Although the Street Vendors Act, 2014 has already been passed in Nagaland, it is yet to be implemented. In this age of start-ups and young entrepreneurs, the Naga women street vendors who are toiling hard to make a living with dignity are truly an inspiring lot, writes Manisha Sobhrajani.

THE state of Nagaland, located in the eastern Himalayan region, is a land of stunning natural beauty. The majestic mountains engulf many mysteries and secrets in their folds. Stories from World Wars 1 and 2 are part of daily conversations in the villages nestled in these mountains. Tales of bravery of the various Naga tribes are often retold, and even children narrate them in a manner that conveys their pride in upholding the history of the region.

Mutual support

The sense of community is very strong in Naga society, and sharing of wealth is a basic tenet amongst the Nagas. When a family has accumulated all the resources it needs for a wholesome life, it shares them with the whole community.

A feast is offered by every well-to-do family in Nagaland which not just determines their social status as a wealthy family in the traditional sense but is also considered an effective use of that wealth for the larger cause of the community. This thoughtful practice is called ‘Feast of Merit’.

It exudes a sense of generosity and warmth towards those in the community who may not have enough to live by. This singular practice is the essence of how strongly people in Nagaland feel about giving back to the community.

The sense of community is very strong in Naga society, and sharing of wealth is a basic tenet amongst the Nagas. 

All Naga tribes also give importance to having large families. Being largely an agrarian society where every family owns cultivable land, many children mean many hands to work in the fields.

The many disruptions of modernisation

The ideas of progress and modernity have brought many changes to the idyllic Naga society described above. Traditional communities have split apart, nuclear families have become more common, and agricultural land is sold in favour of setting up small businesses. 

Due to the inroads made by modern education and media, people’s aspirations have changed. Young and educated men are moving to cities in order to obtain jobs but the pay is usually not good enough to support the family.

Also read: Unregulated tourist influx: Kashmir dreads the final straw that will break the Himalayas’ back

This has resulted in a situation where alongside fulfilling the traditional roles assigned to them— housekeeping, caring for the elderly and children, cooking, and so on— many women also find themselves in a position of having to earn money for household expenses. 

The most practical way they have found to do this is to sell off the extra produce that every family grows in their backyard. However, this is easier said than done. 

A vegetable vendor in the Kohima weekly vegetable market

Alimgmei, a 46-year-old vendor in Kohima town market, says: “I have five children, and none of them work. I was struggling to keep the house fires burning. So, I started growing extra vegetables in my garden and bringing them to the market to sell them. 

I have been doing this business for 16 years. My husband doesn’t really help out with the housework or work related to my business. My eldest daughter sometimes does but she also has her own work to do.

The hustle

A new breed of businesswomen has come up in Nagaland: The vegetable street vendors. They grow seasonal vegetables in their kitchen gardens, harvest the daily produce, carry it to the closest marketplace in a town or city, spend the day at the same spot in the market each day, and try to sell the produce. 

A new breed of businesswomen has come up in Nagaland: The vegetable street vendors.

Waking up before dawn, these women vendors perform their household chores of cooking and cleaning, and then make their way to their spot in the market by 5 a.m. to make sure no other vendor occupies their spot. 

They sit at their spot till the evening, trying to sell their produce. Due to the irregular nature of the work, they do not have set eating times, nor do they prefer to eat much food, instead drinking tea throughout the day to sustain themselves.

Also read: Photo essay: The coast, or what is left of it

Braving harsh weather conditions— sunshine, snowfall and rain— they toil through the day. Not all market areas have proper toilet facilities. Where there are toilets, they are not very clean. Some charge money for usage. These difficulties have led to many vendors contracting urinary tract infections, kidney infections and so on.

Apart from the challenges of lack of sanitation facilities, clean drinking water and regular meals, the vendors also face daily struggles regarding storage.

Since there is no facility for refrigeration and they deal in perishable goods, if they are unable to sell all their produce by the end of the day, it either goes to waste or they have to dispose of it at very cheap prices. Sometimes, they carry it back for self-consumption, or to feed their cattle.

Doing all this leaves no time for these women to engage in proper budgeting and saving. Most women vendors do not even have a bank account, leave aside savings or investments. 

A vegetable vendor in the Kohima vegetable market

When there are four mouths to be fed, you don’t really have the luxury to contemplate whether there are infrastructural facilities at your place of work. You just have to get to work, slog it out, and bring food to put on the table.

Spoken by Elibeni, a 40-year-old Naga woman who lives on the outskirts of Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, these words sum up the lives of almost all the women street vendors.

The rise of urban poverty

Urban poverty is a new thing in Nagaland. Many families have moved from villages to Kohima or Dimapur, the second biggest town in Nagaland, because they no longer have the means to earn their livelihoods in the village.

Traditionally, Naga people are very attached to their villages— one is identified by one’s village in Nagaland. This means that people only leave villages when they are driven to a point of desperation. Many of the women vendors only came to Kohima because it was no longer financially possible to survive in the villages.

Many of the women vendors only came to Kohima because it was no longer financially possible to survive in the villages.

In towns, as opposed to the villages, these women do not have land and neither do they have their own homes. They live in tiny one-room rented apartments with very poor infrastructure. They have none of the rural affluence that they are used to. They also cannot rear animals in the city, which means they have no income from livestock.

Also read: Citizens’ fight to restore Goa’s ecology: Revitalising agriculture in mining-affected areas

While these women are very resilient, they are also extremely vulnerable. Most of these women vendors have family structures with no regular incomes. Their situation was so dismal during the pandemic that they would joke that if not Covid, the lockdown resulting in abject poverty and hunger was sure to kill them. 

The Kohima vegetable market

A vendor in Kohima town, 39-year-old Pranita says: “We are simple people. We know nothing more than to grow vegetables and consume them. But I was not growing enough to sell. So, my sister and I decided to experiment with something. I buy vegetables from a few ladies in close-by villages and I sell them for a very marginal profit. On Wednesdays, I go to the weekly bazaar and on other days I sell from the town market. 

Recently, I had a medical issue. I needed surgery to remove my appendix. We are poor people and we have nobody supporting us. Look at us; we work in such dismal conditions. Rain, sunshine, freezing winter… we sit on the road and sell our vegetables to feed ourselves. We come to the shop before dawn, and leave after dusk has set in. Our whole life is spent trying to sell vegetables. 

We women try and support each other, and in times of emergencies, we have nothing but our faith in the Almighty.

Types of street vendors

Women street vendors can essentially be categorised into three types.

One is a group of vendors who do not grow the produce at all. For example, in Kohima, some women simply buy produce from the women in close-by villages and then sell it in the market for a minimal profit. 

Then there are women aggregators who grow their produce themselves, but not in large quantities. They grow small portions in their kitchen gardens and then bring not just their produce to the market but also the produce of the other women around them.

But even under these harsh conditions, some women vendors enjoy their newfound role in life.

Thirdly, there are the growers in the villages— a set of women who always grow a little more produce than needed for the family. Because the Nagas have a largely subsistence economy, they are in the habit of growing only as much as is needed. If there is some extra produce, it is always shared. Selling has never been considered a good thing in Naga society; in fact, it is shameful to sell. So, the concept of growers is very new.

One must keep in mind that agriculture involves a lot of hard work. Single and destitute women, and the elderly, can’t grow crops like paddy because the kind of rigorous work it requires is not physically possible for them. Hence, they grow seasonal vegetables and other produce which is relatively simpler to nurture.

Also read: Lithium extraction: Economy plus one, environment minus one

Additionally, bringing the produce to the markets is a big challenge. While some vendors carry the goods on their backs and walk for miles, some others collectively use vehicles that are run-down, because they are cheaper to hire.

In summer, by the time the perishable goods reach the town market, many of them are damaged. Which means that, leave alone making a profit, the vendors sometimes don’t even recover the cost of growing the produce.

But even under these harsh conditions, some women vendors enjoy their newfound role in life. Like Shaile, aged 57, who says: “I love my work. I have been selling vegetables for about seven years now. Before that, I used to only do house chores and life really had no meaning. 

With some help from an organisation, I have managed to set up my business and I feel so much more confident about myself. It gives me time away from my house and household troubles. I am also able to contribute to household expenses now. And sometimes, if I want to buy a new dress or earrings for myself, I don’t have to depend on either my husband or children. 

I don’t think I could do any other work than managing my home and my vegetable vending business. I have regular customers, and we are like friends now. Our relationship goes beyond business. I look forward to coming to work and sharing jokes with my fellow vendors and meeting my customers and sharing their daily lives with mine.

New support systems

All vendors are part of organised trade and labour unions, and have to pay a minimal membership fee for them. The unions take care of the daily hassles like municipality taxes and work towards making the process of vending smoother for all the members. 

A member certificate of the Pfutsero Town Traders’ Union

Over the years, some not-for-profit organisations have also worked hard to improve the working and living conditions of the street vendors. One such notable organisation is the Entrepreneurs Associates (EA) based in Kohima.

EA conducts workshops for women street vendors, helps them organise, provides them training to enhance their skills and encourages them to build their savings. EA also does advocacy work for basic rights of the vendors, like proper sanitary facilities, access to clean drinking water, availability of medical facilities and so on.

Also read: Will the Congress work to deepen democratic forest governance in Karnataka?

Benchilo, a 60-year-old vendor and a beneficiary of EA, says: “I don’t know anything else other than growing vegetables. So, the most obvious way of making money was to try and sell it. I have been doing this for 20 years now and have learnt things by making mistakes, through experiences, through living everyday life with its challenges…

Over the years, some not-for-profit organisations have also worked hard to improve the working and living conditions of the street vendors.

EA has offered me financial assistance from time-to-time. They have taught me how to save and have even put in the effort to save my money with them. In this day and age, nobody does that. May God bless them and give them more power to help others like me.

A vegetable stall on the outskirts of Kohima

Previously, the Kohima Municipal Corporation would evict women from their spots and throw them out of the streets. The corporation would also seize their products and not return them. This meant a huge financial loss for the vendors.

Although the Street Vendors Act, 2014, has already been passed in the state of Nagaland, it is yet to be implemented.

EA’s work has empowered them and made them aware of their rights, thereby helping them deal with various vulnerabilities, like those that arise from their gender, from the unorganised and informal nature of their work, and so on.

The first step towards this has been to build a community whose members provide mutual support and take up issues on behalf of each other. For example, in municipal areas, vendors face many issues regarding availability of space, negotiating prices, accessing basic amenities, and so on. The community forms a strong unified voice that can negotiate with authorities and improve conditions for everyone.

Along with this, other organisations have worked on other issues. For example, imparting digital literacy along with the basics of financial planning has empowered vendors to operate their own bank accounts, take charge of their own finances and strengthen their social standing. 

The Pfutsero Town Council vegetable vending stall

Although the Street Vendors Act, 2014, has already been passed in the state of Nagaland, it is yet to be implemented. It may take some time, but the important thing is that the need for it has been expressed and recognised.

Also read: Climate education in India: Falling behind, looking ahead

Advocacy work is not just about demanding sanitary facilities and drinking water, but also about finding ways to decrease harassment by the police and municipal authorities. Work also needs to be done on providing information to the vendors about government schemes, banks loans and other such facilities.

Where have all the men gone?

After reading all this, the reader may naturally ask: Why are almost all vegetable vendors and growers women? Where are the men in all this?

While women grow the vegetables and sell them, men play the role of being the suppliers. They transport the produce from the villages and contribute more at the backend of the vending business.

Buyers tend to be more comfortable with women vendors who, in turn, are supposedly better sellers as well!

Men also prefer to work as daily wage workers and do not really want to get involved in the work of growing and selling vegetables and other produce. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that it is mostly women who make daily purchases such as vegetables for the household. This means the buyers tend to be more comfortable with women vendors who, in turn, are supposedly better sellers as well!

The Leaflet