“We are being killed slowly by the lockdown even though we are not infected by the COVID-19,” said Ningthoujam Memcha. Memcha, who is about 55 years old, hails from Laphupat Tera and used to sell vegetables from her family farm at the Khwairamband Keithel before the COVID-19 lockdown began.
Ever since the lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic was imposed from March 21 the women vendors have been hit hard and they are now poised precariously between hunger and the fear of getting infected by coronavirus if they venture outside.
The total shutdown has affected normal life and it has been miserable for the daily wage earners who depend on money earned from a day’s work to buy food for the family. Now they cannot move out of their homes.
“We have to survive in the lockdown without earning a rupee and by cutting down on meal portions, skipping breakfast and satisfying ourselves with snacks – red tea and some biscuits, and exchanging vegetables and rice with neighbours,” Memcha expressed further.
Loss of livelihood and financial insecurity during the lockdown for daily wage earners, and private school teachers and school van drivers, like the daily wage earners, has compounded into other problems such as lack of access to food and essential commodities.
Nowadays, every household doesn’t have rice grains in store even in the rural areas since they don’t have landed paddy fields. Poor families are struggling to survive and it is hard to have even one square meal a day. Memcha said, “We asked our neighbours who are better off to provide rice in exchange for our vegetables. But sometimes they don’t want the vegetables as they being rural inhabitants grow their own vegetables. So they lent a few kilograms of rice and we couldn’t ask a second time. Later, the 4 kilograms of rice per head for a month distributed by the government under different schemes came and it was something better than nothing.”
It may be mentioned that only rice has been distributed to targeted beneficiaries. On top of that there is no transparency in most villages and localities about such distributions being made. Also rations have been of lesser quantity than the allotted amount.
“Before the COVID-19 lockdown from March 20, I used to sell vegetables at Khwairamband Keithel from early morning to forenoon and sell at the range of Rs. 700 to 800 every day. That took care of our kitchen requirements and met the family expenditures, including children’s education and healthcare. But here at the temporary street vending at Andro Parking, near Konung Mamang, after total lockdown was relaxed from May 4 for a few hours on weekdays, I hardly sell for Rs. 500 in a day. This is not a regular place where I sell my vegetables. We have to run here and there to find a place to sell the vegetables. Sometimes I have to sell at Keishamthong Nambul Mapal until evening and try to get back home before curfew hours start by catching a vehicle on extra fare. Now it is very hard and tough to make a living,” Memcha added.
Not surprisingly Memcha was not alone facing the hard times in the COVID-19 pandemic times. Lourembam Panthoi, aged about 50 years, who used to buy vegetables wholesale from Khwairamband Keithel early morning and sell in retail at the roadside at Khuman Palli, Dingko Road is having the worst and hardest time of life.
Street vendors like Panthoi don’t have their own vegetables to exchange with something, or to sell, as Memcha does. Daily wage earners in urban areas are having a tougher time as they don’t have their own kitchen gardens, space being a constraint at their homesteads. The loss of livelihood has become a major challenge for the daily wage earners.
“As vegetables are perishable, we have to consume as much as we can and also give away to our neighbours during the lockdown. I lost my capital and livelihood. Now, even after the lockdown has been relaxed in the day time, I cannot procure vegetables as done before the lockdown, to resell with the little money I borrowed, as Khwairamband Keithel is still closed down,” said Panthoi.
“We are further unfortunate as the street vendors along the roadside of Khuman Palli have been banned by the government and we don’t have any place to sell. We are selling in the lanes of the localities. It is hard to sell Rs. 400 a day, which is not even half of the amount I earned before the lockdown. We are having a miserable life,” added Panthoi.
Panthoi said her husband used to work at a stone crushing site before the lockdown. But he also lost the job due to the lockdown and she is now the only bread earner of the family, and with three children they are fighting hard for survival.
Even after the lockdown was relaxed from 6 am to 5 pm, street vendors have to run around to try and find a place to sell their goods and earn a meager amount. Many women vendors including street vendors in Khwairamband Keithel and other satellite markets in different towns and locations in Manipur are daily bread earners.
In the beginning of the lockdown the women vendors could understand why there was a need to shut down the crowded Khwairamband Keithel due to COVID-19 pandemic but as time passes and hardships grow they are beginning to contemplate how to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea.
“Earlier we thought that during the pandemic it would be better for the Khwairamband Keithel to remain closed. However, with the closure of Khwairamband Keithel due to lockdown we are suffering in trying to earn by selling vegetables, fruits, fishes both fresh and dry, and other essential items. It would be better to open the Khwairamband Keithel by framing new rules to maintain physical distance and safety measures,” added Salam Sanahanbi who sells fish.
One wonders why the shops selling non-essential commodities at Paona Keithel and Thangal Keithel are allowed to open under new regulations framed by the government while the Khwairamband Keithel still remains closed.
The women vendors didn’t expect the lockdown to continue this far and they were prepared for only a few days. Now the lockdown has hit these women vendors hard and ultimately their families and society at large are also getting restless, being stressed between hunger and fear of getting infected by coronavirus.
“Our problems of basic needs are growing. Many of us are now beginning to ponder which one to choose, die of coronavirus or starve to death being killed by the lockdown,” added Panthoi.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics