By 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 continue with farming 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 poor people 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 observations are 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 farmers from the villages in IT road sell their produce early morning to middlemen from the Kangpokpi town. 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 of Kangpokpi district consequent upon the reorganisation 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. Chonthang Khongsai of 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 children out of the 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 dwelled on 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 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 farmers 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. Thirty-year-old Joycy Kipgen 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. Similarly, 55-year-old Chongkeng Haolai gets about rupees 500 in a day, whereas, 60-year-old Hoikhoneng Chongloi gets about rupees 15000 as annual profit. This is discouraging farming activity in the hills as farming is no longer seen as a productive enterprise. The middlemen who have better networking or connection or capital are able to gain in a day (or half a day), the same amount as the peasant who had invested months of labour and capital in the production of the vegetables.
Dwindling interest in farming
Though the study could only focus on the Kukis, the plight of the peasants or the small land holding farmers or landless farm laborers is similar across the different communities of Manipur. It is a common knowledge that the rural villages in Manipur have witnessed a shift toward non-farm enterprises, in which there is large-scale migration towards towns or even cities to seek better employment prospects. But in the discourse of development, there are a few sections of the rural poor, who are left out without options, still wholly dependent on farming as their primary source of livelihood. It is pertinent for the state to intervene to ensure that they receive a fair price for their produce. In many cases, the simple-minded rural peasants are ill equipped to negotiate with the crafty middlemen who are well-versed in business diplomacy. The peasants easily give in to the middlemen’s bargain over their produce, undermining the fact that it was the yield of their one year of labour.
The dependency now becomes unbalanced as the transaction is not profitable for them. As they are unskilled for any other trade or profession and lack capital of any kind, they have no alternative option other than to continue farming and be content with the meager outcome of their agricultural production. A respondent asserts, “Our hard work in cultivating the fields does not benefit us much. We are shortchanged by others,” summing up their condition in a single sentence. The production for market and the introduction of the illiterate peasants to commercial market economy have made them a vulnerable prey of the middlemen who exploit them in the business transaction. Thus, one reason behind the dwindling interest of the peasants in agriculture could be because it is no longer considered a beneficial enterprise. This is despite the fact that they have no alternative career or source of livelihood to fall back on.
The study concludes that the peasants need to be encouraged by the state keeping in mind their important contribution to the state’s economy. It is important to take initiative in making them take pride in the farming profession. It hopes to influence the policies of the state in instituting a farmer’s market (Rythu Bazar Model of Hyderabad) at strategic locations in the hills of Manipur where the farmers can directly sell their produce at a fair price to the consumer, thus eliminating the role of the middlemen. The state should develop a mechanism for regulating the prices of the produce thus ensuring that they get their due in the overall transaction. Moreover, there should be awareness programs and state aid to control plant pests and diseases affecting food crops to minimize the losses of the farmers.
The Author: Dr Hoineilhing Sitlhou-Sampar (email@example.com) teaches Sociology at the University of Hyderabad and T Shokhothang Haokip (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Headmaster of 2 in 1 Omega Public School & Kindergarten, Motbung.