Imphal: The election season combined with an unusually cold February has substantially increased coal prices in Manipur, forcing common people to buy them at much higher prices.
Manipur sees an upsurge in charcoal demand during the winters as most low-income families depend on coal to stay warm, particularly at night. However, the election season has meant locals have been forced to buy either less coal, or to spend more as political parties buy up huge stocks, mostly to keep their workers warm at night, but also allegedly to distribute for free across various constituencies.
Then, there is the erratic electricity in the state, which means that even well-off people tend to keep charcoal in stock for contingencies.
EastMojo visited a coal depot in New Checkon market, which was bustling with women packing coal early in the morning. Five women, packing fresh coal that had arrived from the hill district of Churachandpur, were seen haggling with customers over the final prices.
Lalita Devi, a woman in her 50s, was packing coal into black and grey plastic bags. A resident of Aurangabad, Devi said the prices started rising about 2 months ago, but that was a normal situation.
“Of course, the demand goes up during winters as people use charcoal for keeping warm. They use a utility tool called Meiphu, a metal box, in which they keep the charcoal,” she says.
Devi, whose family now lives in Manipur, says, “The prices of charcoal have shot up substantially in the last few years, but that was mostly because the supply has also gone down due to various issues, which I am not familiar with.”
Supply issues, quality affecting revenue
Interestingly, all women working at the depot had their own set-up whereby they buy coal every day from the suppliers and then, in turn, sell them to wholesalers and retailers too. According to the women working here, the sale to wholesalers has become extremely erratic in the past few months due to supply issues.
“Earlier, a good part of my monthly income would come from selling to local wholesalers, but because of supply issues, I have suffered. I rely mostly on selling at the retail level, which involves more work and less (profit) margin,” says Ibecha Soibam, who has been working at the coal depot for 14 years.
Showing a medium-sized, grey coloured plastic bag, Soibam says, “This, we would sell for Rs 100. It would easily be enough charcoal for a small meiphu for a few nights. Now, this sells for Rs 150, and we admit that the charcoal is lesser in quantity. A 100 kg bag would sell for about Rs 700-800 earlier, now it is closer to Rs 1,200 per bag,” she says.
“On some days, the transporter brings 50 bags, on other days, there is nothing. To be honest, we feel bad for the customers too…as and when possible, we try to give some families the charcoal dust if they have absolutely no money,” she added.
To help customers and retailers, the women said they give five Rs 20 packets free with 50 packets, so that the customers still pay Rs 20 and the retailers make a profit of Rs 100 per 50 packets. “That way, the customers pay the same amount, and the retailers still make some profit,” adds Lalita Devi.
The demand for coal among political parties is so high that when EastMojo was at the depot, a woman came to buy 40 gunny sacks, each between 30-40 kg each, for Rs 30,000, but the women at the depot refused to sell it for less than Rs 32,000. “That (Rs 2,000) is our profit margin,” said Soibam.
Her daughter, who is a graduate, was also helping her in the business, which according to her, can help her earn up to Rs 30,000 per month in good times. “I have ensured that two of my daughters finished their graduation thanks to the money I make here,” she said, “but the income changes a lot from month to month so it is not stable,” she added.
Talking about the woman who came to buy the coal in bulk, another vendor said, “Political parties are sending womenfolk to buy coal because that attracts less attention. Recently, there was a complaint regarding parties buying all the coal,” she added.
Officials aware, but cannot do much
About a week ago, the Election Commission received a complaint via their Cvigil app from an anonymous person that political parties were buying and distributing charcoal for free, “Accordingly, we sent a flying squad on the side but they found no one,” said an EC official on the condition of anonymity. “We then closed the complaint,” he said.
“This is a grey area because technically, there is nothing wrong in buying charcoal for party workers. The issue arises when they start distributing them for free, however, even if we manage to find some party workers doing that, the people receiving the coal are unlikely to tell the truth because they, of course, benefit from the coal,” he added. “We urge those filing the complaint to give us ample proof, but I can understand that it must be difficult to gather the same,” he added.
With the harsh winter continuing and elections starting on February 28, it seems charcoal prices are unlikely to come down soon.
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