Where will our vegetable vendors go as their former places of trade are being uprooted by the onward march of progress? Many of the familiar faces of the women vendors who sit beside the small path behind the local ground are missing. Some years ago, while doing a project, we got to learn their names and their stories. This Spring, I could not find three of the women on the days I walked past. These women are brave individuals living hard lives, not by choice, but because of lack of choice. Many of our vegetable vendors are widows bringing up three to four school-going children. The profits from their sales are marginal and they try to manage their households with that. They sit outside in all weather hoping to sell a bundle of herbs, beans, okra and the odd tapioca or sweet potatoes.
The shops selling souvenirs, bags, waist-cloths, underwear, blouses and shoes and rain wear are all closed. Only the façade of their shops remain and that too will go quite soon. I felt so sorry for the non-local man who was sitting outside what used to be his former shop, bravely selling his goods. One can only imagine the indignity of displaying his goods every morning, and packing the unsold items away in the evening, only to return the next day for as long as the spot where he sits is unmolested.
The Kachari woman who used to sell sticky rice cakes is gone. She told me she has a grown son and a younger one who she is putting through school. Her husband, a day wage earner, does not always get work. Her sticky rice cakes flavoured with coconut and sold for a mere twenty rupees, were the sole means of income for most of the time. Martha, the garrulous woman who sells dried fish and bamboo shoot is still in her own corner, but for how long? Where will the displaced vendors go? One of them assured me that he had got a room in a new establishment, but any move is fraught with risk. As the women explained to me, if they changed location, they risked losing the customers who were regulars and always used the path on their way to work and back. People knew where to find them if they needed the particular items sold by them. If they moved to another place, they would lose all their regular customers, and who knew when they would get new customers again?
It is a common problem for traders. It takes time to establish regular customers and when changing location, it takes a great effort to find new ones. Especially when they move shop from a very visible outside location to an indoor market.
Our vendors have enough troubles of their own what with the woes of sudden displacement that they are presently facing. Please do not add more by bargaining down a bundle of leaves. What would they be able to buy with 20 rupees? We should be giving them more money, and helping them to survive instead of complaining about the prices of vegetables.
Mrs L’s husband died of alcohol abuse, leaving her with five children to raise. She has no education, and through the seasons she varies her goods from Thanamir apples and Wokha oranges in winter to pheasants in the Spring. Not all her friends are as ingenious. They unsuccessfully keep selling vegetables that everyone around them is also selling. How much money do you think they will take home at the end of the day? On a good day, about 300 to 400, on an average day, about 200 and below 100 on a bad day. How can you feed a family of five hungry children on 200 or 100 rupees?
The vegetable vendors are on the lowest rung of the social ladder in a town like Kohima where we don’t have beggars. We need a government that cares for the lowest in the low income groups of the population. However, that kind of talk will only generate accusation and condemnation and we don’t need any more of that. In a manner of speaking, we are the government too. We can put right things that are not right. We can make a difference in their lives, even in small ways. Starting by not bargaining down their prices. Fight for suitable places for them to sell their goods and be able to make a livelihood. Entrepreneurs Associates constructed shelters for the vendors during the rainy season. Such a good example of how the public can help our vendors. There will always be some way or the other to assist them, either at the individual level or as an organization. Let’s do our part.