Livelihood implication on Unjas , women fish traders during COVID-19 lockdown

Mamta Lukram *

 Nga-Yaiba : The process of drying fish as practised by locals living near Loktak Lake :: November 2015
Nga-Yaiba : The process of drying fish as practised by locals living near Loktak Lake in November 2015 :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

'Unja' is the local nomenclature referring the middlewomen fish traders along the periphery villages of Loktak Lake. The lake's ecology is synchronised with the structural analysis of villages around it.

Fishing and allied activities comprised the primary occupation. Out of all these, trading is specified as dignified women's activity. The hub of local women network who are specialised in fish trade are collectively known as 'Unjas'.

Whosoever earn living through this network are referred to with the term. It is an occupational guild. This is a prefix added before someone's good name to identify his occupation, as for instance if someone's name is 'Mema', she will be addressed as 'Unja Mema' thereby identifying her role. The prefix got replaced any other co-relevant identity of a person.

Inhabitants around the lake, their occupation varies depending upon involvement level with fishing directly or indirectly. Many people who are fish traders are not fishers and vice-versa.

Poor marketing facility prevents the fishers from directly selling away their catch in the market. They need some middlemen who would come and collect their day's harvest from their homes. Unjas are those middlewomen who collect their trading items visiting fisher's homes.

Traditional fish drying by spreading over fire is the simple method employed to store the fish for later sale. It is labour and time consuming sets of activities.

'Unja' dedication is over the drying process and trading activities. Once the drying process is over, marketing process starts by bringing it to Khwairamband Keithel and other major markets of the state. Cold storage facility is a far cry, and so fresh fish trade of the small indigenous remains a challenge.

Out of the licensed vendors at 'Nupi Keithel' women's market dry fish seller, hardly few hail from the periphery villages of Loktak Lake. Street vending and home deliveries are modes of trading. The improved mode of transport and communication is a blessing encouraging women to travel different places. They reach out remote places to establish their trade relations.

In fact except for the bulk fish quantity which is imported from different states of the country, dry fish trade, in totality is monopolised by women only. Indigenous varieties dry fish trade, if an economic review is made over it, the economic contribution of women in the state could really be marked out.

There are some of the women traders who used to trade fresh fish even. Not just fish trade, regarding local trade women used to get monopolised it.

One such worth mentioning instance would be, Laishubam Mema, 66 years from Keinou is an old lady fresh fish trader along the Maram to Mao area, a stretch of around 80 to 110 kms from Imphal due north.

Lairouching, Maram Centre, Maram Bazar and Mao used to get fresh local fish from her. Every morning she would travel through the Imphal-Mao bound bus which starts from 5.30 am. She would contacted all her trade partners via phone and once the bus start reaching destination points, her customers will wait for the bus on the way at bus stop.

Within minutes she gets down with her items and cash payment is done, trading got over finally when she reach Mao. From there she would have food and returned in the same bus which would reached Imphal around 5-6 pm evening.

Availability of fresh local fish along these places depends upon her. She said that she could earn around Rs 500 per day through the trade and she look forward into continuing the trade.

Similarly, Unjas would start coming out from their homes as early as 3 am in the morning. They would reach Imphal around 4 am where they would engaged in morning-street vending, a popular marketing trend.

Around 9 am they would start moving out for farther destinations for home delivery mode of selling. They would travel different localities depending upon the amount to be sale. Public transport backed their free movements. Owing to their periodic visits in selected localities, they established settled relationships with customers, thereby expanding their trading horizons.

In fact, economic domain of the majority villages around Loktak Lake revolves around the trading activity of women. The synonymous image of market as gendered icon of womanly activities serves the explanation.

The symbolic representation of 'Keithel Lairembi,' (market goddess), reserving a space is the cultural connotation of women's resemblance in market. Any disturbances in the trade cycle hampers the life worlds of the people.

The global pandemic of COVED 19 has severely disrupted the supply chain of the Unjas. During lockdown, everyone is obliged to stay back at home for safety concerns. Curfew pass is allotted for those who are engaged in home delivery service of essential items.

The newly emerging groups of traders engaged in home delivery service, with their curfew pass, would come down to collect the dry fish in bulk for sale during the lockdown. With the pace of trade being slowed down, fishers engaged themselves in the drying process to sell it away to the urban traders who came for bulk buying.

Ironically, Unjas no longer could collect the fresh catch, being confined at homes as they are all local women who won't ever dare to or be enlightened with the procedures of applying for curfew pass.

The thronging group of traders with curfew pass jeopardises the erstwhile local trade trends. Movement restrictions and new guidelines severely affected the dry fish trade cycle impacting the vast expanses of the villages around Loktak Lake where fishing and related activities constituting the economic domain.

The disequilibrium as generated by the lockdown afflicted great hardships to the 'Unja'. They loss their livelihoods under the influence of shifting market economy. Fishers, they still carry out fishing activities. 'Unja' were of the view that fishing community could earn a lot during the lockdown." Traders from Imphal (urban based) would come down and buy from them in bulk. They earn a lots of profit.

The most disadvantageous position are the unjas, who neither could get curfew pass nor could protect the trade. Heavy loss is for them. They are losing their livelihood in the hands of new lockdown policy.

Their little earnings through which they could support their family income got stuck in astray. If any measure be implemented for safeguard of livelihoods, the 'Unja', their concerns is one of the important issue.

'Unja' livelihood is gulped by the global pandemic.

* Mamta Lukram wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on June 12 2020 .

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