Ima Keithel: Withering Sense and Spirit

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By Soibam Haripriya and Shreema NingombamIn the recent past, Imphal has witnessed the eviction of women street vendors from Khwairamband Ima Keithel area. In response to their eviction, these women launched an agitation demanding that they be allotted space in the newly inaugurated three market-sheds of Khwairamband Keithel. These women have also stormed the Imphal Municipal Council (IMC) office to press their demand. Owing to the eviction drive by the government of Manipur, a large number of women street vendors have shifted to a spot which is meant to be a parking lot at Lamphel. Contrast this episode with the images of Ima Keithels located across the state that have fueled the romanticized notion of empowered Manipuri women. However, when one takes a hard look at what has happened and is happening with a discerning heart and mind, there emerge characters and plots as if a grand tragic opera has been enacted on chessboard like stage. Appropriation of Agitations The Chief Minister while commenting on the keithel agitation is reported to have said that he has no hesitation in converting Mapal Kangjeibung or Shahid Minar as shopping complexes if people wish to. While this remark might have aggrieved some, many who had got their ‘seats’ in the newly built keithels choose to keep silent. The keithel issue could be picked up to observe certain sense of moral and ideological bankruptcy creeping into the workings of various organizations, (in this case the keithel lups) and the effective appropriation of all such fragmented agitation by the state. Indeed the ‘success’ of the state would be the ‘successful’ appropriation of every agitation. This has been rendered almost smooth and flawless by the lack of principles by the concerned bodies. There is another issue knotted to this. This is the appropriation of the ‘development discourse’ itself by many who have come out vehemently opposing the agitation of street vendors. While lauding the efforts of the state government to decongest the streets near the market areas, they seem to have decided who are the people who have the right to enter the spaces in the heart of Imphal city’s concrete jungle with a nonsensical flyover in the middle.Changing Meaning of KeithelKhwairamband Keithel has a long history of being an ‘egalitarian space’, accommodating women who come to sell produce and products from far and wide. The items available here include vegetables from remote parts of the valley or herbs, shrubs and wild plants and fruits and berries from the hills. The idea of source of sustenance and nurturing of a mother is embedded in the name of the keithel (Ima keithel) with women actually sourcing livelihood not only for themselves but also for their offsprings. Mark the changing meaning of keithel now with the gradual dismantling of an ‘egalitarian’ community space and converting the same to a ‘permit/license/lease’ regime where the keithel nupis have been reduced from a position of the nurturing mother to just street vendors, vendors and street hawkers. It is this insensitive reduction and withering away of the once fraternal relationship of the women that has turned the whole episode into a tragic opera of ‘dog-eat-dog’ plots. While dealing with the issue, the recent categorisation of the ‘potfam phambi/keithel fambi ima’ into three distinct groups in terms of the hierarchy of their spatial location/position – vendor, street vendor and street hawkers needs to be reviewed. One may argue that it is inevitable fallout of the quantum of trade or space constraints. The most befitting question to be asked at this juncture is: Who reaps the maximum benefit from such categorisation? Is this categorisation responsible for turning a common community space into a space of urban exclusivity that purportedly supports insensitive commodification and privatisation. The Media: Deflection or ReflectionRecent editorials and media reports of the recent keithel agitation have removed at least a layer of the faulty perception of Ima keithel as an illustration of empowerment. Instead, these editorials and reports bring out to the core superficiality of understanding or rather misunderstanding the idea of empowerment. One newspaper editorial went to the extent of calling keithel nupi as “noise some and foul”. Most media have joined in the chorus with the state government crying itself hoarse that no number of keithels can placate the street vendors presenting the agitating women as if they all are an insatiable animal. Yet neither the government nor the media have given a chance for the other voice to be heard. The question is not about giving seats/stalls/holderships to all (and not certainty to those who had bought it for sums ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 40,000). The question is about giving it to the most deserving ones. Where is the fundamental idea of fairness when the eviction includes women who have endured in the Nagamapal Keithel for more than two decade? If any media organisation does a scrutiny investigation into how the stalls are allotted or for that matter how licenses are issued and who all the actual beneficiaries, there will be wonderful worms coming out of the can of treachery. And what about the absentee permit holders of these stalls/seats who have an alternative source of livelihood, who do not need the space for their day to day survival? There must be scores of them who will or already have leased the permits to other lesser vendors. While on the one hand, the state government has not yet revealed the plan for the various empty floors in the three keithels, the media on the other hand has not questioned the process of allotment of seats to the vendors.Development or DisplacementThe eviction of the street vendors is being done with utter violation of certain basic human rights of the street vendors and hawkers. The government has send them off to Lamphel keithel, but this alternative is fraudulent because this keithel is already occupied by the locals as a consequence of a supposed proclamation that the market should be occupied on first come first serve basis. At the end, the street vendors who are forced to leave the Nagamapal areas have to occupy the parking lot at the Lamphel shopping complex as the space of selling their products. Eviction understood as “coerced or involuntary displacement of individuals, groups and communities from homes and/or lands and common property resources that were occupied or depended upon, thus eliminating or limiting the ability of an individual, groups or community to reside or work in a particular dwelling or residence or location, without the provision of, and access to appropriate forms of legal and other protections”. While the state will argue that the vendors are not evicted as an alternative arrangement has been made from them, a visit at Lamphel would show that the women are still in a limbo, the shed as announced by the Chief Minister to be on first come, first serve basis has already been occupied by local women before the street vendors reached. Thus, at Lamphel too, the women had to set up their stalls on the tarmac of the parking lot, roofless under the sky. The government has stated that the sending of vendors to Lamphel is a temporary arrangement; women are expected to sit in the asphalt road in the heat of summer without basic amenities. It is but inevitable that they will be shooed again by the police for occupying the parking lot. Will the allotment process be the same in Lamphel as well? If so, then the street vendors who had been thrown out of the new market complex area because of their inability to pay a certain sum to the lups will be left out again and again from all the new keithels. The monopolization of social space in the name of handing it over to the Ima/Iben without any systematic and fair distribution should be the issue of current discussion. Should the government leave the issue of distribution of stalls to the vagaries of Khwairamband lup politics and Imphal Municipality Council’s murkiness? Apart from transparency and accountability, it is time that we wake up to acquire new sensibilities of understanding issues around us while retaining the core foundation of our collective life and life-world. *This article was developed from interviews with keithel imas at Lamphel and new keithels. We thank Sadokpam Ranjeeta, Nongthombam Gunileima and Khangembam Anandi and Human Rights Alert for facilitating the interviews.

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