There are several reasons for this, many of them unconnected to the people who inhabit it.
For Oinam Rajen, 56, a fisher who lives and earns his livelihood from Manipur’s Loktak Lake, the waterbody and its wetland are an integral part of life and have been so for generations. It is the same for all the fisherfolk of Loktak, located in Moirang town, some 45 km south of the State capital, Imphal: they live, breathe, and survive on the resources provided by the lake. Its fish and edible plants nourish them and supply them with the economic means to support themselves. In a symbiotic relationship, the fisherfolk also look after the ecosystem on which they thrive: their beliefs and lore make it imperative to worship the waters and to take from the lake only what is essential for survival. In recent times, under the banner of All Loktak Lake Area Fishers Union Manipur (ALLAFUM), the fisherfolk have taken an active role in restoring the ecosystem and conserving its biodiversity. But the state wants to evict them.
On July 18, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) announced that all homestays, huts, and athaphums (the famous green rings of Loktak, created by segregating sections of phumdis, or floating islands, and used for fishing) are to be removed so that the lake can be rejuvenated. This revived a decades-old struggle between the authorities and the people, including the fisherfolk and homestay owners, who allege that the clean-up is a cosmetic measure meant for the benefit of foreign tourists. The LDA was set up in 1987 by the Manipur government for the management and conservation of Loktak, which is spread over more than 287 sq km. However, over the past several years, it has been at loggerheads with local communities.
In 2006, the State government enacted the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act “to provide for administration, control, protection, improvement, conservation and development of the natural environment of the Loktak Lake”. It restricts certain activities in the lake, such as the free-ranging fishery as traditionally practised by the local people. The core zone as defined by the Act covers most parts of the waterbody used for fishing. Section 20 of the Act prohibits the building of huts on the phumdis, cultivation of athaphums, and athaphum fishing in the lake.
Acts of arson
In November 2011, the LDA aided by armed policemen torched 777 huts of Champu Khangpok floating village claiming that the fisherfolk there were illegal encroachers, a claim that the fishers deny vehemently. Such acts of arson by the LDA have taken place at regular intervals over the years. Meanwhile, the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the coalition State government, mentions a Loktak Mega Eco-Tourism Project, which will develop Loktak as a world-class tourist destination, with a golf course, amusement park, artificial beach, integrated ropeways, and homestays. The project has been criticised for evading laws. Rajen and his fellow fisherfolk rue the continuous state intervention in their lives. “The so-called development projects are only for the benefit of a few well-connected people; there is nothing in them for marginalised communities. In the name of these projects, the government has repeatedly tried to evict us from the lake,” he says.
Fisherfolk confront the police during one of the eviction drives
The Manipur ecosystem consists of two interrelated biomes, wetlands and forests. Loktak Lake, which acts as a natural reservoir for rivers and streams flowing from the hills, and its related wetlands are central to the State’s life. There are 55 human settlements around the lake. A recent study indicates that 54 per cent of the households are dependent on the lake for drinking water and other domestic purposes. At least 57 per cent of them are involved in fishing, fish farming, and fish marketing; 24 per cent in fishing and agriculture; 6 per cent in weaving lake products; and 4 per cent in ferrying boats. That is, more than 90 per cent of the households are dependent entirely on Loktak for sustenance.
The ecological health of Loktak is in decline for several reasons, many of them unconnected to the people who inhabit it. Loktak was accorded the status of a Ramsar Site of International Importance in 1990 and placed in the Montreux Record (a register of wetland sites on the Ramsar list that are threatened by technological developments, pollution, or human interference) in 1993 considering its deteriorating ecosystem.
The rivers that flow into it, especially Nambul, which meanders through Imphal, bring with them a good amount of pollutants, including solid waste dumped into the waters by city-dwellers. This is killing the fish and aquatic plants. Professor W. Vishwanath of Manipur University says: “Pollution, habitat loss, damming, overexploitation, besides species invasion, are the major threats to Loktak Lake.”
The Ithai Barrage, commissioned in 1983 for the 105-megawatt Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project, has changed Loktak. Meant to impound water and harness its potential for hydropower generation, the Ithai Barrage has converted Loktak into a vast reservoir, with its water level maintained at a constant 768.5 metres above sea level. This has impacted the flow of the rivers that drain into the lake. The impoundment also led to the inundation of vast swathes of rich agricultural lands and settlement areas, displacing hundreds of people. It is estimated that the project rendered around 50,000 to 80,000 hectares of fertile agricultural land useless.
The Loktak Power Project caused the disappearance of nearly 20 species of aquatic plants of commercial value. The Ithai Barrage blocked the passage of migratory fish, inducing a sharp drop in the fish population of Loktak and adjoining wetlands. Manipur’s State fish Pengba ( Osteobrama belangeri) is reported to be regionally extinct in the wild now as the passage of this Myanmar-origin carp was disturbed by the barrage.
The fisherfolk of Loktak are keen to save the lake since their livelihood depends on it. Its deteriorating ecosystem is a matter of grave concern for the 140 families living in Champu Khangpok floating village. Since the formation of ALLAFUM in 2012, they have organised different activities to raise public awareness. They observe significant “days”—World Environment Day, World Earth Day, International Rivers Day, Biological Diversity Day—every year to strengthen the community’s participatory role in the lake’s conservation. ALLAFUM is now lobbying the Manipur government to mark Champu Khangpok as a floating heritage village so that the rest of the world gets to know about its unique features. This, Rajen says, would further encourage its residents to regenerate the lake.
A local person harvests cattle fodder in the Loktak. | Photo Credit: Salam Rajesh
It is time now, more than ever before, to review the state of Loktak vis-à-vis its status as a Ramsar site. At the same time, the local communities who have inhabited the lake for generations cannot be evicted suddenly without being assured of alternative livelihoods. The way ahead is to bring the lake managers and the local communities on a common platform, which will reach a consensus on how to save the lake.
Being central to Manipur, Loktak features prominently in folklore, oral literature, rituals, and songs. It is called Loktak Lairembee or Goddess Loktak. The people living on the shores believe in isha-mapal, or nine sources of the lake, that must always be kept clean for the continuing health of Loktak. There is wisdom in the old belief as the nine rivers that drain into Loktak are essential to the existence of the lake, its wetlands, and the human lives dependent on them. The authorities might take a leaf out of the book of the ancients.
Salam Rajesh is an Imphal-based journalist working on environmental issues. He has been associated with the Loktak fishing community for decades.
- On July 18, it was announced that all homestays, huts, and athaphums (the famous green rings of Loktak, created by segregating sections of phumdis, or floating islands, and used for fishing) are to be removed from Manipur’s Loktak Lake so that it can be rejuvenated.
- This revived a decades-old struggle between the authorities and the fisherfolk and homestay owners
- The Loktak Development Authority (LDA), which made the announcement, has been at loggerheads with local communities for more than a decade.
- In November 2011, the LDA aided by armed policemen torched 777 huts of Champu Khangpok floating village claiming that the fisherfolk there were illegal encroachers, a claim that the fishers deny vehemently.
- More than 90 per cent of the households are dependent entirely on Loktak for sustenance.
- The ecological health of Loktak is in decline for several reasons, many of them unconnected to the people who inhabit it.
- Pollution, habitat loss, damming, overexploitation, besides species invasion, are the major threats to Loktak Lake.