India Interior

Looms that dispel the Covid gloom

Ninglun Hanghal | Updated on October 02, 2020 Published on October 02, 2020

Then and now Nupi Keithel, the historic women’s market, is desolate

Despite the isolating pandemic, Manipur’s women strive to weave small success stories

At her modest home in Thangmeiband in Imphal West district, a sling handbag hanging on her shoulder, 74-year-old Ima Radhesana moves about in her courtyard answering distress calls.

Ima, her name signifying the word for “mother” in Meiteilon, is a go-to person for scores of women as she coordinatesthe submission of names for vendor loans announced by Manipur Chief Minister, N Biren Singh. She is also constantly answering queries from women vendors on the status of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Radhesana is president of the historic women’s market in the heart of Imphal — Khuairamband Nupi Keithel Semgat Sagatpa Lup, popularly known as Nupi Keithel. The largest commercial hub in Manipur, it enables thousands of women to carry out daily trade and marketing of locally-made products. But ever since the pandemic, the over 2-sq km market stands quiet and desolate. Nupi Keithel and adjoining areas have been cordoned off and are strictly monitored. In fact, markets for women in all the district headquarters, including Nute Bazaar in Churachandpur, Ava market in Ukhrul, Rani Gaidinliu market in Tamenglong, and Apfii Saliki market in Senapati, are shut.

All these markets are the defining feature of small trade dominated by women across the State. And though distress is writ large upon the lives of these women, the markets continue to be excluded from the periodic announcements of relaxation in the lockdown. “We are very vulnerable,” acknowledges Radhesana, explaining that at Nupi Keithel, coronavirus preventive guidelines would be impossible to follow. “Ours is a close-knit market, we all sit close and it is crowded.” Ima says most women who frequent the market are the main breadwinners of the family and are facing a huge challenge.

There are about 7,000 registered vendors in Nupi Keithel. In normal circumstances a vendor, on an average, earns between ₹500 and ₹1,000 per day. That is now an estimated loss of ₹70 lakh every day and the loss in economic activity is to the tune of ₹105 crore over the last five months of the lockdown. Besides registered vendors, there are an equal number of women engaged in small informal trade.

Nupi Keithel is also a place where a large number of traditional handloom and handicraft products are marketed. Sarongs, shawls, jewellery, crafts, organic food products, and a variety of local products are available under one roof.

Radhesana herself deals in handlooms. Her weavers are facing a hard time. She says they have not been able to procure essential yarn as shops remain closed. “They are from remote areas. With no transport it is difficult for them to come to the market. Even if they manage to bring some of their products to me, I have nowhere to sell them,” she laments.

However, on a brighter note, there is a new trend evolving. With time on their hands during the pandemic, many women who had quit weaving have gone back to their looms. Every household in the State owns a loin or a fly-shuttle loom, which is now being put to additional use. This has had a downside. Reports from several towns suggest that the limited yarn stocks have been exhausted. And new stocks are hard to come by with the supply chain severely disrupted.This has led to a massive shortfall as Manipur, according to government data, consumes 8.64 million metres of handloom fabrics and one million kilogram of yarn per month. Collecting traditional wear is seen as an asset here and is passed on from mother to daughter.

However, the inventive women have adapted to the situation by walking the extra mile. “I do home delivery,” says Mimi Mangsatabam, in her mid 50s, who has been weaving since her teens and is running a handloom business for over 10 years. She uses her two-wheeler to make door-to-door visits to weavers. Mangsatabam has around 35 active weavers and a network of about a hundred weavers.

The pandemic has also paved the way for innovative marketing. Under the brand ‘My Loom Collection’, Shanti Gurumayum and her daughter started online marketing. Their products include sarees, phaneks, cushions, and pillow covers. Gurumayum has 60 to 70 weavers working with her. Handloom and textiles are the largest cottage industry in Manipur and the second-highest employer, next to agriculture. The State is the second-largest handloom producer in India with 2.1 lakh weaver households — 94 per cent of the weavers are women.

Ninglun Hanghal is Laadli Media Fellow 2020. The opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views

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Published on October 02, 2020

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