Construction of Ima Keithel at Khwairamband

Oinam Nabakishore Singh *

Ima Keithel at Khwairamband in 2010
Ima Keithel at Khwairamband in 2010

Everybody knows that Ima Keithel (market) at the heart of Imphal city has been part and parcel of the history of Manipur. Images of old Ima Keithel are now being shared in social media to appreciate its evolution over time. I too want to share my perception and involvement in the chang- ing looks of the buildings housing Ima Keithel during my tenure as a civil servant in the state.

Ima Keithel is the melting pot of thousands of Imas (mothers who are engaged in trading activities) coming from various places in the state on daily basis. It has never been quiet. It is always buzzing with activities of buying and selling of goods required by the households in the state for various purposes. Besides goods, one will notice that service sector too thrive in Ima market.

Selling of tea, meals, ethnic snacks, money lending and collection of daily interest and principal (Selep Mutpi being one of the most common money lending practice) and carrying of goods on headloads support services help the daily business of Imas. It is also well known that this market has been playing an extremely important role in the socio-economic development of the state over centuries. Till the present buildings of Ima Keithel were constructed in 2003 onwards, there were single storied market sheds constructed long time back.

While the market complexes on the southern and eastern sides were of RCC structures, the oldest one on the western side, called Purana Bazar, had semi- pucca structures having steel posts with curved CGI sheet roofs. In fact, of the three market complexes, the Purana Bazar was considered to be the most important in terms of size, economic activities, diversity of products and Imas participating in business. Since the CGI sheets of Purana Bazar was very old, there were holes in them besides the darkening due to long exposure to smokes from Podons (kerosene lamp with wick open to atmosphere).

The floors had become broken over long use. They were very low too. Drainage was poor. The ceilings were always filled with a lot of accessories required in trade giving a shabby look. Overall, the Purana Bazar presented a poor, shabby and uncared look to the outside visitors and authorities. Even though, Imphal Municipality was the custodian of the markets, they did not have resources or capacity to improve the condition of such an important place.

However, the elected state governments have been making efforts to reconstruct the market since late seventies or eighties of last century (subject to correction). The plan for construction of new markets at the existing Purana Bazar was vehemently opposed by the Imas for various reasons. Since my late mother was one of the Imas in Purana Bazar, she used to share the reason behind the resistance to the plan of government to construct a new market.

Apprehension and suspicion of Imas of the motive of the government to construct a new market were always in their mind. They had a strong belief that the elected government would give away the newly constructed spaces to the wealthy business people leaving them with nothing. Efforts to convince the Imas to agree to the plan of construction completely failed. In order to prevent the government from stealthily dismantling the old market complex in the night, when Imas were away to home, they started occupying the markets every night in groups in rotation.

My mother too stayed overnight in the market sometimes as per her turn. This occupation was termed, “AhingYarekpa” (Night Occupation). This practice continued without any break for more than ten years and the government could not construct a new market. Even after I joined IAS and working as Deputy Commissioner of Imphal District (before division into Imphal East and West districts) since 1990, my mother continued to sell fish in Purana Bazar. Sometimes, I heard about the continuing night occupation of Ima Keithel.

After the imposition of President’s Rule in Manipur in early part of 1992, the Governor initiated a plan to reconstruct a new market complex at the site of Purana Bazar. I was not there in taking that decision. It was decided to share the responsibility of construction between state PWD and PDA. When engineers and staff went for initial work of survey and measurement for the market, they met with resistance from Imas, especially the fiery leaders. Being helpless, they came running to me for solution.

The most difficult part of the plan of construction of a new market is convincing the Imas to cooperate. Our Imas over the history have shown their courage and determination to fight injustice. Nupi Lal in 1939 and resistance of atrocities through Meira Paibis by Imas are testimony of the formidable strength of Imas in the state. Without cooperation from Imas, it was not possible to dismantle the existing structure and construct a new one. Absence of elected government was both advantage and disadvantage for the new construction.

It was advantage as the apprehension of Imas of selling and giving away space to the wealthy business community could be lesser. Nevertheless, the apprehension was not completely absent. Imas still had their own imagination and fear if they allow the new construction is allowed. However, their fear of loss of daily income due to dislocation of business when new construction takes place was real. Without any compensation from the authorities, status quo was seen as a much better option for families, who depend on the Imas.

Now, it was my turn to face the challenges of convincing Imas. I started looking for my allies. My mother was a simple woman in Ima Keithel doing her daily transaction without any influence. I identified the leaders of Imas, who are at the forefront of resistance. I also did a background check of the leaders and their affiliation. After understanding their affiliation and loyalty, I identified their actual leaders in the organization. It may be improper to mention the name of those leaders.

However, without their help it would have been impossible to convince the Imas. Fortunately, I was known to their leaders and many of them were close to me personally. When I went to Ima market to meet the Ima leaders for the first time, some of them came running towards me with fury and abusive words. I was firm and courageous. I also had an advantage of identifying myself with them as my own mother was one of them. Disclosing my identity helped a little bit to calm them down and to break the ice to proceed to the negotiation.

Meetings were held at the level of male leaders of the organization. With trust we had for each other and assurance given by me to preserve the original appearance of the structure, and not to give away any space to anyone, Imas finally agreed to allow construction. We conveyed to both PWD and PDA that construction should cause minimum dislocation so that Imas could continue their daily business as much as possible. We also conveyed that the new CGI sheets had to be curved like the existing ones as per demand of Imas.

Incorporating these conditions, both PWD and PDA did a great job constructing a new market complex in a very short time with better facilities-raised and dry platforms, better lighting, cleaner place with drainage. I believed Imas were quite happy with the final outcome. After ten years, I was Commissioner of MAHUD Department in the state government. Having worked as Director of MAHUD during 1992-94, I had some attachment towards market sheds of Imas. By that time, Ima Markets in Khwairamband had become quite busy and crowded.

The two markets on the south and east became old and dilapidated. The Ministry of Urban Development of Government of India had plenty of fund for the north east. They sanctioned a number of projects for Assam, Mizoram and Meghalaya. We also wanted to seize the opportunity. One condition for sanctioning new projects by the Ministry of Urban Development was that the projects should be implemented by National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC), a public sector undertaking of that Ministry, which was not doing very well financially.

We had no problem with the condition. We had an excellent team led by the then Minister (MAHUD), Shri Laishram Nandakumar Singh. In order to ease the congestion on the road, the then Hon’ble Chief Minister, Shri Okram Ibobi Singh asked us to get proposal of PWD to construct a flyover on BT road sanctioned by Ministry of Urban Development. This was done with NBCC as project implementing agency. Now, we have the first flyover of Manipur. Seeing the opportunity to get funding, we got a blueprint for the three market complexes for Imas prepared by the office of Town Planning Department and sent to Ministry of Urban Development.

NBCC revised the blueprint in consultation with us. We planned for parking space at the basement and an extra floor on the top. The three proposed market complexes were sanctioned by the Ministry of Urban Development in March, 2013 for a total outlay of about Rs.45.00 crores. This amount was later revised. Since I had gone on Central deputation in April, 2003, I was not there during the construction of these three market complexes. I am sure that it was a huge challenge to convince the Imas to cooperate. Oinam Nabakishore Singh Nevertheless, the then Minister (MAHUD), Shri Nandakumar Singh was successful in convincing the Imas about the merits in constructing a beautiful RCC market. Now we see the landmark of architecturally beautiful three markets complexes standing next to each other in the heart of the city. Oinam Nabakishore Singh Imas continue to enjoy their daily business of selling and buying besides enjoying each other’s company, laughter and sorrows. The tradition of one and only Imas’ market continues to thrive. Outsiders and tourists never fail to visit this historic and unique place.

May Imas continue to rule the Ima Market.

[Views expressed here are personal].

* Oinam Nabakishore Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a former Chief Secretary of the State. He may be contacted at oinamsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on May 15 , 2018.

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