SALAM Akutpi is 43 and a mother of 12. For her “efforts”, she has earned herself an ailing body requiring frequent blood transfusions and an award from an indigenous association of Manipur, of Rs 3,000 and a shawl.
Far away from scattered calls in the Hindi heartland by right-wing organisations advising families to produce more children to bolster the community’s population, women like Akutpi, from a hamlet called Unambol, 25 km from Manipur’s capital Imphal, have been counted upon to do the same for their tribe.
Only, no one asked Atukpi.
She was barely 17 when she ran away with husband Salam Tomba, now 53. With both illiterate, the children just followed. Says the 43-year-old, “I was very young and naive. I didn’t know what family planning was.”
Atukpi and Tomba are Meiteis, a Scheduled Caste in this region. Every year, on its foundation day, the Indigenous Peoples Association Kangelipak (IPAK) rewards women who have borne the most number of children. Atukpi won the first prize last year for having 12 children (the maximum ever so far since the IPAK began the award). Sorojini Huidrom and Pakpi Waikhom, both from Imphal, came in second and third, for bearing nine and seven children, respectively. The reward was the same for all three. This year, the IPAK didn’t hold a formal ceremony, just naming a woman who has nine children. For them, Atukpi remains “a role model”.
The 43-year-old says she didn’t apply for the reward. The village did so on her behalf.
The IPAK has been encouraging people to have as many children as they can, for fear that “the indigenous population would be outnumbered by outsiders” otherwise. Says Babulin Khuman, an executive member of the IPAK, “Of the over 27 lakh population of Manipur, indigenous people constitute only 9 lakh as per the 2011 Census, while the ‘outsiders’ number 8.20 lakh (the rest comprising Manipur residents whom the IPAK does not consider indigenous). The local populace would be outnumbered if the trend is not checked.” Every Manipuri woman should have “Atukpi’s courage”, Khuman adds.
In the 2001 Census, Manipur’s total population was 22.93 lakh, with Meiteis (including SCs) 7.5 lakh, and ‘non-locals’ 7.04 lakh.
The movement to drive “foreigners” out of Manipur started in 1980, and the demand for an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to save the ‘indigenous population’ has led to rounds of violent protests. On July 23, the Manipur Assembly passed the Manipur People’s Protection Bill 2018, which is similar to the ILP and is meant to “protect the state’s indigenous population”.
Atukpi gave birth to all her 12 children at home, without any medical assistance. Most were born within a little over a year of each other. “Every now and then I fall ill and, in the last year, I needed three units of blood. The doctor says it is because I did not take proper care during my pregnancies,” she says.
Medical staff at the Public Health Centre (PHC) in Andro, the district under which Unambol falls, say Akutpi suffered postpartum haemorrhage during her last pregnancy and had to be brought to the PHC twice. Senior nurse Rajeshwari adds that they had advised Akutpi to rest after delivery, but she went back to strenuous work almost immediately, leaving her perpetually weak.
Every hospital visit costs Atukpi and her family dear. Of Atukpi and Tomba’s 12 children, six are daughters, while the eldest son is now married and lives separately. The remaining 13 members of the family share two small huts, along with Tomba’s sister Chandamala, 45.
Atukpi and Tomba don’t own any land, and till others’ fields. Two of their sons, including eldest Abosana (25) and Naoba (23), do odd jobs, earning Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000 a month each. Chandramala pitches in with a similar amount that she earns brewing indigenous wine.
Abema, who is Atukpi’s fourth child and the eldest amongst the daughters, is studying in Class 10 at the Andro High School — the most anyone in the family has studied. Abosana and Naoba don’t remember when they dropped out of school.
Abema hopes she can become a nurse. However, higher studies means travelling to Imphal, and Naoba points out how tough that can be. “I wanted to study,” he says, “but given our family condition, I decided to drop out.”
However, he adds that if he can, he would support his younger siblings to study, so that they can have “a better life”. “I will find whatever job I can to earn extra.”
Among government schemes, Tomba says, the family gets 5 kg of rice “once or twice a year” from “some agents”. He is not sure under what scheme. “We are illiterate. We just work to stock enough for the family,” he says.
Atukpi, who says their life revolves around putting enough food on the table “to make sure the kids don’t go hungry”, is not aware of any government benefits either, apart from “the Rs 3,000 and a shawl”, though the IPAK, which gave them to her, is a private outfit. She claims the IPAK had also promised free education for her children. “That never happened.”
After The Sunday Express visited her, the IPAK gave Atukpi Rs 3,000 more and promised “help in the future”.
Dr Abdul Rop, Medical Officer (Ayush), at the Andro PHC, says they look after the entire Andro district (population 10,792), with the help of 28 ASHA workers, who conduct health nutrition programmes and provide family planning counselling.
Claiming that the PHC distributes devices for birth control to around 70 people every month in Andro, Rop adds, “People have become more aware about family planning. Today 70 per cent of the population here, particularly the younger generation, is literate.”
Fuming at the IPAK, Chandramala says, “The idea (of asking women to bear more children) is outrageous. One will not understand unless they are part of the suffering.”
With all her money going into supporting her brother’s children, she adds that she has given up the thought of having a family of her own. “I know enough what it is like.”