Loktak Lake, the largest fresh water lake in India’s Northeast is not only an indispensable part of the mythology and history of Manipur but also the source of livelihood for many in the state. Its sustenance is also vital for the overall environment of the region. Loktak Lake is the backbone of the freshwater ecosystem of Manipur. It provides a multitude of opportunities and services for all human beings, flora and fauna that depend on this largest wetland of the Northeast. Locals in and around Loktak Lake depend on it for their basic needs including for drinking, washing, bathing, agricultural and aqua cultural activities to support their livelihoods. Various fauna and flora including migratory birds keeps the ecosystem of Loktak Lake sustained for centuries.
However, the fate of Loktak Lake is at a critical juncture now as consequences of unplanned and unchecked human activities including unplanned and unregulated development and tourism projects; unchecked, unbalanced, untreated pollutants, sewage, and oil particles and toxic elements brought down to the Lake from agricultural fields, different rivers and rivulets that feed the dying Lake.
Reports has it that every monsoon when the rivers rise with silt, pollutants including medical wastes, etc. rivers flow down to Loktak bringing all the filth. Charang (Hydrilla) that are abundant underwater in the Lake are rotting large and small fishes, prawns and rare fish species are dying. Heikak, indigenous water chestnut becomes almost vanished. Fishers complained that nets and fishing gears are stained with oily and greasy substances and they are having a hard time cleaning their fishing devices. They find many fishes died and floating in the Lake. Moreover, they have to sail their canoes in search of clean water for domestic usage.
Loktak Lake is famous for its floating biomass, Phumdis and the Keibul Lamjao, the only floating National Park in the world for Sangai (Cervus eldi eldi), the dancing brow-antlered deer, an endemic and endangered subspecies of Eld’s deer found only in Keibul Lamjao in Loktak Lake. Sangai is also the State Animal of Manipur.
The picturesque landscape of Loktak Lake attracts domestic and international tourists. First visitors to Manipur by air are surprised at first sight of the parts of the Lake from their aircrafts. Even the locals are never tired of seeing Loktak Lake from air.
However, the condition of the Loktak Lake is unfortunately deteriorating. Many including researchers, social and environmental activists blame the changes in the hydrology due to the construction of Ithai Barrage (Ungamel Channel), blockage of migratory routes for fish, drying up of wetlands from siltation, pollutants from the rivers flowing into the Lake and exploitation for declining indigenous fish varieties and species in the Loktak Lake.
It may be mentioned that Loktak Lake is fed by Imphal River, Nambul River and other several tributaries and flows out as Manipur River, which is a tributary of Chindwin River in Myanmar. The natural flow of Manipur River is blocked by the Ithai Barrage (Ungamel Channel).
With the construction of Ithai Barrage in the downstream of Manipur River as a part of the National Loktak Multipurpose Hydro-Electric Project, to maintain sufficient water volume in the Lake by making it a reservoir for maintenance of the project and with the commission of the project on June 4, 1983, there have been changes in the natural course of Manipur River, ecosystem of the Loktak Lake affecting the climatic condition and socio-economic lives of the people and its environment of Manipur.
The blockage of water current in the outlet of Loktak Lake through Manipur River has affected the normal flow of river and helped in depositing of more silts at Loktak Lake brought down from the catchment areas and their routes through the rivers and rivulets flowing down into the Lake.
Many experts, social and environmental activists cited Ithai barrage as the major cause of decaying the Loktak Lake and its ecosystem.
Notably, former Governor of Manipur Najma Heptulla in 2018 said she would put up to decommission the Ithai Barrage saying, “As many as 16 species of indigenous fishes are believed to have become extinct due to the blocking of water by Ithai Barrage.”
As the Loktak Lake attracts more tourists day by day, many tourism activities are being taken up by tourism entrepreneurs. A number of home stay structures are coming up in Loktak Lake. Athaphums which are made of phumdis in circular forms in Loktak Lake for fisheries by individuals increase manifold. All these activities may help in decaying and drying up the Loktak Lake. Athaphums though are beautiful at its looks and beneficial to some individuals and their families will help in dying the Loktak Lake if not controlled and regulated.
Unfortunately many parts of Loktak Lake have now dried up due to siltation brought down by the rivers flowing into the Lake and other human activities. The parts of the once wetland are now owned by private individuals as their landed properties holding Pattas (land certificates). Such activities have shrunken the area of the Loktak Lake.
A video clip of Meeyamgi Khollao of Imphal Times posted on Facebook on September 21, 2021 that Ngakrapat once wetland and part of the Loktak Lake and wetland areas around Kwaksiphai in Bishnupur district has dried up and the lands are owned by individuals as their landed properties holding pattas.
On the other hand, in 2019 a Division Bench of Manipur High Court on August 7 passed an order prohibiting any of the state government departments, even the Manipur State Wetlands Authority, from taking up any new project or development programmes concerning Loktak Lake without permission from the Court. The order was passed in connection with a PIL taken up by the High Court on its own, for the preservation of Loktak Lake.
Meanwhile, Union Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution; and Environment, Forest and Climate Change in his visit to Manipur announced in a press briefing on September 21, 2021 that the Central Government is working to provide Rs. 1,450 crore financial package through the Asian Development Bank to implement an eco-tourism project at Loktak Lake.
However, besides Ithai Barrage, if any activities – tourism/eco-tourism, economic including fisheries, livelihoods or development are allowed to continue in and around Loktak Lake unplanned, unchecked, unregulated without proper planning and policies; deforestations in catchment areas of the rivers of Manipur and poppy plantations in Manipur hills will help in decaying and dying Loktak Lake, the largest fresh water lake of the Northeast sooner.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics