. The deliberate erosion of the indigenous production systems and the monopolization of assets, finance and infrastructure, largely by Indian trading families and their familiars in politics, the administration and the new bourgeoisie have starved it. Not content, or perhaps with a well-founded fear of its regenerative powers, the Indian State, desperately courting neo-liberal economic policies is seeking to hammer in the proverbial last nail.

As part of this effort, repeated attempts have been made to take over the very precincts of the Keithel. Bits have been chopped off and encroached onto, plans have been initiated to displace it, and it has been neglected in maintenance.

The spirit, however, lives on strongly in the indomitable person of the ‘market woman’. Even today, stripped of her traditional, rightful power and role, she survives with the dignity that she inherited. She has fearlessly, quietly and persistently refused to be displaced. Despite threats, cajolery, bribery and promises, she has forced concessions out of a tardy and corrupt government. The agitation to retain her physical space, the Keithel itself, has received far too little recognition.

Beleaguered as she is, she still stands for the benevolent and provident spirit of Manipur, for the ethic of self-determination and self-sufficiency. In her capable hands the economy of Manipur prospered. She is not dead yet.

Nor is the Keithel of Manipur the only such institution that is being forced into extinction by market forces egged on by a neo-liberal state. In neighboring Assam, many such market spaces controlled by women, have been systematically relocated and bulldozed to make way for the more visible tombstones of urban development ‘“ ‘shopping malls, shopping complexes and retail outlets’. The consumerist society which produces these malls and retails outlets is based just on catering to the wants of an upwardly mobile urban population. It is for this reason that it can never replace the traditional markets which serve as food safety nets catering to the food security needs of the communities which live around it. The economics of such marketing is not just about the women (or men) who sell their goods there. It is about the men and women who produce these commodities in communities stretching for hundreds of miles around these markets. The markets are thus a very integral part of the food security link for entire populations. They are also channels for preserving local food cultures and ensuring food sovereignty. Any sensible society would preserve these markets as agro and natural bio-diversity ‘hotspots’, even if it chose to ignore the production economics of the societies that these markets support.

This is the reason why solidarity amongst market women associations is increasingly been reflected in joint action. In November 2004, after a 25-hour bus journey an eight member women’s group from Rural Volunteer Center, Akajan, Dhemaji district Assam accompanied by three young women from Women’s Leadership Program reached their destination at Manipur. The journey was delayed by 10 hours due to the ongoing unstable situation in Assam and Manipur. This group of women from Assam represents Amar Bazaar (our markets) that has come forward to show solidarity and was hosted by the struggle of the Nupi Keithel (women’s markets) in Manipur. The two women’s groups spent 16 and 17 November 2004 at the Keithel (market) keeping vigil against demolition and jointly prepared a memorandum [v] to Ms. Sonia Gandhi and the Chief Minister of Manipur, calling attention to the importance of preserving the Nupi Keithel as a living museum of women’s culture and history of struggle.

The Amar Bazaar (Our Markets movement), in Assam started from 1998 with the concept of self-help group as the only alternative to enhance the rural economy and ensure self-reliance in this part of the country. Amar Bazaar women folk also have a micro savings and micro credit program as a means to move from subsistence mode to surplus mode. The objective of Amar Bazaar is to promote traditional practices into successful traditional economical activities. They are progressing into a campaign to reclaim the traditional spaces of indigenous women in commerce and the economy by enforcing their rights over these areas including the corporeal spaces that have traditionally been theirs as for trade.

Similarly the Shillong market has over the years been pushed into the periphery and where it once stood proudly, stands, amongst other things, a garish multi-storied parking complex, a star hotel and countless miniature shopping malls. Almost this entire infrastructure is now owned by outsiders or by men, in the heartland of one of the strongest matriarchies in the region. The new location where the market has been edged is completely excluded from the services of any urban amenities, though still central and contiguous to the mall areas: yet the service provision stops at the edge of it. While governments cannot and need not be expected to directly provide the whole spectrum of goods and services essential for the realization of every citizen’s economic, cultural and social rights, they are legally bound to facilitate and assure the environment wherein these may be fully achieved and to prevent disruptive, damaging and injurious elements and actions from obstructing or preventing such access.

It is not just the eviction of these markets that leads to the withering of the institution of the Keithel and its sister markets in Manipur and elsewhere in the region. It is also the systematic invasion of products and technologies that are alien to the area and that have constantly sought to replace local production and eliminate the local economy and the autonomy it engenders. Grafted products and technologies that invade occupy and appropriate the resources on which the traditional economies survived and flourished. Nor do these aliens possess any intrinsic superiority to their local competitors. Often state promoted and backed by powerful financial institutions and corporate lobbying for subsidy, government projects like the Japanese funded sericulture project also undermine this vibrant economy by introducing artificial pricing policy, by bringing in and exclusively financing the rearing of exotic Japanese silk worms that are killing off local species and which product cannot be spun or woven with indigenous techniques or on traditional looms. The cocoons are exported to Japanese mills.

By damaging women’s ability to conduct and develop their business, by denying them their space, by refusing to acknowledge collective rights of certain social groups or sections of society, the Government is ensuring extinction of the progression towards achieving human rights. More fashionable slogans like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are being paraded as the 21st century advance in human rights when they are at best, quantitative indicators that commit precise measures to the optimistic but difficult to estimate progressive realization of economic, cultural and social rights. While governments chase the mirage of incrementally and regularly watered down MDGs, they are simultaneously aggravating and feminizing poverty by a repeated onslaught on women’s traditional institutions, assets and resource base: the very institutions that have been the cornerstones of women’s strength, their power to support and nurture themselves and their communities, for millennia.

Over 4000 women sit in just the one market. Every locality in every village has a Keithel. Even in the history of the last 50 years, these very women have financed the schooling and education of doctors, lawyers, teachers, traditional knowledge holders and administrators through this institution and continue to do so. They survive the refusal of modern banks to finance them, running their autonomous banking and credit systems since before money became a medium. Ages before micro-credit was conceptualized, they refined and institutionalized a system and an ethic that no woman would be denied a place to earn a living or the credit to start her business.

Among the 4000 of just this Keithel, a few can trace the inheritance of their space through their marital clans for thousands of years. The rest, the majority, are women evicted by development projects such as dams or urban spread, widows bereaved by the innumerable incidents of lethal violence inevitable in resistance wars, wives and mothers of disabled men folk and children. The Keithel has absorbed and nurtured them all, has taken them as her own.

It is this Keithel that was evicted by the Manipur Housing and Urban Development Board on 25th April 2005, and reduced to rubble. It was done for the short term ‘development’ gain of establishing a super-market cum shopping mall. It was demolished because modern day development planning weighs only immediate and short term benefits for the few.

It does not aim at equity, protection of the dignity and rights of women, long term and intergenerational impacts on economy, environment, subsistence and indigenous culture and traditions to assure sustainability. Clearly, the unified and consistent voice of these women is the strongest, most reliable monitor of these principles and aims. This voice of sustained reason that had survived centuries of colonialism was silenced by the screech of the bulldozer tires. The noises of the modern day construction industry has drowned out forever the buzzing hum of the traditional market Local Governments, Urban Development and financing institutions, politicians and real estate sharks have joined forces to replace these sustainable markets with the retail and franchise outlets that will hawk products made by transnational corporations: the signs are clear: Reebok, McDonald and Levi instead of wild mushroom and khurkul silk. It is for this reason alone that all of them have to be held accountable by the communities which have lived around the Keithel for generations. By communities around the world that profess human rights, women’s rights. The women of the Keithel having obtained in their struggle, the Government’s promise that their right to design and manage the new structure being constructed will be recognized and respected are by no means secure in these promises.

The present allegedly temporary shelter where the Keithel has been shifted to offers a mere 18-24 inch frontage per stall, barely enough for a woman to sit almost literally conjoined with her neighbors hip to hip, certainly not enough to display her goods in the relatively spacious meter length frontage she has been accustomed. And it is from here that the resilient market women of Manipur are preparing to wage their next war. A war that will perhaps be the most decisive they have ever fought. They will have to fight powerful lobbies that will manipulate and coerce to invade this now vacated land and occupy it. They will have to reclaim this inheritance.

[i] Public corporations are those owned by the Government of India as sole or primary shareholders. International Financing Institutions have been aggressively advocating privatization of these as they control the key infrastructure services critical resources exploitation and basic manufacturing industry

[ii] MAHUD is a public corporation constituted by the State Government of Manipur as an autonomous corporation owned by the State. It is affiliated to the HUDCO, a similar institution incorporated by the Union Government of India. It is mandated to enter into contracts and take loans or otherwise raise moneys for the purpose of fulfilling its mandate which is to ‘develop’ the Manipur urban areas designated under the urban (municipal) criteria.

[iii] Indigenous credit society

[iv] The ancient people of Manipur, the Meitei, established and developed at ‘Kangla’ their seat of governance and spiritual center. Being a site of political and religious centre ‘Kangla’ was the most important Historical and Archeological site and ancient capital of Manipur from the ancient times down to the year 1891 A.D. All Meitei are emotionally and spiritually attached with ‘The Kangla’ as the ancient sacred place for worship and the seat of our traditional leadership. It is a centre of pilgrimage for all the Manipuris who are residing in Manipur, Assam, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bangladesh and Myanmar etc. It is also believed that there are 365 important holy/sacred places in ‘Kangla’.

The British occupied the Kangla as a cantonment from 1891 onwards. The conquered ‘Kangla Fort’ was publicly executed by the British. Since then, ‘Kangla’ has been under occupation by the Security forces/Assam Rifles. The gates of the historic Kangla Fort was thrown open to the people of Manipur, with the DG of Assam Rifles formally handing over the symbolic key of the Fort to Chief Minister, Manipur in front of the Prime Minister during a n emotion charged public meeting inside Kangla on 27 November 2004.

[v] Memorandum

‘¢ The Government of Manipur should protect and preserve the traditional and indigenous women’s market. This market is more than 300 years old, in the world this is the only market of Nupi (Women’s) it should be preserved as a Historical place instead of construction super market.

‘¢ It should be recognized as a traditional Institution.

‘¢ The Manipur Government should take proper prevention and steps for the women who still spend nights at the Keithel from any unwanted event.

‘¢ The Manipur Government should preserve the identity of the market by not mixing with male shopkeepers.

*This article was made available by the Center for Organization Research & Education (CORE), Manipur, India (2005)

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