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Manipur’s Age Old Traditional Blacksmithing Market Among Businesses Devastated by COVID-19 Pandemic

In Manipur, since the time of ancient kings there has been a certain group of people who excelled in blacksmithing tools such as knives, swords and other products made out of iron. The people of Wangkhei Thangjam Leikai of Imphal East, Manipur are among the Meetei who excel in the art of blacksmithing. Another locality, Sagolband Thangjam Leikai of Imphal West is also well known for the art of blacksmithing.

A young couple from Wangkhei Thangjam Leikai, blacksmiths by profession, is also educationally qualified as science graduates. The couple has been in the profession of blacksmithing since after two or three years of their marriage, during which time they also searched for some lucrative jobs. But by virtue of their fortune they were destined to be in the profession of their forefathers i.e. blacksmithing. They have been in this profession for the last 10 years.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic which now affects the whole world, they could run their business profitably. But their business is paralyzed at this juncture. The raw materials for their work are mainly iron, bamboo, wood and charcoal. The iron raw materials are collected from Hapta, Checkon, Imphal East. Even the price of iron, charcoal and others are high now.

The couple expressed that during the lockdown period, they hardly got the raw materials. By maintaining the SOP of Health Department of COVID-19, they went out of their house in search of raw materials. But they could hardly supply the demands for their products because of the shortage of these raw materials. Regarding the price of the products they made, it has increased accordingly. Now their income has been reduced to half and their working hours have been reduced by two to three hours as there are limited raw materials. They make different types of knives and swords such as Thangjou, Shakak Thang, Lusei Sori, Tongkakpi (in Manipuri). At the same time, there is a huge demand for knives as many fish and chicken centers are opening at various localities during the pandemic as an alternative source of earning livelihood.

The young couple wants the government to arrange health insurance or assistance especially for the blacksmith professionals. As the profession is quite laborious and requires good health and strength, the couple has a fear in their mind that if one of them gets unwell due to some disease, they would not be able to earn their livelihood and run their family.

The pandemic has brought suffering for many lives, particularly the poor and needy, and even the aged ones. Leishangthem Ongbi Ibemma Devi, 78 years, a resident of Wangkhei Thangjam Leikai, Imphal East is a woman who has been in the profession of blacksmithing for more than three decades. She specializes in making tongs (chegup), Laithang and Konthang. Since the expiry of her husband she has been running the family with his five children by making different products of blacksmithing.

Tough times for crafts persons in COVID crisis

Ibemma does not have a market shed of her own at the Ema market or other markets. For some period of years she sold her products at a shed at Ema market on a hire basis. She supplied her own products and others at Kakching, Ningthoukhong, Nambol and Lamlong Bazar. Before the COVID-19 pandemic she could freely supply the products at her locality and to other markets. As she could not supply her products to Kakching, Ningthoukhong, Nambol and Lamlong bazars, now she has opened a shed at the gate of her house. But she is hardly able to sell her products. During the pandemic she has not been earning any income profitably as there are few customers.

On asking her if she had any knowledge of assistance given by the state government to move up their economy and business during and post lockdown, Ibemma asserted that as she is illiterate she does not have any idea of how and where to apply to avail such facilities even though she had heard the news about it. As she is becoming older by the day it’s not possible for her to move to other far flung districts of Manipur to supply her products. Now she wants a shed of her own so that she can sell her products freely without much movement and for supporting her family. She is one of the bread earners of the family as two of her sons have expired. Presently she is living with one of her grandsons. The pertinent question before Ibemma is – Who is going to fulfill her dream? Will the government make true her dream before her death?

During the unlock phases of the COVID-19 pandemic a few women opened their sheds at the roadside along the Wangkhei Thangjam Leikai to sell blacksmith’s products made by them that a house could require and for other purposes too.

Leishangthem Ongbi Memma Devi, 65 years, of Wangkhei Thangjam Leikai is one of the women who sell their products at the roadside. She sells varieties of products made by her sons and purchases from others too. The products she has sold are knives of different types, tongs, scissors, spades, gauzes, swords, axe, tripod stand (yosabi), peelers etc. Memma has a market shed at Hao Keithel of her own where she sells her products also. During the pandemic, she sold her products at the roadside for the last four to five months. She could sell for a few thousands as there are less customers and also a price hike of the products. The pandemic has affected earning money and running the family.

Memma expressed that she did not apply for the loan given to women vendors by the state government as it requires many procedures. Moreover she does not want to spend her time running for the loan. Instead she feels better to earn some money by selling her products to support her family. At the same time she has appealed to the government to assist them financially in a very easy and simple way but not in the form of loans.

The state government has targeted 20,000 vendors from all over the state to be benefited under PM SVANIDHI and PM MUDRA Yojana batch-wise shortly. On 25th August 2020, in the first batch, loans were distributed to 817 vendors and in the second batch on 17th September, 2020, the state Chief Minister, N Biren Singh had handed loans to 1269 women vendors. Out of these, 803 loans were to street vendors under PM SVANIDHI scheme and 466 to license holders under MUDRA Yojana.

Not only Memma or Ibemma of Wangkhei Thangjam Leikai, there are many womenfolk and families who have suffered a lot during the pandemic in earning their livelihoods. If the pandemic happens to last for more months, their suffering will be for the worse. At this point of difficult times, the government needs to deliver assistance to these needy people regardless of street vendors or license holder vendors. Without helping these people it would be hard to make the state a self-reliant Manipur.

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