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Negotiating Livelihood during COVID-19

Urban Tribal Women Vendors of Manipur

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown led to the closure of all markets in Manipur, including the Tribal Market Complex in Imphal East. This article focuses on how the women vendors negotiated their livelihood during the lockdown and analyses its impact. It looks at their ability to cope amidst vulnerability and marginalisation against the backdrop of the ongoing economic turmoil and potentially the disease itself, highlighting their plight and resilience.

We would like to acknowledge the Tribal Women Vendors Association, chairperson, the women vendors, and joint secretary of Tribal Youth Club, New Lambulane for providing much-needed information and interactions.

We also express our gratitude to Ngamjahao Kipgen, who teaches sociology at the Department of Humanities and Sociology, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, for his critical inputs and suggestions towards the paper.

The authors are grateful to the suggestions made by the anonymous reviewer.

Manipur is renowned for its “women markets.” The tribal women vendors of the Tribal Market Complex1 are intra-state migrants of the surrounding hill districts of Manipur. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 defines “stationary vendors” as street vendors who carry out vending activities on a regular basis at specific locations. Cohen et al (2010) point out that the terms market vendor, street vendor and vendor are frequently used interchangeably and loosely defined across countries and cultures. In some countries, the term street vendor covers marketplace vendors as well as pavement sellers, mobile street hawkers, and home-based vendors. In others, marketplaces are a separate category and may be legal or illegal (Cohen et al 2010: 4). The unique feature of markets in Manipur is that they are run solely by women for women since the precolonial period and this tradition continues. The immense role of Manipur women in trade has been commented upon by British colonial officers such as Brown (2001: 76), Dun (1975), Hudson (2010: 23), and Hunter (1886: 17).

Acc­ording to Bhowmik (2005), the term street vendor includes stationary as well as mobile vendors and it incor­porates all other local/region-specific terms used to describe them. However, in Manipur there is a marked difference between market vendors and street vendors: those outside the purview of licence holders are referred to as street vendors or hawkers and even though granted legal status by the municipalities, street vendors are liable to face more harassment from the authorities unlike the licensed market vendors. As such, the term market vendors has been used in this article to mean stationary women vendors licensed to sell in the Tribal Market Complex. The topic has been chosen given the inadequate studies on tribal women vendors of Manipur in academia unlike the studies on the “Ima market” (women market) or Khwairamband market. Moreover, as Skinner (2020) opined,

Research unequivocally shows that the informal economy is absolutely critical to food security, particularly in lower income communities, street and market vendors reach areas without supermarkets, offer low cost alternatives to restaurant meals, often extend credit to regular customers and sell in smaller, more affordable quantities and even during a pandemic, they can trade as safely as supermarkets as long as they have water supplies and sanitizers at hand.

However, when the pandemic struck, the state government saw marketplaces as the most vulnerable places but did not ensure effective measures for women vendors to trade safely without facing health risks. The increasing number of women street vendors despite the advan­cement of the modern marketing system as highlighted by Adhikari (2011) points a finger at a state like Manipur where women have played a central role in informal trade for centuries and are not under any social restriction to trade in the market. For these women, trading is not only a means of livelihood but also a way of life and due to this, the market remains a monopoly of women. Despite their equally important contribution to the economy they remain invisible and in most cases are taken for granted.

Research Design

This study is based on mixed method using the random sampling technique. The survey is carried out through close and open ended interview procedures to understand the realities of how COVID-19 affected the livelihood pattern of women market vendors in New Lambulane Tribal Market of Imphal East (Manipur) between 19 May and 30 June 2020. Indepth interviews as well as observations were undertaken during the late morning hours when business is slacker as compared to the morning peak hour trade for a comprehensive understanding of how they negotiate their livelihood during the lockdown. The sample size of the study was 70 and it covered all types of vendors within the Tribal Market Complex.

The study found that all the women vendors of this tribal market are rural migrants from the hill districts of Manipur, and live in rented houses. Consistent with the characterisations made by Timalsana (2011), Bhowmik (2001, 2011) and Walsh (2010, 2012) on informal trade and street vendors, the study found that poverty, lack of livelihood opportunity, low skills, minimum start-up capital and low or no education level in the hill districts compelled these tribal women to settle in the valley to eke out their livelihood as market vendors (Table 1). A signi­ficant feature of tribal market women vendors is that a majority of them are widows (53%) with two to five children to take care of. From the given data (Table 1), the highest number of women (40%) belong to the age group of 45–54 years, which clearly implies that young women are less likely to engage in street vending or market vending in Imphal. The study further reveals that majority of the women (60%) are engaged in selling perishable items. If the sale is low, almost half of their food items are spoilt leading to loss of income. The remaining 11.4% deal in tea and food vending and 28.6% in selling garments, shoes, and household and miscellaneous items.

Coping during Lockdown

As these market vendors depend on a daily income with hardly any savings, the imposition of a statewide lockdown led to the closure of all the three markets, including the New Lambuland Tribal Market.2 One of the vendors Sally Roever said,

Street vendors have always faced onerous regulations and punitive measures—inclu­ding arrests and confiscation of goods—that severely impede their ability to earn a living.

The tribal women vendors from being stationary market vendors resorted to street vending again during the lockdown, hence facing the ordeal of constant flight from authorities. Lhingdei3 pointed out: “This is akin to a game of hide and seek, the police chasing us and we trying to evade them as best as we can.”

The various strategies women vendors adopted included: vending in front of their rented house (29%), street alleys (21%), through mobile contact (27%) and delivering vegetables and fruits (10%). As Bhowmik (2005) has stated,

street vending survives not merely because it is an important source of employment but because of the services it provides to the urban population.

For a city like Imphal where e-marketing, malls or supermarkets are not widely prevalent, market vendors provide the daily requirements of the city population.

As many as 29% of the women vendors engaged in other trades changed their business to selling essential items as the latter was exempted from the lockdown.The immediate concern among the women vendors from the data collected points out that the loss of income due to the pandemic was highest which is 93% as it adversely aff­ects their interest payment (93%), rent payment (86%) as well as children’s education expenses (77%) (Figure 1).

Our survey findings show that minimum support was given from the government despite the announcement that through the “Hakshelgi Tengbang” those beneficiaries who do not possess the National Food Security Act (NFSA) card could also avail free rice (Table 2).5

We found that these market vendors were denied food rations on the grounds that they did not posses ration cards and other government documents. On the other hand, the Tribal Youth Club (TYC) joint secretary6 revealed that only selected women received rations and basic necessities, while the majority of the women vendors were ignored.

Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown

The United Nations Policy Brief on the Impact of COVID-19 on Women (United Nation 2020: 2) states,

The year 2020, marking the twenty fifth anniversary of the Beijing platform for Action, was intended to be ground breaking for gender equality, instead, with the spread of COVID-19 pandemic even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.

Undeniably for a state such as Manipur where many of the women are mainly involved in informal trade, the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic. Thus, when the government announced the reopening of the market, a majority of women vendors were compelled to take loans in order to restart their businesses. The tribal market women vendors mostly rely on vegetable produce in the rural hill district areas, which is often supplied by rural women and farmers. Since the lockdown, supply chains have taken a hit and vendors are faced with shortages of steady supply of produce due to restrictions imposed on public transport leading to hike in prices of produce. There is a lack of customers due to the “stay home” advice, government restrictions, and short duration of lockdown relaxation, all leading to loss in profit which adversely affects their rent payment. The perishing of goods often compelled them to sell at cheap prices rather than have their goods spoilt (Table 3).

The lockdown also witnessed a mushrooming of new street vendors, creating competition (Table 3). Another impact of the pandemic is the decreasing number of women vendors coming out to sell in the market and it will take time for the women to start afresh and begin with their daily trade. Hoinu7 informed us,

Before the pandemic-cum-lockdown there were between 200 and 300 women selling their wares but now there are even hardly 70 women in the market.

Following the “unlock-1” from 1 June,8 tea and food stalls were permitted to be back in business; however, they suffered a huge setback, with only market vendors as customers.On the other hand, the lockdown also created a closer bond of understanding between the women vendors and their children.10 But for some women it became a double burden with schools shut and no one to take care of their children while they sell in the markets and sometime the streets.

Our study revealed that the Tribal Market Complex is at its most congested in the early morning period between 7 am and 9 am and thus poses health risks all around. Yet, data shown in Figure 2 (p 20) indicates that almost all women vendors rarely wear masks (74%), nor do they use gloves (100%) or maintain social distancing norms (90%).

The study found that the main reasons given by women vendors for not following the standard operating procedure (SOP) were due to the inconveniences of the nature of their trade, less turnout of women vendors and customers, the question of maintaining social distancing does not arise and “customers fail to maintain social distancing.” Despite being fearful about catching the virus, a majority of the respondents failed to comply with the SOP, relying on providence to safeguard them against the virus infection, since their main anxiety is to sell as much for the day as is possible to make ends meet. The market complex was not equipped with safe public drinking water and toilet facilities.

Concluding Remarks

The tribal women vendors despite losing all their savings and capital remain calm and steadfast, making changes in their trade to survive according to the changing scenario. Therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic as Jenna Harvey (2020) opined,

is an opportunity for governments to provide these essential workers with measures that always should have existed and that should be kept in place after the crisis subsides. (Harvey 2020)

The current health crisis has touched all facades of human life, with poor women facing the worst of it. It is time we rethink and remodel our outlook for a more just and equitable society so that their voices are heard while framing solutions to the pandemic. State and local governments as well as local welfare and women’s organisations should rearticulate women’s work and contributions taking into consideration that maximum women in the informal sectors in Manipur are breadwinners, by looking into their welfare and providing better financial facilities, relief measures and action against harassment from the concerned authorities they often have to face. There is a need to emphasise proper awareness of the pandemic, and provide more innovative and service-oriented strategies to carry out their business efficiently.


1 Inaugurated in 2010, it is the only urban Tribal Market Complex in Imphal city, meant for women from the 33 Scheduled Tribes of Manipur. The tribal market is under the management of tribal development and the overall management is under the New Lambulane Welfare Committee and Tribal Youth Club. The market vendors also formed an organisation known as Tribal Market Vendors Association (TMVA) to safeguard the vendors’ interests.

2 Government of Manipur, Directorate of Information and Public Relations, Press Release, Imphal, 23 March 2020; Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Imphal East District, Order, Porompat 26 March 2020; Office of the District Magistrate, Imphal East District, Order, Porompat, 5 April 2020, https://manipur.gov.in/?page_id=16984.

3 Lhingdei, 49 years old, vegetable vendor, interviewed on 19 May 2020, Tribal Market Complex, New Lambulane, Imphal East.

4 Nemneng, 47 years, garment and shoe vendor interviewed on 19 May 2020 at the market complex, New Lambulane, Imphal East, Manipur had to change her trade selling vegetables in the street during the COVID-19 lockdown.

5 Government of Manipur, Directorate of Information and Public Relations, press release, issued on 23 March 2020, Imphal, https://manipur.gov.in/?page_id=16984.

6 Thangneilal Haokip, 30 years, joint secretary, Tribal Youth Club, New Lambulane, interviewed at his residence on 20 May 2020.

7 Hoinu Haokip, 50 years, chairperson of Tribal Market Women Vendors Association, interviewed on 18 May 2020 at Tribal Market Complex.

8 According to the tea and food stall vendors, they were allowed to open their stall on alternate days to avoid overcrowding and maintain social distancing among the customers; the same was mirrored among garment and shoe vendors.

9 Lamboi, age 52 years, tea stall owner in the market complex since 2013, interviewed on 11 June 2020.

10 Helam, 45 years old, vegetable vendor, interviewed on 14 June 2020, Tribal Market Complex, New Lambulane, Imphal East.


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Brown, R (2001): Statistical Account of Manipur, New Delhi: Mittal Publications.

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Updated On : 24th Nov, 2020


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