Pauzachiin, who is in her mid-fifties, is crushing stones in one of the makeshift tents lining the roadside of River Lanva Bridge in New Lamka (south Manipur). “I cannot begin work early, only after finishing my domestic chores,” says the mother of five. Her husband collects the stones from the river and she crushes them.

In a nearby tent, Niangngaih and her family crush stones manually with a hammer. So do Kim and her husband in their tent down the line. There are also women who work alone – a widow, a single mother. In most cases, though, in these migrant families, husband and wife work side by side in their self-made temporary tents — made from used banners or just an umbrella and old tarpaulin.

Their work is informal, they cannot say how much they can do in a day. Also, there are spells of no work, like during the monsoon, when the river brims over and there’s no way they can venture into it to collect stones for crushing.

By and large, these are families that came down from the villages in the hills to the town, looking for alternate sources of livelihood. Regular farming or even jhum (shifting) cultivation could hardly provide for their own daily consumption needs, let alone earning a regular income.

Not only have they moved physically, but there is also a shift from their primary livelihood – that is cultivation and cultivation-related activity — to labour or manual work in the town. This provides them a new economic activity as they earn an income, however small.

These families shift from one employment to another. And jobs do not come easy. Nevertheless, compared to rural life, coming to town has its advantages; for one, education for their children, and access to hospitals. Though jobs are not permanent, they can always look for alternatives. What keeps them going is the small income they earn.

River Lanva runs through New Lamka and therefore these migrant families rent houses in and around this locality.

Paid, by the tin can

Pauzachiin, Niangngaih and their like hammer the stones collected from the river bed or its banks to about 20 mm in size. The crushed stones are measured by way of 15-kg oil tin containers. A tin of crushed stone is priced at ₹25.

Obviously, the more hands to a family, the greater the income. The stones collected in the tin containers are sold to the local customers for construction of houses and buildings.

Lanva river has dried up since long. But during monsoon, the river is full and the town, in recent years, has frequently been experiencing flash floods as the water level suddenly rises. One reason cited for the disaster caused by river Lanva is the disappearing of stones and sand from the river bed.

Local residents and civil societies want collection of stones/sand from the Lanva river bed to be banned. The migrant families living in their makeshift tents are aware of the demand. “We hear there is talk of evicting us from here” says Pauzachiin. “But where do we go?” she asks. “What about those who take truckloads of stones and sands from the river everyday?” she poses.

There has been no serious move until now to ban collection of stone/sand from Lanva river bed and banks, Niangngaih says. But on rare occasions, officials would visit the area and tell them to find other work. “But they have not forced us to stop until now,” says Niangngaih, adding, “ if they ban us, they must also ban those trucks with huge loads of stones.”

“We do not destroy the river, nor does it get dry or flooded due to our collecting the stones,” asserts Pauzachiin. Any impact because of their work would be minimal, she argues, as against those who use machines for large-scale collection of stone and sand.

Pauzachiin also points out that there is natural regeneration during the monsoon. “Stones and sand come along with the river water when it rains and fill up the river beds,” she says.

Though there are no restrictions imposed as of now, there is uncertainty. How long will the river provide them stones and sand? How long can they carry on their work on the roadside? Only the sands of time will tell.

The writer is a Manipur-based journalist