There are several reasons for this, many of which are unrelated to the people who live there.
For Oinam Rajen, 56, a fisherman who lives and earns his livelihood from Loktak Lake in Manipur, the water body and its wetland are an integral part of life and have been for generations. The same goes for all the fishermen of Loktak, located in the city of Moirang, about 45 km south of the capital Imphal: they live, breathe and survive on the resources that the lake provides. The fish and edible plants feed them and provide them with the economic means to support themselves. In a symbiotic relationship, the fishermen also care for the ecosystem on which they thrive: their beliefs and knowledge make it necessary to worship the waters and only take from the lake what is essential for survival. In recent times, the fishermen under the banner of All Loktak Lake Area Fishers Union Manipur (ALLAFUM) have played an active role in restoring the ecosystem and preserving biodiversity. But the state wants to deport them.
On July 18, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) announced that all host families, cabins and athaphums (Loktak’s famous green rings, created by parts of phumdis, or floating islands, and those used for fishing) should be removed so that the lake can be rejuvenated. This has revived a decades-old battle between the authorities and the people, including fishermen and homestay owners, who claim the cleanup is a cosmetic measure intended to benefit foreign tourists. The LDA was established in 1987 by the government of Manipur for the management and conservation of Loktak, which is spread over more than 287 square kilometers. In recent years, however, it has been at odds with local communities.
In 2006, the state government passed the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act “to provide for administration, control, protection, enhancement, conservation and development of the natural environment of Loktak Lake”. It restricts certain activities in the lake, such as free-range fishing as traditionally practiced by the locals. The core zone as defined by the law covers most parts of the water body used for fishing. Article 20 of the law prohibits the building of huts on the phumdiscultivation of athaphum, and athaphum fishing in the lake.
In November 2011, the LDA, aided by armed police officers, set fire to 777 huts in the floating village of Champu Khangpok, claiming the fishermen there were illegal attackers, a claim the fishermen vehemently deny. Such arson attacks by the LDA have occurred 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 cable cars and homestays. The project has been criticized for evading laws. Rajen and his fellow fishermen deplore the continued state intervention in their lives. “The so-called development projects are only for a few well-connected people; there is nothing in them for marginalized communities. In the name of these projects, the government has repeatedly tried to expel us from the lake,” he says.
Fishermen confront the police during one of the eviction trips
The Manipur ecosystem consists of two interconnected biomes, wetlands and forests. The Loktak Lake, which acts as a natural reservoir for rivers and streams flowing from the hills, and its associated wetlands are central to the life of the state. There are 55 human settlements around the lake. A recent survey shows that 54 percent of households depend on the lake for drinking water and other domestic purposes. At least 57 percent of them are involved in fishing, aquaculture and fish marketing; 24 percent in fishing and agriculture; 6 percent in weaving products; and 4 percent in ferries. That is, more than 90 percent of households are completely dependent on Loktak for their livelihood.
“Loktak’s fishermen are eager to save the lake because their livelihood depends on it. The deteriorating ecosystem is a major concern for the villagers.”
Loktak’s ecological health is declining for several reasons, many of which are unrelated to the people who live there. Loktak was granted the status of a Ramsar Site of International Importance in 1990 and was included in the Montreux Record (a registry of wetland sites on the Ramsar List threatened by technological developments, pollution or human intervention) in 1993 due to its deteriorating ecosystem .
The rivers that flow into it, especially Nambul, which meanders through Imphal, bring in a fair amount of pollutants, including solid waste dumped into the water by townspeople. This kills the fish and aquatic plants. Professor W. Vishwanath of the University of Manipur says, “Pollution, habitat loss, damming, over-exploitation, in addition to species invasion, are the biggest threats to Loktak Lake.”
Inaugurated in 1983 for the 105 megawatt Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project, the Ithai Barrage has transformed Loktak. The Ithai Barrage, intended to pump water and exploit its potential for hydropower generation, has transformed Loktak into a huge reservoir, with a water level maintained at a constant 768.5 meters above sea level. This has consequences for the flow of the rivers that flow into the lake. The backwater also led to the flooding of vast swaths of rich farmland and settlements, displacing hundreds of people. It is estimated that the project has rendered some 50,000 to 80,000 hectares of fertile farmland unusable.
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 and caused a sharp decline in the fish population of Loktak and adjacent wetlands. Manipur’s State fish Pengba ( Osteobrama interest) is reportedly regionally extinct in the wild after the barrage disrupted the passage of this Myanmar-origin carp.
Loktak’s fishermen are eager to save the lake because their livelihood depends on it. The deteriorating ecosystem is a major concern for the 140 families living in the floating village of Champu Khangpok. Since the foundation of ALLAFUM in 2012, they have organized various activities to raise public awareness. They celebrate important “days” each year – World Environment Day, World Earth Day, International Rivers Day, Biological Diversity Day – to strengthen the community’s participatory role in lake conservation. ALLAFUM is now lobbying the government of Manipur to mark Champu Khangpok as a floating heritage village so that the rest of the world can learn about its unique features. This, Rajen says, would further encourage residents to regenerate the lake.
It is now time, more than ever before, to review the state of Loktak in light of its status as a Ramsar site. At the same time, the local communities that have lived in the lake for generations cannot be suddenly evicted without being assured of alternative livelihoods. The way forward is to bring the lake managers and local communities on a common platform that will reach a consensus on how to save the lake.
Loktak is central to Manipur and features prominently in folklore, oral literature, rituals and songs. It is called Loktak Lairembee or Goddess Loktak. The people who live on the coast believe in isha-mapal, or nine springs of the lake, which must always be kept clean for the continued health of Loktak. There is wisdom in the ancient belief, as the nine rivers that flow into Loktak are essential to the existence of the lake, its wetlands and the human lives that depend on it. The authorities could take a leaf from 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 host families, cabins and athaphums (Loktak’s famous green rings, created by parts of phumdis, or floating islands, and are used for fishing) should be removed from Lake Loktak in Manipur so that it can be rejuvenated.
This has revived a decades-old struggle between the authorities and the fishermen and host family owners
The Loktak Development Authority (LDA), which made the announcement, has been at odds with local communities for more than a decade.
In November 2011, the LDA, aided by armed police officers, set fire to 777 huts in the floating village of Champu Khangpok, claiming that the fishermen there were illegal intruders, a claim the fishermen vehemently deny.
More than 90 percent of households are completely dependent on Loktak for their livelihood.
Loktak’s ecological health is declining for several reasons, many of which are unrelated to the people who live there.
Pollution, habitat loss, damming, over-exploitation, in addition to species invasion, are the main threats to Loktak Lake.