Translated from Kokborok by Hamari Jamatia
Many people in the state of Tripura depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Aside from settled agriculture where people cultivate crops at a designated field, much of the food is grown through jhum cultivation called "huk". This is a 'slash and burn' method of agriculture where crops are grown on hills. Some of the crops grown in the "huk" are rice, yams, gourds, corn, cucumber, and sesame. A huge chunk of this produce is transported to the main city of Agartala to be sold in its markets.
With the second wave of the pandemic sweeping across the city, a lockdown has been imposed in the state which has directly interrupted the supply of vegetables and fruits from villages to towns. This has affected the income of all stakeholders, one of whom are the indigenous vegetable sellers of Tripura.
Before the pandemic, markets in Agartala such as Lake Chowmuhani and Bijoy Kumar Chowmuhani sold vegetables, fruits, herbs, and grains sourced from the hills in huge quantities. Markets used to open by 6 AM and continue till 11 AM. In the evening, the markets would resume around 4 PM and stay open till 8 PM-9 PM. However, a curfew has been imposed since May 3 from 6 PM to 5 AM disrupting the system badly.
There are primarily three problems that vegetable sellers are facing—first, they are unable to travel to their villages to procure the fresh produce, second, they are unable to sell vegetables for longer durations, and thirdly, the vegetable sellers have had to build new shops in order to maintain social distance. The new shops have cost extra money at a time when income has gone down.
I spoke to three vegetable sellers who have their businesses in Agartala about the impact of the curfew. I first spoke to Sukla Pati Kalai, who is from a place called Tuidu which is about 60 km from the city. She's been selling vegetables for close to 13 years and has rented a room in the city to stay in. Earlier, every morning she would go to Tuidu and bring fresh vegetables, grains, herbs, and beans to sell in the city. Now the restrictions have made life difficult for her. She still goes to her village to collect items but by the time she returns it is already 3 PM. "That leaves me with just 3 hours to sell the goods. Many times I have had to throw away the unsold vegetables because they start rotting," she says. Sukla remembers that the first lockdown had almost shut down her business. "I lost all income in the last lockdown. This year I borrowed money to restart my vegetables shop but once again I am unable to make any money," she adds.
The second person I spoke to is Gayatri Tripura, who is from Dhalai Hankor in Manu. She has only been in the vegetable business for the past few years. Her child had gotten admission to a college and she thought selling vegetables would help her pay the tuition money. However, all her plans have been washed away by the second wave of the pandemic. "Some days I am able to sell my goods, but some days are really bad," she says.
After speaking to Gayatra, I spoke to couple Ruhana Debbarma and Subha Kanya Debbarma who operate together. The husband and wife duo has been selling vegetables to the residents of Agartala for the past 26 years. Subha Debbarma looks after the home as well as helps out her husband in running the shop. It was a profitable venture. They recall that in 2011 they built a new home for their eldest son. Now their business has been reduced to a quarter of what it used to be.
There are many other vegetable sellers who have similar stories to share. Life has changed drastically for the most vulnerable people in the state who don't have a job to cushion them during the pandemic.
This article has been created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.