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Homestays to Boat Owners: The Plummeting Livelihoods of Karang Islanders

by Aribam Bishwajit
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Homestays to Boat Owners: The Plummeting Livelihoods of Karang Islanders

The ongoing violence in Manipur has left an indelible mark on its inhabitants, casting a shadow over nearly every individual in the state. This turbulence has not only scarred the collective psyche of the people but has also significantly impacted the economic stability of the region. A mere 50 kilometers away lies Thanga Karang, a picturesque lake island, distinguished for being the first cashless island in India. The residents of this secluded island are heavily reliant on tourism to sustain their livelihoods, as only a handful are employed in government roles, and the landscape doesn’t favor extensive agricultural ventures. This prevailing conflict, centered around disputes between the Meitei and Zo-Kuki communities, has unfortunately robbed these islanders of their primary source of income: selling fish delicacies to visitors. The consequence of the tensions is evident, as tourists, who once flocked to this serene destination haven’t ventured there since May 3, leaving the community in a precarious economic situation.
In an effort to delve deeper into the ripple effects of the ongoing conflict on the livelihood of the people of Thanga Karang, the Imphal Times reached out to several residents of the island to record their firsthand experiences. One such voice was that of Oinam Satyabati, a local fish seller whose tales echoed the sentiments of many.
“In the past, tourists flocked to our island, and my stock of fish would fly off the shelves. I used to go home with empty baskets, with every single fish sold,” Satyabati reminisced. Her voice wavered slightly as she confessed, “The present circumstances have brought an unforeseen lull in our business. No tourist dares to venture here now.”
Detailing her once-thriving enterprise, she elucidated, “We would catch the fish, dry it, and then, at our convenience, we’d set up our stalls. This routine not only brought us sustenance but also allowed flexibility in our sales. However, the ongoing disturbances have barricaded our paths. With curfews in place and transportation coming to a near halt, the journey to Imphal for business has become an arduous endeavor.”
She sighed deeply before continuing, “In earlier times, a profit of 700 was easily attainable. But today, reaching even 300 seems like an uphill battle. In truth, our primary aim has shifted from making profits to mere survival. Our selling prices have been slashed, cutting down our margins, but we persist, hoping to earn just enough for our day-to-day needs.”
Satyabati’s eyes, brimming with emotions, mirrored the island’s collective despair, “The island used to buzz with the chatter of tourists. Their presence lifted our spirits, especially during the holiday seasons. Our catch always found eager buyers, ensuring we never had to worry about unsold stocks. But now, our baskets remain full, our fish unsold, and our hopes dwindling.”
Following Oinam Satyabati’s poignant testimony, this journalist met Oinam Boyai, a boat owner whose story presented yet another dimension to the islanders’ struggle. Among the serene waters that surround Thanga and Karang, Boyai’s boat is one of the 19 motorized vessels responsible for ferrying passengers to and fro.
“Before the conflict began, our boats were always bustling with activity,” Boyai reminisced, his gaze fixed on the gentle ripples of the water. “Lines of eager tourists and locals alike would form at the docks, all waiting for a ride to the scenic Karang Island. We boatmen scarcely had a moment’s reprieve – the demand was relentless.”
However, with a somber tone, he revealed the stark contrast of their present situation. “The tides have drastically changed now. Our boats mostly carry Karang natives who rely on us for their basic commuting needs. The once-abundant tourists, who would come seeking a slice of the island’s tranquility, have been conspicuously absent for over five months.”
The weight of the ongoing crisis was evident in Boyai’s voice as he concluded, “Navigating these waters was once a source of livelihood and pride for us, but now, with each empty boat ride, we’re reminded of how challenging mere survival has become in these tumultuous times.”
The ripple effects of the conflict touched every corner of Thanga Karang. Another testament to the socio-economic aftermath came from Oinam Biramani, a septuagenarian shopkeeper, who also runs a small eatery alongside. With a distant look in his eyes, he lamented, “There was a time when our cash register rang with sales totaling up to eight thousand rupees daily. However, ever since the conflict darkened our doorstep, a good day means barely touching three thousand rupees.”
Beside him, his wife was diligently preparing fritters, the golden morsels painting a stark contrast to the gray atmosphere. With a hint of sadness, she chimed in, “The locals have always been supportive, but their pockets only go so deep. It’s the tourists who primarily relished our delicacies.”
Elaborating further, she painted a vivid picture of their earlier bustling business. “From dawn to dusk, we were submerged in preparing our specialties. The aroma of fritters filled the air from early morning until 7 p.m. Twice a day, the sizzle of dry peas in the frying pan announced the next batch ready for sale. But now, the quietness around tells a different tale. The frequent demand has dwindled, forcing us to limit our preparations. Tourists, who once were the heart of our clientele, used to generously spend, buying in bulks, often to share with their families. Rs 100 and Rs 200 notes were common. Now, with the tourists gone and only the locals left to cater to, our earnings reflect the change. Today, the majority of our sales come in the form of Rs 10 notes, with larger denominations becoming a rare sight.”
The tales of Thanga Karang’s hardship continued to unfold, layer by layer. Salam Rajeshori, a respected leader of Meira Paibi on the island, painted a more comprehensive picture of the challenges the local community was facing. “For many here in Karang, their daily bread is earned by selling fish, either directly to tourists or in the markets. Now, that lifeline has been tragically cut,” she articulated, her voice reflecting the collective anxiety of her community.
Rajeshori’s maternal instincts echoed the concerns of many parents on the island, “Our children, the future of Karang, are being denied their right to education amidst this unrest. If we can’t earn, how will we ensure a better future for them? How can we possibly nurture their dreams and aspirations?” With desperation palpable in her voice, she exclaimed, “It feels as if the government has turned a blind eye to our sufferings. I fervently beseech them to intervene, to restore peace and hope, not just for the weary souls of Karang but for the entire Manipur community, especially the young students whose futures hang in the balance.”
Moreover, Karang’s once-booming tourism sector has been heavily affected. The island, renowned for its hospitality, boasts several homestays, constructed by the residents to accommodate and delight the numerous tourists that once graced their land. One such establishment is run by Mr. Babu, who, with a heavy heart, shared his plight.
“My Babu Home Stay was more than just a business; it was a dream,” he began, looking around the now-deserted property. “Here, I offered a haven for tourists, complete with picnic spots and lodging facilities. But today, the conflict has forced its doors shut, robbing me of not only my livelihood but also the joy of hosting guests.” Mr. Babu’s eyes, a testament to sleepless nights, continued, “I’ve invested heavily into this venture, spending thousands, and even borrowing funds with the hope of a brighter future. Now, with no revenue in sight, the looming debt casts a daunting shadow. The uncertainty of repaying this debt adds to the growing list of my concerns.”
The serene island of Thanga Karang stands as a testament to the resilience of its people, even as they grapple with the pervasive consequences of an unrelenting conflict. From fish sellers to boat owners, from small eateries to homestay entrepreneurs, the economic tapestry of the island has been frayed, with each individual bearing the brunt of lost opportunities and dwindling hopes. Yet, amidst the tangible losses, the most profound impact perhaps is on the young minds, the future of the island, who are robbed of their education and aspirations. The poignant narratives from Karang aren’t just stories of economic hardship but are cries for peace, stability, and a hopeful future, underscoring an urgent plea for intervention and understanding from the broader world.

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Imphal Times is a daily English newspaper published in Imphal and is registered with Registrar of the Newspapers for India with Regd. No MANENG/2013/51092


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