Dialogue  October-December, 2012, Volume 14 No. 2

7.      Continuity and Change in Agricultural Practices in Manipur: Changing face of Khutlang

Wahengbam Sushma Devi                                                                                         


People of Manipur depend highly on Agricultural sector as their main source of livelihood with clear cut division of labour between male and female. Agriculture in Manipur is critically dependent on seasonal cycles. Huge labour force is required during the peak period and to meet the labour shortage women pooled their labour to form what is known in Manipuri as Khutlang. This team of women or khutlang performs the agricultural task of weeding, transplanting, etc. based on the norms of mutual exchange, reciprocity, loyalty and inter-dependence. Modernisation and intensification of agricultural economy since the last five decades, with the primary objectives of making the agricultural sector the basis of Industrial growth in the region, has brought about tremendous changes in the agricultural sector, especially in the working of Khutlang. This paper is an attempt to trace the working of Khutlang in traditional society and the changes therein as a consequence of Modernisation. The data of this paper is based on, amongst other, historical records, interviews, interactive meetings, participatory observation, farm and home visits.

Key words: Social institutions, khutlang, manifest functions and latent functions.

* Dr. Wahengbam Sushma Devi, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University.

Agriculture is the main occupation and the largest productive unit of Manipur’s economy. Like any other peasant economy, household is the basic unit of consumption and production in Manipur wherein both men and women take part in the Agricultural activities. In these activities, the heavier works such as ploughing traditionally are in the hands of men and the lighter work such as transplantation and weeding are carried out by women.

Agriculture in Manipur is critically dependent on seasonal rain. Agricultural works of transplantation, weeding and reaping are to be completed within a short period of time when the weather conditions are appropriate. Huge labour force is required during the peak period of agricultural activities which is usually during the month of May-July. Since household is the basic unit of production in Manipur, in such peak period, almost all the families face acute shortage of labour. Consequently, to meet this shortfall in labour, women started reaching out for help to other women folk (in the community) with the promise of repaying with the same services in agricultural work.

This kind of interdependence, which has been arranged to meet the need for agricultural labour in large numbers and within a short period of time, is a common feature of the Agrarian economy. This pooling of labour resources amongst members of a community or groups is usually known as mutual exchange labour (Karanth, 2002). Examples of such instances are found in many societies such as the women labour force in Karnataka known as Gumpu, reciprocal exchange of labour for paddy cultivation in Srilanka, and mutual borrowing of bullocks and men between kin, neighbour and friends for the operation of charas for well-irrigation in Rajasthan etc. (Baboo, 1998). In Manipur, this type of mutual exchange of labour is known as Khutlang.

Khutlang in Meiteilon is a multiple synonymous term. Literally, khutlang comes from two words/expressions, namely, khut meaning ‘hand’ and lanba or lanthokpa meaning ‘to lend out’ expecting something in return. Khutlang in agricultural spectrum, consist of a group of women of different age groups who agree to pool their labour and work together in agricultural activities. Women mutual labour organization is usually known as Nupi Khutlang and women who work in such a system is known as Khutlang Nupi2. In this mutual exchange of labour or Khutlang, each member gets the benefit of the work of the whole members. Agricultural work for each member is done in rotation. The members of the team are not paid for the services rendered by them rather they receive help in similar services from her teammates. On other free days, when there is no work to be done for the member team, a Khutlang team would invest their labour in other’s field for monetary return individually or for the team as a whole. The networking of Khutlang is based entirely on the norms of loyalty, obligations and reciprocity. Khutlang on morality basis organised by men as called Nupi Khutlang.

Khutlang members, approximately comprising of 10 women, usually work in a field measuring about a sangam (little less than an acre). Women are engaged for the transplanting (lingba) and the weeding (pengba) activities. The paddy seedlings (louhon) are sown first at a separate fertile place before the main paddy field is ready for cultivation and after the main paddy field is well prepared, the seedlings are transplanted in the main paddy field. This work of transplantation is carried out only by the women as women are considered a sign of fertility. Women standing in a row or a circle sow the seedlings in pairs with the hope that it will reap good harvest. The work of transplantation is done by 10 to 15 women depending on the size of the field. Weeding is done after a month of transplantation. Khutlang team goes to field early in the morning (around 5 a.m.) and work till 11 a.m. without proper breakfast or lunch. They are offered eatables by the family on whose field they happen to be working.

Khutlang arose as a response to the agricultural needs of the society and Khutlang of Manipur has been in existence since time immemorial, instilling among the womenfolk the culture of working collectively. Working together not only lessened their workload but also gave them the confidence to withstand any kind of hardship in life, and gave them the opportunity to learn from one another, to empathize and motivate one another. D.N. Majumdar says, "The relation between needs and responses, the organism and imperatives, which produce institutions cannot be isolated from the terrestrial factors since these supply the basic postulates of a culture or cultures" (Singh, 2003).

Khutlang members share not only economic exchange but also social exchange in the form of advice, invitation, entertainment etc. This aspect has also been noted by Raymon Firth who observed that particularly in the context of pre-industrial society, the social and the economic are not logically separable categories and actions are not exclusively economic or non- economic, all acts have economic, social and cultural aspects (Firth cited in Carlton, 1977). And As Mauss pointed out, "people do not always exchange goods, wealth and things of economic value but also courtesies, entertainment, etc" (Mauss, cited in Baboo, 1998). Economic exchange among khutlang members is the manifest function of khutlang and the social exchange its latent function. Robert Merton who had propounded the concept of latent and manifest functions of social institutions said that manifest functions are the consequences that people observe or expect. It is explicitly stated and understood by the participants in the relevant action and the latent functions are the unconscious and unintended actions. Both manifest and latent functions of social institutions have positive consequences for society, and reflections on the latent functions of a social institutions helps in understanding the society more. In this sense, as part of the latent function, khutlang acts as a recreational and entertainment platform where women members would work and sing together, while carrying out their work of transplanting, sowing etc. For instance, a folk song called Louta Eshei (lou meaning field, tanba or thaba sow and eshei meaning song) is sung by the women on the eve of ploughing the field. One familiar song at the time of sowing goes like:

"On this morn, on this day

To this land of sublime beauty

Gathered are the youths

Equal in strength and spirit are they

Before the daylight breaks

To the hilltop has the sun reached

Oh, lotuses like beauties

Come you too

Just as you gather flowers of your choice

And arrange them to offer to the lord

Equal in strength and spirit are they

Ha Ha Ha" (Meitei, 2002).

Similarly Phoukaron is the song sung at the time of harvesting.

Khutlang members after their long, weary and strenuous work would sit together; share the joys and sorrows of their personal life and at times the traumas of being under the patriarchal hold. Meitei society like any other patriarchal society follows patriarchal norms, values and practices and women are often placed at a disadvantageous position inspite of their active participation in economic activities. Women often succumb to the authority and unreasonable demands of the male members of the family. Not bowing to the male authority and not giving in to their whims and dictates would often invite serious reprimand and in most cases severe form of physical violence.

In khutlang, women find a way out to ease their pain, their woes, by sharing with their team mates who can easily empathize having gone through similar experiences. Sometimes khutlang members organize Marup (monthly collection of money) to help one another when faced with a financial shortfalls especially at the time of marriage, death or any other eventualities in the family. Khutlang team regularly organizes a grand-feast after every peak season, strengthen by a close bond, guarantying each member team service not only in agricultural activities but also support in times of need. This latent function of khutlang consciously or unconsciously inculcates a sense of loyalty, cohesiveness and promotes women as a conscious group aware of the happenings in and around them. Khutlang which arose out of the felt needs of the people has been acting as a kind of empowering institution for women of Manipur consciously or unconsciously.

Manipur an economically backward region is dependent on agriculture and allied activities as its predominant occupation. Efforts are on to develop agricultural sector so as to make agricultural sector the basis for Industrial growth in the state. Modernisation and intensification of agriculture like use of chemical fertilizers, improved tools and implements and plant protection inputs are being introduced in the state. Various experimental farm-cum-demonstration farms, orchards, fruit preservation factory soil testing laboratory, basic agriculture school and gram sevak training center are being established at various places in the region.

Besides, conducting training programme on cultivation of grains, oilseeds, vegetables, poultry production, preservation of fruits and vegetables, training programme on health care, nutritional, gardening, tailoring are also targetted on farm women. To make the farmers aware of the changes taking place in the agricultural sector kisan melas, exhibitions, booklets, leaflets, radio talks, etc. are being organised regularly, thus making the farmers a part of the globalised world. As part of the development programme of agricultural sector in the era of the globalised world, cooperative societies came to be institutionalised in the state by an act of 1938, and consequently access to credit facilities were made available to the various SHGs (Self Help Groups) which act as an incentive for diversification of production and in adapting to advanced scientific agricultural technology. This helps in large scale production generating marketable surplus thereby making the transition from a self-sustaining agricultural production to commercial agriculture.

Under the current pattern of global communication and trade, traditional agricultural practices in Manipur, as elsewhere, is under going changes. This change is discernible in the working of the khutlang also. Although women labourers still pool their labour during the peak agricultural season in the name of khutlang, the ideology of khutlang based on reciprocity, obligation, loyalty no longer exists. With globalization and its impact in terms of access to various medium of entertainment in the form of movies, television, radio etc. even in remote and rural areas in Manipur, the latent function of khutlang has also undergone a change. There is practically no singing of khutlang esheis during agricultural activities. Khutlang is no longer a platform for leisure and mutual entertainment. Today, women under khutlang symbolize hired labourer who work on other’s field on payment ranging from Rs. 120 to Rs. 160 per day. Women under the present day khutlang look for better option in terms of better wage. After the peak season is over, khutlang members organise a grand feast but unlike the feast organised in the past, only those who can pay the fee are allowed to take part in the feast. Khutlang, today, is dominated by the imperatives of the market, where people are placed into a world of superficial cooperation, weak ties, and interchangeable relations.

In present day Manipur, the trend of forming SHGs, which can be a modern day incarnation of khutlang, exists in every locality. Numerous SHGs can be found operating in a particular locality. One of the most important reasons of springing up of SHGs is that they are the medium of getting loans or credit for the agricultural development programme. However, these SHGs after a period of time become defunct as the money sanctioned are not utilized for enhancement of livelihood rather they are used to repay another loan which they have borrowed from some other agencies or persons. In this way, if one member misutilises the money, the whole groups is impacted. Instead of redeeming their condition, it worsens their situation. A sense of mutual distrust begins to germinate in the minds of the SHGs members.

Thus, the present day khutlang is transforming to suit the requirements of the emerging global trend. But this transformation of khutlang as an institution based on mutual help, loyalty and social exchange to that of a group of agricultural labour working purely for wages which are subject to pure market forces, has not only weakened this institution but also the society at large. When the very foundation of our identity based on the ideologies of reciprocity, loyalty, obligation, collective spirit or working in unison or in short ‘the culture of khutlang ‘has been uprooted then there is every chance of losing the whole as has been observed by Richard Sennet an American Sociologist, ‘An economy without long term commitments or larger meanings can be damaging for the self-identity and the self’ (Sennet cited in Elliot, 2009)


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