TODAY -

Lilong: Food Basket (with a hole) of Manipur

Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan *



Lilong is a sub-division on the northern periphery of Thoubal district. The population of administrative sub-division is around 43000 as per Census 2011. There are many small villages and Lilong is the biggest one among them. Lilong is divided into two: Chajing and Haoreibi. Chajing is inhabited by Meiteis, the dominant indigenous community of Manipur, and it comes under Langthabal assembly constituency. Haoreibi is inhabited by Pangals, a minor indigenous community of Manipur.

Haoreibi and few adjoining areas inhabited by Meiteis, Pangals and Kabui come under Lilong assembly constituency. Lilong constituency has a voter count of 28940 as per last updated report (2014) available with Election Commission of India. However, a cursory glance at the Census 2011 figures reveals that the population is less than 31000, which contradicts the voter count of the constituency. Pangals inhabit few other places of Manipur as well and are socio-culturally close to Meiteis, while religious affiliation is with Islam. Religious identity is Muslim.

Prologue

The perimeter of the sub-division may be around 30 km, out of which around 25 km constitutes Haoreibi, surrounded by Imphal River on three sides and Phunal ching (hill) on the fourth side. Historians believe that Pangals came from Sylhet (Bangladesh) or adjoining areas in Assam more than four centuries ago and settled in Manipur after the then King awarded land and allowed to marry local women in recognition of their skilful warfare.

However, this account is not unambiguous with some historians claiming that Pangals were prisoners of war. Apart from their gallantry, Pangals also were good in farming. They were settled in and around Moirangkhom area of Imphal and were tasked with looking after paddy cultivation and protection of the King. Elders say that with shrinking arable land gradually Pangals moved to satellite locations where arable land was available. Most of them moved to nearby Lilong, just 10 km from Moirangkhom.

Ngangou pat (Lake)

Lilong Haoreibi was Ngangou pat decades ago. The relocation of Pangals to Haoreibi led to gradual reclaiming of the wetland. Ngangou pat was about 7x7 sq.km big. The pat/lake slowly gave way to loukol (a vast area of arable land) with the construction of flood-proof river bank along Imphal River, which became a source of water for fulfilling household and irrigation needs.

Since Imphal river is a rain-fed river, the success of a cropping season depends upon rainfall. When there was enough rain, two crops of paddy were cultivated in a year. However, in present times, double cropping rarely happens in Ngangou loukol, thanks to increasingly erratic and less rainfall and unobtainable ground water for irrigation. Along with paddy cultivation, villagers indulge in farming activities including agri-horti and livestock. Harvested rain water in ponds is used by residents for household and farming needs, just like in any other parts of Manipur.

Crop failure or low productivity has hit the farmers in the past decade and double cropping has become impossible. The loukol remains free of crop for nearly six months in a year. Because of this, farmers are increasingly taking up new professions by selling away land or migrating to urban areas in Imphal or outside Manipur (big cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Mysore, and parts of Kerala) where they take up odd jobs to make their ends meet. Those farmers who are still willing to cultivate their land, they now grow mustard plant or green peas to supplement their income and keep the soil fertile during off-season.

Food basket

Being a flood plain, Ngangou loukol's alluvial soil is fertile enough. In addition to paddy field cultivation, which produces rice and mustard and/or green pea, Lilongers are very active in farming that produces herbs (coriander, onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilly, komprek/drop wort, mukthrubi/winged prickly ash, mayangton/hoary basil, awa phadigom/Mexican coriander, etc), vegetables (mustard leaf, cabbage, cauliflower, roselle, brinjal, lady's finger, green pea, cow pea, hawai amubi/broad bean, Uri hawai/kidney bean, Pong hawai/Pong bean, yongchak/tree bean, koli hawai/Phaseolus vulgaris, carrot, raddish, turnip, potato, tomato, pumpkin, water gourd, bitter gourd, cucumber, yendem/giant upright elephant ear, thangjing/foxnut, lotus root, sugar beet, tapioca, etc), fruits (mango, papaya, water melon, lemon, plum, olive, peach, star fruit, common apricot, gooseberry) and livestock including goose, duck, cattle, chicken, and fish.

Agri-Horti produce of Lilong is supplied throughout Manipur to feed fellow Manipuris. The crowded Lilong Keithel (Bazar), and Samurou Keithel are the points of sale by the farmers/producers. Many Ima lalonbi (women vendor) purchase the vegetables and other stuffs and pack off to Khwairamband Keithel, Imphal, where they sell the goods at two-three times the cost. In a way, these lalonbi are most profitable middlemen in the supply chain originating from producer and ending with consumers.

Farmers are aware of the fact that the earning they are supposed to get goes to Ima lalonbi who are mostly from Meitei community. In the past, farmers used to go to Imphal to sell off their produce, but increasing rush, limited space, no licence for vending, and ill treatment from traffic police have compelled them to discontinue the practice.

Pisciculture is widely practised because of their food preference as well as a good income source. It is believed that fish farming gives maximum returns in shortest period of time without much hard work. Also, Ngangou being a lowland (mean sea level 782-785 mtrs compared to 780 mtrs for inhabited areas), during rains it gets inundated and locals catch a good deal of fish. Imphal river itself is a good fishing spot.

Due to lack of source of income, many Lilong Pangals are involved in rearing of cattle, goats and sheeps for meat and milk. In Manipur, govt seem to have no any fodder scheme for livestock. Under Manipur Land Reform and Land Revenue Act, District Magistrate is authorised to set apart an area of land for forest, grazing, and any other purpose. However, Lilongers have no access to such grazing field as well. Farmers struggle to feed their livestock. Geese are common in Lilong throughout the year, so are Pangal yen (local chicken), and ducks. It is often believed that Pangals have been, since the beginning of history, selling these poultry produce in the markets of Manipur.

So much so that Pangals are often ridiculed as Lilong Pangal with polang (a big wide-mouth bamboo basket). Overtime, the term 'Lilong Pangal' has been reduced to just a jibe. True, Pangals for long had done nothing decent, if farming and feeding the populace are not decent jobs. In olden days, Pangals were rewarded for farming skills and now recognised with yen polang (chicken basket). Soibam Haripriya chronicles this bullying through verbal harassment phenomenon, from a woman's point of view, in her article "Manipur: Meitei Muslims marginalised within the margins" (available at www.thealternative.in).

Basket with a hole

The food basket of Manipur is losing its content through a hole at the bottom. The farmers are no more interested in farming. They have lost confidence in farming as a source of livelihood. Farmland has been sold off to businessmen who construct brick and mortar structures and claim the land for commercial activities. Though Manipur Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland act 2014 caps diversion of paddy land for construction of houses (but not for commercial activities) of the land owners to 0.2 acre in a Panchayat area or 0.1 acre in a Municipal area, there is rampant violation, if the mushrooming schools, shops and other structures are any indications. Such diversions disturb the ecology of the soil in the proximity.

The main reason for farmers' tendency to raise money through distress sale of immovable properties is same anywhere in India: corruption, middlemen and increasing agricultural inputs. With the flood of hybrid varieties in the market, wild/local varieties of vegetables are almost untraceable now. And, farmers are forced to depend on these hybrid seeds, season after season. Increasing dependence on fertilizers and dwindling productivity, the income from agri-horti produce is insufficient to feed a family, meet health expenses and educate children, while middlemen pocket hefty profit and move upward in the society.

The farmers are forced to bribe officials to get govt job for their children in the hope that the children will lead a decent life. Those unemployed or unemployable children of farmers turn to drugs and commit social crimes for survival or otherwise. In this way, corruption, middlemen and increasing agricultural inputs take away land or children in some way or the other leaving a hole in the pocket of a farmer.

Anatomy of the hole

The zeitgeist of India is the increasing assertion of identity by different communities. The identity politics has driven demands for OBC, SC, ST, and reservation in different stages of social life. This per se is not harmful, but an unintended consequence of the assertion is the ghettoisation of communities in systematic ways by inventing tools that further the social divide among communities. In Manipur, tribes and Meiteis are not on the same page in most of the state issues. These major communities take Pangals for granted and quickly integrate them with Meiteis in any matters of state's importance.

Indeed, Pangals and Meiteis are on the same page, but that is half the reality. The reasons are too many. Since Manipur's statehood, Pangals have remained poor and marginalised. Local leaders are to be blamed partly. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that the syncretism of Meiteis and Pangals is eroding. Scholars like Abdul Ghaffar believe that intermittent mob violence in the past, in the aftermath of the communal riot in 1993 in which majority of the casualties were on Pangals, could be actually attributed to radical elements among Meiteis who are ethnocentric, eccentric, intolerant and ultra-nationalist (Mob Violence in Manipur: An Aberration or an Erosion of Syncretism?, April 21, 2016, www.sabrangindia.in).

However, social scientist Dhanabir Laishram rues the fateful incidents, but denies the fact that there is a social divide attributable, perhaps, to the major community. Instead, he points out Islamisation and increasing assertion of religious identity may be the cause for the socio-cultural drift. The divide is showing up itself if one has to believe the recent bursts of emotion among Manipuris and testimony of the complexity of the factor that drives ghettoisation. One such testimony was 'Love letter to our fellow Meiteis' written by Himmat Tampakmayum and published by Manipur Times few months back. This open letter documented the predicaments of the day-to-day existence of the writer's family in a Meitei locality.

Decent jobs have been denied for quite a long time because of lack of academic qualification and for other reasons. The state politics and power belongs to Meiteis and tribes. Similarly, the departments of the govt including the police have minimal representation of Pangals. Even the recent reservation of 4% seats in govt jobs is just half the percentage of population (8.4% as per Census 2011). Pangals are flocking in certain settlements and their space of existence is shrinking.

Any Pangal family shifting out of a Pangal neighbourhood to a Meitei or tribal locality is received with a puckered brow by Meiteis and tribes for various reasons that unsettle Pangal families. The anatomy of the hole in the pockets of farmers of Lilong infers multiplicity of factors involving various strands of social fabric. It is time Manipuris recognised the fact that the failure to stitch up the hole in the pocket of farmers is slowly affecting the rhythm of their heart beats leading to identity crisis: Pangal or Muslim; culture or religion.

Epilogue

It is high time local people woke up to this complex reality and press the elected representatives for dealing with the issues of farmers proactively. An agri-horti produce cooperative society should be set up to empower the farmers. The society can even address housing, schooling and health needs of farmers effectively with support from the govt. However, in view of the state of affairs mentioned above, it is a cruel joke though that the MLA from Lilong constituency also happens to be the Agriculture minister of Manipur.

Farmers also need to explore newer options of marketing such as Centre's e-marketing initiative for many agri-horti produces. Manipur may not be in the loop as of now. Manipur govt should upgrade Lilong Keithel and reserve stalls for Lilongers in Khwairamband Keithel or the upcoming market near ISBT. We only can hope that through these steps Lilong Pangals will get reasonable price for their produce by selling directly to consumers.

There is a ray of hope in recent times, with students from poor background rising up to serve in IFS, IAS, IPS, teaching in universities, health, engineering, etc. This new crop of intellects is aware of the problem and ready to wholeheartedly contribute to the upliftment of Manipuris in general and Pangals in particular.


* Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan wrote this article for e-pao.net
Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan teaches at Gauhati University. The views expressed in this article are personal. He can be contacted at nohimbo(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on July 28, 2016.


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