CM Biren Singh laid foundation stone for two Ima markets in Imphal on Thursday Credit: Twitter

Imphal: Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh on Thursday laid foundation stones for two more mother’s markets, popularly known as Ima Keithel in Manipur, at Sekmai and Kanglatongbi in Imphal West district. The development comes amid the prolonged closure of the historic women’s market in Imphal and other parts of the state owing to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking to Twitter, CM Biren Singh said the foundation laying ceremony for two Ima/women’s markets is to empower the women of different communities in the area in their commercial activities and self reliance, providing them with immense economic opportunities.

According to Singh, 16 additional similar markets will come up at different districts of the state, other than the seven women’s markets that have already been inaugurated and functioning in the hill districts.

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Notably, the historic Ima Keithel or mother’s market in Imphal, solely run and managed by women over the past 500 years, is also believed to be the largest all-women-run market in Asia and possibly the world.

The market that houses at least 4,000 regular licensed women vendors, however, has been closed awaiting systematic guidelines for reopening ever since the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown came into place in March 2020.

The prolonged closure of trading activities at the Ima Keithel in Imphal and elsewhere in the state has impacted the local economy in a big way, especially women vendors who are also the sole bread winners, finding it difficult to make ends meet.

Speaking to EastMojo, 52-year-old Ima Yumnam Ibeiyaima at the Imphal Keithel said they are grappling severe hardships due to the closure of markets. They are, however, hopeful that the government will come up with appropriate COVID-19 measures and guidelines to reopen the markets soon.

Ima Keithel before the pandemic

“We have already told about our hardships to the chief minister and he has assured us that the markets will reopen as soon as the vaccine is made available to us. We couldn’t go against his request, since he has also shown his concern for our well-being and for the larger interest of the public,” said Ibeiyaima, who is also the secretary of the Mayanglang Phijoi Yonbi Nupi Lup, one of the four women’s organisations at the market.

Earlier in November, the women vendors had appealed the state government for permission to reopen the market for a few days close to the Ningol Chakouba Festival, with assurances of following proper COVID-19 guidelines and SoPs as precaution. The authorities had, however, turned down their request at that time owing to a sharp rise of coronavirus cases in the state.

The deserted Ima Keithel in Imphal

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“We are facing severe hardships ever since the market closed down. Now, we are compelled to sell our vegetables at the makeshift roadside stalls. It is hard and we are unable sell our products properly as most of the vegetables get spoilt before selling off due to dust and sunlight,” said SP Hangmila, who sells vegetables at Ava market (mother’s market) in Ukhrul district.

Like Hangmila, many women vendors were forced to find alternate sources of income since roadside selling of vegetables was not feasible for everyone, especially the elderly and the sick, since they also need to carry their products to and from their homes to the main town.

“We are worried about our kids’ school admissions since the new session will begin soon if the COVID-19 situation improves. We hope that the state government will do something in terms of relief package” Hangmila, a mother of four, added.

Women in Manipur have historically been known to manage financial expenses of their family and play a major role in improving the economy of the state. However, outbreak the COVID-19 pandemic brought about economic hardships to the state by affecting well-being of its independent and enterprising womenfolk.

“The priority of the government seems to be a bit mixed up. It is more interested in warming up the long pockets of the politically loyal contractors rather than the livelihood of the Imas making their ends meet by running their micro business in the Keithel,” said Human Rights Alert (HRA) executive director Babloo Loitongbam.

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