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Imphal: Whenever a calamity befalls on a country or state, the common people, especially the smallholder farmers, are among the first in society to be adversely impacted, thereby causing a big threat to their livelihoods.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns that were imposed amid the spurt in the number of positive cases have badly affected the people in Manipur, especially the farmers’ community, since restrictions have disrupted the supply of their harvest to the consumers.

Impact of frequent lockdowns on farmers

Since late March, Manipur is on lockdown mode with partial relaxation on essential services, including the opening of shops dealing with essential commodities. However, for over a month, the lockdown has become stricter with reports of locally transmitted cases of the coronavirus in the state. Vegetable vendors and essential stores continue to remain shut in most parts of the state fearing infection of the disease.

Situated at a distance of around 35 kilometres from Imphal, the capital of Manipur, Khoijuman Khullen village in Bishnupur district is one of the biggest vegetable producers in the state.

Around 500 farmers in this village whose major income comes from vegetable farming are now suffering as most of the vegetables and rabi crops, which are otherwise ready for harvest, have been left unattended. Also, a huge quantity of crops continue to be disposed of in the fields in the absence of middlemen who usually buy the farm produces from them in bulk.

Huge quantity of tomatoes rotting away in the fields

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Vegetable farm at Khoijuman Khullen village

During the peak season, farmers of Khoijuman Khullen village would produce at least 15 to 20 tonnes of vegetables in a day with their daily earning ranging between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 15 lakh. However, the present health crisis and its subsequent lockdown has gone down hard on the farmers, causing huge losses on their productions.

The story of 57-year-old Khangembam Thouranisabi Leima, mother of five children and a farmer at Khoijuman Khullen, echoes the hardships faced by the other farmers in the village.

“Life has been hard since the lockdown was imposed in the state. But to feed the family members, I have to do whatever I can even just to earn a meagre amount from selling the vegetables during the lockdown,” said Leima.

For over 20 years, Leima used to collect vegetables from her farm and sell at Nagamapal market, one of the busiest bazaars in Imphal. On a good day, she would earn up to Rs 50,000.

That was how I would run the family and look after my kids’ education, said Leima.

However, this year’s story has been disheartening one. Her only option is to sit at her village roadside and sell the vegetables all by herself at dirt-cheap prices.

A 57-year-old Khangembam Thouranisabi Leima of Khoijuman Khullen village

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Women vendors selling vegetables at the roadside of Khoijuman Khullen village in Manipur

At her home courtyard, one can see a huge quantity of tomatoes lying on the ground, some already rotten and others about to rot. Reason for dumping the tomatoes? Because consumption is down and supply chains are significantly limited due to movement restrictions and lesser markets accessed in the state.

Collected pumpkins are well stacked up on sackcloth and properly kept on the entrance of her house, ready to transport to markets whenever the opportunity comes.

The harvested pumpkins have been lying there for almost a week now and waiting for bulk buyers, Leima added.

According to the locals, major vegetable bulk buyers come from Singjaimei, Wangjing and Lilong and subsequently, they distribute to smaller vendors and street vendors. However, now, in the absence of buyers from Imphal and elsewhere and due to closing down of nearby markets, most vegetables have rotten in the fields itself.

“Losses from the rotten vegetables are amounting to lakhs. Those collected from the fields get spoiled before it can be sold off due to the absence of bulk buyers from Imphal. Most farmers from the village are not comfortable sharing the number of losses since the amount is huge,” she added.

Harvested pumpkins on sackcloth, waiting for bulk buyers in Khoijuman Khullen village

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Chongtham Khogendro, president, Farmers’ Association for Inhesion Reformation, Khoijuman Khullen

Transport impediment

The situation arose due to transport restrictions during the lockdown and lack of proper storage facilities in the state. Most commodities like tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and other vegetables were left to rot.

“Even now, we are producing the vegetables to around 10 to 15 tonnes per day but unable to sell everything. On August 5, we submitted a memorandum to the chief minister N Biren Singh and sought help from the state government. As per his instructions, Manipur Organic Mission Agency (MOMA) director had visited our village and during the meeting, they agreed to purchase 5 tonnes as a trial basis,” said Chongtham Khogendro, president, Farmers’ Association for Inhesion Reformation, Khoijuman Khullen.

According to Khogendro, they have provided at least 4 tonnes to MOMA, however, the state agency too is facing a problem and couldn’t completely sell-off the vegetables in a week. This has caused farmers great concerned and worried about the losses incurred from the vegetables.

“We have been suffering for the complete exhaust of those procured items. Since it is highly perishable and we don’t have logistic support. Though we have a cold chain infrastructure, it is not adequate. So what we have been doing is if we can’t sell off the vegetables in two to three days, we visited old age homes or orphanage homes and donated the vegetables to them before it gets rotten free of cost,” added K Debadutta Sharma, Director, Directorate of Horticulture and Soil Conservation, Manipur.

“Apart from the state government’s help, our district police SP also came forward and helped us to sell at least 2,000 kg of vegetables,” said Khundrapam Ibotombi Singh, president, Global Science Club, Khoijuman Khullen.

Harvested vegetables waiting for buyers in Bishnupur district
Harvested vegetables ready for supply to markets

When nature also plays spoilsport

Along with the lockdown, excess downpour during the monsoon season has also played spoilsport resulting in harvested vegetables decayed or caught fungus due to the moisture.

Earlier, daily wage labourers from neighbouring villages like Kwasiphai, Toubal, Ngaikhong were hired to harvest the produce and package the vegetables to be sold off. However, with no markets access and they were unemployed.

As per the locals, due to the texture of soil vegetable farming has been practised in the village for generations. And it has also been the only feasible form of cultivation that can be practised through triple cropping system throughout the year.

Farmers in the village and the neighbouring areas also engage in rice cultivation but only to fulfil their requirements. Now, to shift their farming culture from Rabi to Kharif crops if the pandemic is here to stay, the farmers will have to change the overall course of action.

Agriculture is one of the key mainstays of the state’s economy and due to global markets being impacted owing to the pandemic, the trajectory of the economy in the state has also changed completely.

K Debadutta Sharma, Director, Directorate of Horticulture and Soil Conservation, Manipur

Impact of COVID-19 & lockdown on Manipur

· 70 % or 14 lakh farmers affected

· Losses of around Rs 5 crore incurred every month since first lockdown

· Districts such as Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Pherzawl and Senapati also impacted

A per the official report, Manipur has around 20 lakh farmers, including those engaged on farming vegetables and fruits. The numbers also include those indulged on fisheries and veterinary.

Around 70% or 14 lakh farmers have been directly affected amid the pandemic and the on and off lockdown. This also resulted in losses of around Rs 5 crore every month since the first lockdown was announced, said Debadutta.

Bishnupur is not the only district that has been affected during the lockdown. Thousands of farmers across districts such as Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Pherzawl, Senapati have also been impacted.

Organic outlet in Imphal

Government support fails to pay off

To provide a helping hand to the farmers, the government of Manipur opened two organic outlets in Imphal under the aegis of Manipur Organic Mission Agency as a temporary distribution measure.

During the process, the state government procured over 3,000 metric tonnes of vegetables from Bishnupur, Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Pherzawl and Senapati districts. However, about 30 per cent of the procured vegetables got spoiled even before it reached the consumers due to the nature of the seasonal products. This happened due to lack of proper cold storage for longer preservation.

To address the pertaining issues, Debadutta opined that a support system such as transportation, storage, and integrated pack houses is the need of the hour to bridge the gap between the farmers and the market.

“Our concerned authorities have to open cold-storages either locally or state-wise so that the vegetables don’t go to waste and they have to find a way where the farmers can sell their vegetables within and outside the state. So that our farmers who are facing the hardships be provided with some relief. So, our government and the concerned authorities will have to look into the matter very seriously and need to take the necessary steps so that the goods of the farmers do not go to waste,” added Titular king of Manipur, Leishemba Sanajaoba, who is also a member of the Rajya Sabha.

Meanwhile, human rights activist and executive director of Human Rights Alert Babloo Loithongbam claimed that the government is being blatant since the problem has not affected the economically affluent section of the society. He also suggested that the government should regulate norms rather than completely closing down market places.

“I think women are quite smart. Although the Ima Keithel is closed, there are many other markets which are coming out all over the locality. But honestly, I think it is completely unnecessary or overreaction to completely closed down the market. Rather there has to be proper regulation because at the end of the day we don’t know when COVID-19 is completely gone,” said Loithongbam.

Human Rights Alert (HRA) executive director Babloo Loitongbam in Imphal

“Even in most advanced countries, we have lived with COVID-19. So it is much more important to regulate the behaviour of the women vendors and the customers coming at the market. So, our suggestion to the government would be better to regulate rather than completely closed down because it is not affecting the ruling class that is why they are so blatant in their approach. There would have been nuances in their approach if it was affecting the ruling class of the state,” he added.

The historic Ima Keithel or Ima Market also could not escape the repercussions of the lockdown. The market in the state’s capital has been closed since March in a bid to contain the spread of the virus. However, many women vendors who solely depended on selling vegetables and other essential items are now facing a tough time making ends meet.

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