Plight of the peasants in the hills of Manipur

Dr Hoineilhing Sitlhou and Telsing Shokhothang Haokip
It is easy to take for granted the section of the populace who are responsible for putting food on our table every day of the year. Sadly, they are a fast dwindling population as farming for them is no longer a productive venture. A small section of them remains involved in the vocation only because they have no alternative means of livelihood. The recent book, “Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to our Biggest Problems”, by the Nobellaureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo writes, GDP is a means, not an end: It is a way to create jobs, but the ultimate aim should be to raise the quality of life of the poorest person. And quality of life means more than just consumption. While better lives are indeed partly about being able to consume more, even very poor people also care about the health of their parents, about educating their children, about having their voices heard, and about being able to pursue their dreams (excerpt from The Hindu, Oct. 22, 2019).These observationsare very relevant to assess the experiences of both the small land holding and landless farm labourers in the hills of Manipur. The paper is based on the fieldwork conducted between July to August of 2019 in IT road junction and Kangpokpi women’s market (NuteKailhang).
Popularly called IT road by the local inhabitants, the Imphal-Tamenglong Road in Kangpokpi district of Manipur is a road that leads to Tamenglong district. There is a junction intersecting the road with Kangpokpi town, which is the meeting point of peasants from the villages of IT road and the middlemen of Kangpokpi town. The junction is a busy hub where poor peasants from the villages in IT road sell their produce in the early hours of the morning to middlemen from the Kangpokpi town area. The peasants are dominantly from the villages of IT road like Songjang, Kotlen, Geljang, Leisang, Khomunnom, Holjang, Bollen, Maokot, V. Kholen, Lhungjang, Songpijang, Selsi, TujangWaichong, Gelnel, Joupi, Gelbung, Chalwa, Phoikon, N. Teikhang, Wakotphai, Govajang, Thenjang, Chaljang, Lhouthang, C. Chalkot, T. Khonomphai, Songpibung, Lasan, Bileijang, Haimol, Sojamphai and LC Phai etc. These villages were formerly located in the Sadar Hills West Sub-division of Senapati district, but now form a part ofKangpokpi district consequent upon the reorganization of districts in Manipur in the year 2017. Majority of the households in the villages in IT road are dependent on agricultural production and rearing of live stocks.
Kangpokpi town has a population of 7,476 living in 1,437 houses as per 2011 census, and have better amenities and infrastructures like water supplies, communication systems, sewerage, roads, power supplies, schools, colleges, bigger markets and government offices. It is around 50 kilometers North of Imphal, the state capital. The National Highway 39 also runs through this town. The IT or Imphal-Tamenglong road that connects Kangpokpi town with the villages is extremely bad and public conveyance is uncomfortable and unreliable. The poor connectivity with the main town, the National Highway and the underdeveloped nature of these villages have contributed in obstructing the economic growth of the villagers in these regions. Shortage of basic amenities, infrastructural facilities and history of conflict with neighboring Naga community are other reasons for the underdevelopment.
Contextualizing Peasantry in Manipur Hills
In the discourse, the term ‘peasant’ (small land holding farmer or landless farm laborers) is preferred over ‘farmer’. A peasant, Robert Redfield writes, is, ‘a man who is in effective control of a piece of land to which he has long been attached by ties of tradition and sentiment’. The peasants who sell their produce to the middlemen at IT road Kangpokpi intersection are mostly women who are at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, and wholly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. They are engaged either or in both of ‘thinglhang lei’ (jhumming) and ‘joulei’ (planting vegetables in and around the mountain ridges). In ‘joulei’, maize, arum, chillies, cucumber, pumpkin, ginger, cabbage, brinjal, potatoes, mustard leaves, tomatoes, beans, peas, taro, yam etc. are grown. Many of the villages in IT road are governed by chieftainship system,and this determined their relationship with their land. ChonthangKhongsaiof Gelnel village and his family survived by cultivating ginger and beans in a village site allocated to him by the chief. Prior to this, they were involved in banana plantation which was halted because the bananas became diseased. Since, the site allocated to him, and the rest of the villagers, was limited, the produce from it was just about enough for their subsistence. But the financial constraint prevented their first two childrenout of the total seven, from completing their education.
Khutpha, similar to the concept of ‘middlemen’, is operational in these regions. Most cultivators have a Khutpha (or middlemen). Likewise, Chonthang’s family also have one. On those days when they are unable to sell the produce in Kangpokpi, they would leave the produce with their Khutpha, who is an inhabitant of Kangpokpi. The Khutpha may hold on to the produce for some time if the price is too low. He sells the produce on behalf of the cultivators, when the price is right. The right price is decided in consultation with the cultivators over phone. Sometimes, the cultivators send their produce with transporters without personally going to Kangpokpi. The transporter hands over the produce to the Khutpha at Kangpokpi, who in turn sell the produce and pay the fare. The Khutpha may remit the cultivators’ share through the transporter. So, there exists a level of trust among the cultivator, the transporter and the Khutphain this whole process.
Another respondent, 65 years old Vumkhomang Sitlhou also dwelledon the merits and demerits of Khutpha. During times of hardships, the cultivators could borrow Rs. 1000/- to 2000/- from their Khutphas. Even requirements such as weed killers could be sent by the Khutphas without the necessity of sending money beforehand. The money owed by the cultivators are settled at the time of selling the produce at the end of the year.Not only weed killers, the cultivators can also ask the Khutphas for other things they need which may not be necessarily related to farming.
On the other hand, if the cultivators happen to take a loan from the Khutpha or owe him some money, they cannot give their produce to any other person. Because doing so would jeopardize the relationship between the two. The cultivators usually do not measure their produce before sending to the Khutpha. The two have mutual trust in each other. The cultivators sometimes depend on the bus drivers/ transporters for weighing their produce.The Khutphas write the weights on the empty gunny bags which are sent back after the produce is sold. The unsold leftovers are sent back.
Middlemen Vs Peasantry: A Social Survey
A study was conducted in august of 2019. The aim was to unveil the dynamics of the relationships between the small land holding agricultural peasants and the middlemen in the context of the hill economy of Manipur. The study identifies three common horticultural products (Potato, Cabbage and Brinjal) that are widely circulated in the local markets dominated by the Thadou dialect speaking Kukis and follow up on them via the four agencies, small landholding agricultural peasants, middlemen, greengrocers/ vendors and consumers. The aim is to find out the overall profit procured by them in the overall process of economic transaction, especially highlighting the profit made by the middleman as compared to the actual producer of the vegetables.
When potatoes were sold for 20 rupees per kilogram by the peasant, the middleperson (as the respondents were all women) sells the best quality potatoes at 30 rupees per kilogram to buyers who can afford it. The rest is sold by her to the greengrocer who is seated at the market for a price ranging from 23 to 25 per kilogram. A sack containing 50 kilogram of potatoes is purchased for rupees 1000 by the middleperson from the actual cultivator. The greengrocer sells it at rupees 30 per kilogram.
In the transaction over cabbage(s), the peasant sells it to the middleperson at a price ranging between rupees 10 to 20 per kilogram depending on seasonal availability. When the fieldwork was conducted in July-August (2019), the cabbages were sold at rupees 10 per kilogram. The middleperson sells it to the grocer for 15 rupees per kilogram. The price of the cabbages often fluctuates and the middleperson told the researcher that it is sold at different prices (13, 20 and 30 rupees) per kilogram by the middleperson to the greengrocer depending on the season. The cabbages bought for 15 rupees from the middleperson is sold for 20 rupees per kilogram by the greengrocer.
Brinjals were sold by the peasant at a price ranging between 10 to 15 rupees per kilogram. It is sold by the middleperson to others (including the greengrocers) at rupees 16, 18, 20, 30, 40 per kilogram depending on the season and availability. The greengrocer usually tries to get it at the cheapest possible price, even if it means compromising on the quality. She earns about 5 to 10 rupees per kilogram as profit. At the time of the fieldwork, brinjals were sold at rupees 10 per kilogram by the peasant producer. The middleperson sells it to the greengrocer and others at a cost between rupees 12 to 15 per kilogram. The greengrocer at the market sells it for rupees 20 per kilogram. 
The data reflects the plight of the poor peasants who are not getting their due in the economic transaction. Most of the respondents belonging to the first category (the peasant or actual agricultural cultivator) are small landholding agricultural peasants. 30-year-old Mrs. JoycyKipgen grows potato, cabbage, ginger, pumpkin, cucumber and maize in her jhum field. After deducting all the expenditures incurred in the farming like purchasing of seeds, manures, payment of labour services (Rs. 300) in the farm (ploughing, weeding etc.) and transportation charges from village to the market place (Rs. 30 per bag), the overall profit is not much. She says she gets about rupees 200 to 300 per each bag of vegetables she sells in a day.
(To be contd)