Recently Rajya Sabha passed two of the three contentious Farm Reform Bills 2020 that led to various debates on farmer’s rights. Hundreds of farmers came to the streets to protest against those bills which are believed to be a huge disadvantage for the farmers. With the removal of taxes and Minimum Support Price (MSP), mandis under Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) will no more exist which will further lead to exploitation of these farmers. While the whole country is debating on social media platforms about these reforms, this article is just a trial to bring out the stories inside this mandis and the precariousness that the vendors face in the mandis. The stories of these vendors that remain unheard and untold. Through the narratives of women vendors who visit these markets every week, the article brings forth their everyday struggle during the pandemic lockdown and post lockdown relaxation. Here, the narratives are from interviews taken in a haat in Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. While in North India, mandi is a common word used for markets (regular or weekly), in Assam they are called bazaar or haat (weekly markets). Haats functions either weekly (especially Sundays) or bi-weekly. Each haat has their own assigned day of functioning.

Wearing a mask with few vegetables in front of her, she sits on a sunny Sunday morning in the crowded market. I approached her slowly and she welcomed me with a smile. Sitting a little distance away from me, she began her story.

The lockdown is something we cannot afford. There is some virus that came from different country but we cannot stay at home. We are not scared now. Everyone is outside, all are travelling and moving from one place to another. If we have to die, we will die anyways. I have a family to look after. My children- a boy and a girl. Both of them failed in their exams (she smiles slowly). (Hesitatingly, she continues) they stay at home, doing nothing. My husband helps me collecting the vegetables for the market and I come here every week. Last six months was a big struggle for us. Most of the days were spent eating rice and lentils only. Since we stay in villages, neighbors share their part of vegetables grown in their backyards. The last five months we had seen huge hurdles. No where to go, nothing to work, our lives were spent in idleness. With little amount of money, we had to be very careful how to spend.

Assam has been historically known for trade exchanges between the hills and the plains. Haats are known for indigenous commodities that are brought from the hills or other rural areas. Most of these haats in Guwahati are occupied by women vendors who come from different places—either from neighboring villages in Assam or Meghalaya. They travel in an auto van which is shared by four to five women coming from the same locality. Most of these women travel sitting above the cartons or bags of commodities.

We start our journey around 3AM. It takes almost 1 to 2 hours to reach Guwahati depending on the traffic. We need to reach the market as early as possible. Earlier we used to travel by bus or train. This is not possible as passengers shows discomfort with our luggage. Moreover, we cannot have private vans as each travel takes Rs 1500-2000. One cannot pay such a huge amount every week and so we share the vans. There are times when we also need to take care of the lunch of the driver. This is a double burden on us.

These women who travel approximately 50-55kms sitting above their boxes of commodities need to reach the market before sunrise. The reason behind is to occupy the space in the haat. Since these haats does not have proper regulation, space is a contested issue here. Conflicts happen with the occupation of spaces that can attract most of the buyers. With no proper allocation of spaces, most women become vulnerable. There is a constant fear of losing their spaces if remain absent for a week. And hence once the news of relaxation of lockdown was released, they began their journeys to work. This fear of space also brings out the contestation of tribal versus non tribal, local versus outsider, male versus female, Hindu versus Muslim that exists within the market. As such, market spaces are areas where power is being displayed continuously and these women have to face the brunt of this display of power.

In spite of the fact that these haats have maximum participation of women vendors, the former is structured without looking into the conveniences of women. Vendors are of opinion that in spite of the fact that they pay Rs 150/- per head each day as tax, there are no provisions of toilets and clean water. “Menstruating days are the most difficult for us”, said a Khasi woman. “I had to sit whole day without changing my sanitary pad. This resulted in vaginal infection which was an extra expenditure for me” she noted.

With the Corona virus still spreading at a very fast rate, life of these vendors remains at risk. However, for these vendors to survive is to eat and earn money. Staying at home, buying different masks, frequently using sanitizers is a privilege they cannot afford. These are women who struggles with the norms of patriarchy every day. The fact that they work outside their homes, does not relieve them from household activities unlike male members. She is expected to handle both their homes and the markets. From cooking food for their children and husbands before coming to the market, their travel to and fro to the cities, everyday clash with the co-vendors for space, water and hygiene—each activity narrates the plight of these women from the peripheries. In spite of this, the money earned is used for their families rather than being saved in banks. Financial control of most of these women vendors are still handled by the male members of the family. Nevertheless, while fighting with the pandemic, these women are in regular search of their own agencies through their participation in these haats. Coming to these haats gives them a sense of belonginess to their women folk making them feel independent. However, in their whole debate on pandemic versus livelihood, the struggle of these women continuous.

Pratisha Borborah. Assistant Professor, Cotton University, Assam


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