Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Canoes are used in the lake by the fishers for fishing, collecting fodder and transportation. Photo by author.

Every Time Authorities Announce “Clean Up” of Loktak Lake, Lake People Fear Loss of Fishing Common

On grounds of rejuvenating the Loktak lake in Manipur, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA), on July 18, 2022, issued a 15-day ultimatum to remove homestays, huts, and athaphums (artificial structures of biomass used for aquaculture). Following the notification, conflict emerged between the authority and the local community, including fishers and homestay owner/operators, that stands to be impacted by this move. Loktak is the largest freshwater lake in the northeast region of India and more than 100,000 people are dependent on it.

The Loktak lake is an indelible part of the Manipuri identity – lives, lore, legends, history, and aquatic ecosystems. The lake has an area of about 287 square kilometres. It was designated a Ramsar site in 1990, and made its way into the Montreux Record on  June 16, 1993, due to the degradation of the lake’s ecosystem. Major changes in the lake’s characteristics were brought about by the commissioning of the Loktak Hydro Electric Project, wherein the Ithai barrage, was constructed on the only outflow of the lake. The barrage has remained fully functional despite its negative impact on socio-economical, cultural and ecological fronts.

Fish from Chindwin-Irrawaddy tract used to migrate and breed in Loktak and surrounding wetlands, but this natural migration has been blocked by the barrage, resulting in the complete change and decline of fish catch.

Along with a rising population, dependency on the lake is also rising. Fishers in search of an alternate source of income, started constructing homestays on the lake’s famous phumdis (floating biomass). Currently, there are 41 such home stays.

The LDA’s 15-day ultimatum was issued with an aim to delist the lake from Montreux record – a register that highlights wetlands of international importance that are facing immediate challenges or changes in the ecological character.

Fishers, homestay operators demand rollback of notification

For The Apunba Ngami Shinmi Cooperative Society (TANSCS), a society of 100-odd fishers that are completely nestled on phumdis, this notice means total alienation from the lake. They have to move back to land and this would make life and fishing harder for them. On July 20, TANSCS met the chairperson of LDA, who himself hails from the lake. He indicated that “the lake would be kept clean of phumdis from Thanga to Ningthoukhong area” and had allegedly urged the fishers to shift their huts to Champu Khangpok – a floating village that was exempted from the eviction notice.

For Ningthoujam Mani Devi, 40, a fisherwomen and a member of TANSCS, this notification means she would have to pull her hut towards Champu Khangpok which is more than 10 kms away from their current residence. “The task is daunting, the (fish) catch is already declining and if we shift our huts towards Champu, it will mean more competition for the catch. Also, we are not sure if Champu Khangpok would accept us in their premises,” Devi said. Moreover, to pull a hut for one km takes almost four days. “This is also coupled with the risk of running over nets and traps cast underwater and would mean inviting trouble,” Devi further added.

Another organisation, the Loktak Floating Homestay Owners, Thanga (LOFHAT) was formed on May 29, 2022 after a meeting of homestay owners with the LDA. The LOFHAT had submitted to the LDA a list of protocols – ‘Dos and Don’ts’ for the homestays – that was drafted by its subcommittee. Ningthoujam Ranjan, Secretary, LOFHAT, noted that when the LDA’s June 18, 2022, notification was announced, the members rushed to the LDA chairperson for an explanation and were told that “high level dignitaries and foreign tourists are coming over to witness Sangai Festival, so the department wants the lake to be clean.”

On July 27, 2022, LOFHAT and TANSCS released a press note, urging the LDA to withdraw its notification, failing which the joint body would resist and agitate against the LDA. On July 31, same yer a sit-in protest was staged by the local fishers at Thanga Chingkha.

Another standoff allegedly occurred when police personnel, using LDA’s motorboats, drove over the water “on claims of security measures” on the night of August 1, cutting and destroying fishing nets. Ranjan Oinam, a motorboat operator of the Loktak Tourism Development Organization (LTDO), and a local resident, was approached by the LDA to hire the service of LTDO’s motorboats to be used for eviction. “I declined because it would mean going against myself. My service exists in correlation with the huts, phumdis and the homestays” said Oinam.

Locals speculate notification is to facilitate tourism projects

The village of Champu Khangpok has been exempted from the LDA’s notification. According to speculation, this is probably because the current government, a coalition led by the Bharatiya Janta Party, has previously stated in its manifesto that it will conserve and promote the heritage of this unique floating village.

The party’s manifesto also stated to establish the Loktak Mega Eco-Tourism Project which aims to develop Loktak as a world class tourist destination, undertake catchment treatment of the area, construct embankments or footpaths around the lake and build tourism infrastructure (for example, 18-hole golf course, amusement park, artificial beach, integrated ropeways, water sports, adventure sports, homestays and other accommodation). The project, however, has been involved in controversy with allegations about it evading the law and misleading the court.

Another proposed project, the Loktak Inland Waterways Improvement Project (LIWIP) was approved in November 2019 and aims to set up jetties and criss-cross the lake by establishing nine routes inside the lake. LIWIP is criticised for its flawed economic analysis, social environmental impacts, lack of benefit and assessments of impacts, environmental clearance, bypassing institutional mechanisms and marginalising local communities amidst others.

A common theme among these projects is the conversion of the lake from a primary fishing commons to a high-end tourist site. Locals and activists are wary of these projects and suspect that the LDA’s notification is perhaps for facilitating these projects rather than just cleaning the lake for “dignitaries and foreign tourists” as is being claimed.

Salam Rajesh, an Imphal-based environmentalist who has been following the Loktak issue for nearly three decades opines, “The main issue is the state’s refusal to recognise the local fishing populace as an integral component of the lake ecosystem.” Moreover, studies reveal that “pristine wilderness” – a natural zone free of people – as a conservation idea, is an erroneous construct. So, efforts to delist the lake from Montreux record would mean working in close collaboration with the locals who have been residing and dependent on it. “The latest notification would be counterproductive and may lead to another Loktak Arson,” added Rajesh, referring to the incident over a decade ago where hundreds of floating huts on phumdis in the Loktak were razed by the government.

The article was first published in Modabay and can be read HERE

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