India Interior

From fields of green to the markets

Ninglun Hanghal | Updated on August 21, 2020

Ninglun Hanghal   -  Ninglun Hanghal

Women in Manipur are plugging the gaps in food supply during the current coronavirus crisis

When nutrition specialist turned entrepreneur Vedmani Kshetrimayum wears a mask and heads to her farm early morning to collect vegetables, little does she know how significantly her efforts are plugging the food supply gaps in Manipur.

The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent brakes put on transport and mobility have led to shortage of food and essentials. During the lockdown, both internal and external supply chains were severely hit. Now, even as the lockdown has eased, the food supply chains continue to be affected. For people in Manipur, it is a common sight to see women selling vegetables and other food products, be it in the tribal hills or non-tribal areas of the Imphal valley. During the lockdown, the role and contribution of women became even more visible.

Take the case of Kshetrimayum, who has turned into a vegetable supplier in Imphal (west).

Transporting farm produce

Every morning she sets out in her car to the farmstead in rural Imphal to bring back fresh vegetables. She also picks up products from farmers and middlemen who are unable to transport their produce. These vegetables are distributed to women vendors and some she sells on her own.

“As a food entrepreneur, I was privileged to have a curfew pass so I could move around,” says Kshetrimayum. She founded Vedam Agro Enterprise, an all-women venture in 2014, dealing in food processing and marketing of fruit products and spices. Currently, her enterprise has temporarily stopped work since fruits are perishable.

Several other women entrepreneurs have had to either shut or scale down operations. The disruption in the supply chain has had a telling impact on their businesses. But that is only half the story. With food supplies hard hit, there has been a sharp spike in demand for fruits and vegetables in urban areas. To meet this, several small-scale food enterprises, mostly run by women’s groups, are ensuring food reaches customers.

Rising to the demand

At Elangbam Leikai in Imphal, a group of about 20 women continued their work even during the lockdown. A unit of Meira Foods — one of the popular food processing and marketing enterprises run by women — was operational. Sunanda, manager of the unit, said that three or four staffers who live far away began to live at the processing centre itself.

“We worked as usual, from 10 am to 5 pm.” In Unlock 1.0, all stock at Meira Foods was sold out. “There is still a lot of demand for dry fruit, pickle, bamboo shoot. But the concern is about the wholesale market which is yet to pick up,” says Sunanda. Prices of these products have gone up but there is no unreasonable price hike, she asserts. However, since prices of ingredients such as sugar and spices which are imported have gone up, a price mark up was inevitable.

“The first two weeks of the lockdown were difficult,” says Subhra Devi, proprietor of Meira Foods. However, as the lockdown eased, farmers from nearby villages came on their bicycles or transported products on cycle-rickshaws. But not all farmers could reach the towns and cities due to the unavailability of transport and restriction on inter-district movements.

“Since my farmers’ supplies are from remote hills, they could not bring them down to Imphal. For example, we missed collection of pineapples, which come from interior Churachandpur district, nearly 100 km from Imphal,” notes Devi.

In the State, women are central to food security. In the rural and semi-urban areas, families own a backyard garden or farmsteads essentially maintained by the women of the house.

Women and food security

In tribal hill areas, women work side by side with the men in terrace or Jhum cultivation collecting forest produce for family consumption and to be sold in local markets.

According to Manipur’s Economic Survey 2019-20, agriculture contributes a major share to the total State Domestic Product and more than 80 per cent women are involved directly or indirectly in this sector, says Devdutta Sharma, project director of the Manipur Organic Mission Agency. “Without women, agriculture and horticulture sector will be a total failure,” she adds.

There is enough evidence that women form the backbone of the State’s economic life. According to the same survey, the percentage of the female work force is at 43.3. It records 3.59 lakh women as main workers, of which 51.70 per cent are cultivators, 5.87 per cent agricultural labour whereas the remaining 42.43 per cent are engaged in manufacturing, processing, service and household industries. Only 8,52,006 are classified as ‘non-workers’.

However, despite this substantial engagement, women’s work is largely categorised in the informal sector. Food production and food business, which engages the largest number of women, still forms the non-formal economy.

The writer is Laadli Media Fellow 2020. The opinions and views expressed are her own. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views.

Published on August 21, 2020

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