Loss of life and property has not been the only tragic outcomes of the communal violence in Manipur over the last six months. More than 60,000 people have also experienced internal displacement. This forced relocation has led to loss of livelihood, which cannot be measured easily. For many, a loss of livelihood has meant becoming bereft of traditional forms of employment and sophisticated systems of work they have been accustomed to. How do you measure the loss of an entire way of life?

Many of the internally displaced have been cast into poverty, whereas earlier they had sustainable livelihoods. They are faced by the formidable challenge of starting anew and establishing themselves again. Recurring curfews and Internet outages have made the process of economic recovery and normal functioning even more difficult. Undeterred, several civil society groups in the state have taken up the cause of assisting the internally displaced to become self-reliant again and reduce the dependence on relief.

Civil society efforts to revive livelihood prospects

One such initiative has been that of Matai Society, a woman, queer and trans-led registered society based in Moirang town in the Bishnupur district of Manipur. Matai Society works with youth on SOGIESC, education, health, livelihood, and environmental issues. In a collaborative effort with Manipuri Weddings and Urep, Matai Society started with training a group of people from more than 10 relief camps in Bishnupur district and others affected by the conflict to make school bags for children and tote bags for college goers. The learners are also being trained to mobilize and train more of the internally displaced people to create a cascading impact.

A key aspect of Matai Society’s work has been to identify and mobilize people who are willing and able to quickly take up production work. Providing them extensive training has not been possible so far because of minimal resources. However, Manipur is blessed with natural resources like forests and grasslands, and the state has many skilled craft persons who have been able to take up activities like bag-making quite fast. There is also easy availability of production inputs like plastic and metal wires for making craftwork.

Matai Society and its partner agencies have managed to finance and guide the first lot of learners in completing the first cycle of production and marketing. Other than school bags, they are also making and selling incense sticks, moras (bamboo ottomans), kauna phaks (water reed mats), and metal ware.

This is a rectangular collage of five photographs in two panels. The upper panel shows the process of ‘moras’ or bamboo ottomans being produced and sold as part of Matai Society’s livelihood initiative for the internally displaced people and others affected by the communal conflict in Manipur. The first photograph on the left side is a close-up, daytime shot of six incomplete ottomans lying in an open workshop space. The woven seats are yet to be stitched on the top of the ottomans. The next photograph, in the middle, shows another ottoman in the making. Some raw material and equipment, including a saw, for making ottomans is lying on the floor next to an incomplete ottoman. The third photograph on the right side of the upper panel shows half a dozen finished ottomans, placed atop each other to form a pyramid. These are on display at a small pavement grocery shop. Two women, who likely run the shop, are standing behind the ottomans looking at the camera. In the background and next to them, fruits and other eatables sold at the shop are on display. Right behind them is the entrance to a building with the banner of Matai Society hanging above the entrance. The lower panel has two photographs. The first on the left side shows two women seated on the floor, making a water reed mat. The women are busy weaving and putting together a segment of the mat. A handful of reeds, thread, wires and other equipment are lying next to the mat in the making. The second photograph shows the finished product – a water reed mat, roughly 5-6 feet in length and 3 feet in width, rolled out on the floor. The mat has been made with several interlaced segments, is light brown in colour, and has thick, stitched borders. Photo credits: Matai Society

Upper panel: Bamboo ottomans being produced and sold as part of Matai Society’s livelihood initiative. Lower panel: A water reed mat in the making and the finished product. Photo credits: Matai Society

Overcoming barriers in the production cycle

As expected, significant hurdles have come up. The primary hitch is in the supply of raw material to the learners in more relief camps. Second, the relief camps where production is taking place are far away from the potential buyers, most of whom are in cities like Imphal or outside the state. The camp nearest to Imphal is 45 km away in Bishnupur district. As of now, Matai Society’s volunteers are transporting the finished products and are constantly on the lookout for drop locations, stall displays and street markets to sell the products. All this work is being done with the minimal funds that Matai Society has. Success so far has come in terms of the products being displayed at two Hope Fest events organized by the Rise Up Foundation. A few social enterprise networks in the state and beyond have also participated in these events to help the internally displaced get jobs. So far, these networks have helped 20 people find jobs.

Ultimately, the success of these skilling, reskilling and livelihood initiatives will depend on how fast each production cycle is completed – beginning with sourcing and supplying the raw materials to the learners, training activities, production of goods (including packaging), marketing, and finally the earnings reaching the learners. Matai Society has planned to support these processes for at least a year, after which the hope is that the learners will be able to invest in them and carry them forward on their own.

The more prolonged the communal tension in the state, the longer will it take for normalcy to return in Manipur. This is where livelihood initiatives can play a crucial role because they help prioritize issues of survival and economic sustenance. Livelihood initiatives like those of Matai Society hold out the hope for a much larger process of self-reliance, recovery and healing in the state. This means that agencies like Matai Society and their partner organizations also need to sustain themselves.

About Matai Society’s relief work: Matai Society has been co-running relief camps and conducting trauma response work in Bishnupur district. The organization runs trauma response centres for conflict-affected children and youth in association with various relief camps apart from carrying out general relief work that focuses on meeting the material needs of the displaced. In 2020-21, Matai Society carried out widespread COVID-19 relief in Bishnupur district, as part of which they started a skill development and livelihood generation initiative called Mahei Centre. The centre also acts as a drop-in centre for youth and marginalised persons. These facilities have proved invaluable in the ongoing crisis. Mahei Centre is currently running the School Bag Project in collaboration with Urep and Manipuri Weddings, both based in Imphal. Much of Matai Society’s relief work around provision of rations and education material is being carried out in partnership with NGO Octave Foundation. About Octave Foundation: This NGO was established to provide platforms of convergence to celebrate ethnic diversities that constitute Manipur’s cultural ethos. It was registered in Manipur in 2015. As part of its ongoing relief efforts in the state (through crowdfunding), Octave Foundation has been assisting displaced women and children find refuge in relief camps. Their goal is to reach out to as many as possible among the 18,000 people sheltered in 69 relief camps in Imphal East, Imphal West, and Bishnupur districts.

How to extend support for relief and livelihood initiatives in Bishnupur and adjoining districts

Monetary donations can be sent to Matai Society via Octave Foundation (see inset above on the work being done by the two agencies). Donations in kind can be couriered or dropped off at the Matai Society premises in Moirang.

Matai Society is also in touch with other civil society groups carrying out relief work in different districts of Manipur, and can connect interested donors to these groups.

For more details on how to send your contributions, please contact Kumam Davidson, Founder, Matai Society at 0091 70054 15573.

Inset: About the ‘Manipur Relief’ column: This monthly 'Varta' webzine column brings you news and analysis on how transgender, queer and other civil society groups in Manipur are coping with the impact of the communal conflict which has killed and injured hundreds of people and displaced thousands since early May 2023. The column seeks to highlight the relief work being carried out by the civil society groups, and how individuals and organizations can support the relief work. The column also aims to present personal accounts of survivors of the violence and their efforts to rebuild their lives. Content published under 'Manipur Relief' is contributed by participants in the fourth edition of the Varta Community Reporters (VCR) Training and Citizen Journalism Programme (begun August 2023). The programme also involves strategic dissemination of the published articles for community morale building, experience sharing, and advocacy to ensure that the people affected by the conflict gain access to resources for immediate survival and long-term sustenance with dignity. The VCR Programme aims to build communication, documentation and journalistic skills among youth and other groups marginalized around gender, sexuality or other social markers. In the process, it also attempts to enhance the employability of the participants. The first edition of the VCR Programme was conducted in Manipur from March to August 2018, and stories generated through the pilot were published under the 'Manipur Diary' column. The second pilot, from February to July 2019, covered Assam, Manipur and West Bengal and the stories generated were published under the 'VCR Diary' column. The third edition covered Assam, Odisha and West Bengal through 2020-21 with the stories generated published under the 'Coronavirus Diary' column – Editor.

Visit this page for more details on the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme – Editor.

About the main photo: Tote bags made by internally displaced people trained as part of the livelihood initiative of Matai Society and their partner organizations. All photo credits: Matai Society