Walking on dead sand and encountering submerged agricultural land and lifeless woods at Thoyee and Ramrei villages in Phungyar Subdivision of Ukhrul district, Manipur in June 2019 is truly walking in a land victimized and made barren by state-sponsored violence on the environment. These villages are on the upstream area of the Mapithel Dam (Thoubal River Valley Multipurpose Project). This short journey was undertaken after a recent unfortunate incident in which three lives were lost in a boat accident after a sudden storm hit the site of Ramrei Ecotourism Park and capsize the boat. The sad incident prompted the government to stop the ecotourism temporarily prohibiting the people from visiting and using the water body at Ramrei and Chadong areas for pleasure trips or fun boat rides. This incident attracted quite a massive local media coverage, as well as featured loudly in social media platforms. A possible reason for such attraction was the few high-profile visit and daylong stay at the site of ministers of the current government to rescue the dead bodies. The dead bodies were found after a prolonged search exercise involving Navy personnel and local people. Immediately after this incident, the volume of water in the upstream areas considerably dropped, leaving the growing ecotourism in the area at stake, and consequently raising a hue and cry over it.
This, however, ignores the other fact that already more than 10 persons had lost their lives at the same site. This tragic vulnerability however was soon relegated to oblivion in the media and out of sight and mind of the government. The critical question is, why the Mapithel dam kills individuals rather than giving drinking water, irrigation, and electricity. The dam is supposed to achieve a target of irrigating 21,000 hectares of cultivatable land, providing 10 million gallons of drinking water every day and supply of 7.5 MW (MegaWatt) of power. Unfortunately, much of the debate in local media and social media after the above incident is on the issue of providing life jacket for the people enjoying boat rides and an absence of proper infrastructure for the ecotourism at Ramrei village. It is not the life jacket or tourism infrastructure that requires attention, but more importantly, it is the state’s approach to people living in such an environment that requires serious rethinking. The poignant part of the mega-dam project and associated narrative of employment and tourism promotion is the complete sidelining of another narrative of the weaker and lesser human and non-human lives, who struggle to survive in the aftermath of the submergence of more than five villages in the upstream areas.
Lack of prior public consultations and informed consent of the people, transparency, and accountability is continuously the ground reality. This is true concerning a lack of prior forest and environment clearance, and ambiguous and contested rehabilitation and resettlement process. Even on the recent release of water from the reservoir of the dam, villagers are not informed on why the water is released. This would not have been an issue had the dam been functional. The condition of the Mapithel dam has always been a source of nightmare for both the upstream and downstream people. Report on water slippage at the dam has been a prominent one. When asked why the water is released, few of the local people express the ‘dam semba’ (literally dam repairing) as the possible reason. Few others say the construction of water pipeline in the upstream area as the likely reason. What ‘dam semba’ does mean is, however, a perplexing question. What is there to repair for a dam that was not built to operate, but denies the right to life of the environmental citizens? The Mapithel dam that begins its construction in the 1980s, never completed, never met its objectives works; it does not supply drinking water, irrigation water, and electricity to the masses. This dam, if not fulfilling its goals of providing clean water, irrigation, and energy, must be filling the bellies of contractors, few non-state actors and few or many officials concerned.
The affected villagers, on the other hand, have witnessed heartbreaking and painful sites of the river, and its ecology after the Mapithel Dam submerged more than five self-sustained villages. Some villages have resettled, and some still resist resettling. The villagers are forced to change to a course of life that is new and full of hardship. In our previous visit to Ramrei village in the summer of 2018, there was a spurt of a new life with what they choose to do ecotourism at Ramrei village. Many things are forced to change. The compulsion of life to live has dictated to choose new occupations and new works of life. People decide to learn to operate poorly assembled boats. They decide to open small shops and charge fees to visitors. Many people in the upstream and downstream however still choose to struggle against the dam. But then, for those who wish to earn from the so-called ecotourism at Ramrei village, once the water is released (as mentioned above) vast areas of land are placed in front of the villagers as useless. The villagers look at such site with pain, helpless to resume any work on it.
However, the issue is not just the question of resuming work, but it is the site of dead and deserted land that matters today. What happens to the non-human lives? Can lifeless trees, submerged stone, and submerged agricultural fields speak? The dead sand is filled with lifeless bodies of trees, which are not given their customary funerals. Some of them look like a person who is buried alive while standing, some fallen, and some deeply submerged into the mud. They are voiceless, pale, muddy, and permanently helpless. They miss rehabilitation and resettlement. They are understood to die at the spot where they are born. Like many other fellow trees on the nearby uplands, they are no more communicable through their leaves and branches. The course of the river is changing; old stone pebbles and big boulders that gathered no mosses and gave the cleanest water are missing, lost into the dark and filthy water. The sand and mud are too fragile to give new life to the dead bodies of trees. The Thoubal River is denied the freedom to flow in its natural course and sustain the lives around it.
The sites of abandoned fishnets, bloodless trees, abandoned bamboos rafts and muddy ridge of the abandoned agricultural fields and the soulless church in the villages of Thoyee, Ramrei, and Chadong immediately strike us with the images of war. It is not a site of wanting (re) submergence with water; instead, it is a site that sadly narrates that precious and elementary forms of life of the villages have been buried and sentenced to death without giving the right to life in the aftermath of submergence of villages by the dam. Seeing things around, it also reminds us of the other narrative of war, about the buried lives of civilians and the hidden mass burial site of the victims of war.
Who is going to bring back life to the river? Walking along the dead sand, however, does not leave us with utter hopelessness. Some humans still can give back life to the dead river. We met a beautiful family, in fact, a union of two lovely individuals from the Thoyee and Ramrei villages. To the local, Thoyee is also known as Thawai. Thawai means soul. To the union of the family, we see the energy to give life to the river and overall ecology. It seems the Thoubal River looks up to the individuals like the above to struggle and bring back the soul of the river. The family, working along with other villagers and the concerned organizations and groups, has challenged the Mapithel dam construction. Groups of individuals and organizations at Thoyee and Ramrei villages have challenged the dam in the National Green Tribunal for lacking prior environmental clearance or the respect for the rights of the community to the forest areas displaced by the dam as per the Forest Right Act, 2006.
The state government of Manipur argues that government took the submerged village lands according to an agreement reached with the village chiefs and the dam has been constructed much earlier in the 1980s. Hence, the FRA, to the government, does not apply in spite of the continuous appeal of the affected people to respect their right to the community land and forest. The fact is that such agreement and implementation of rehabilitation and resettlement process fails to generate necessary, prior and legitimate democratic consensus between the affected villagers and the state government. If there is one more thing that the dam brings to the people, it is the creation of layers of contesting groups of people among the affected communities: those who have received compensation, those who don’t, those who have allegedly cornered a large share of compensation, those who still struggle against mega-dam, those seeks relief measures from the government, etc.
The ecotourism initiative at Ramrei village solely taken up by the Ramrei Village Authority through its tourism committee is one strategy that attempts to bring some local development for the community by the community. But, the initiative, besides lacking any government support, is operating without any clarity on how much right do the local villagers have over the reservoir and the surrounding forest. The issue of non-recognition of fishing right to the local villagers is a case. Also, ecotourism at Ramrei does not seem to involve other neighboring villages such as Thoyee, Chadong, and Riha. Ecotourism on dead sand, submerged agricultural lands and villages, even though appears to give some local income evades relevant critical debate on the failed mega-dam like Mapithel Dam and the question, why it fails to improve the condition of the people. Failed Dam does not improve the condition of the people. Instead, it complicates the life of the people and diminishes the chances of attaining sustainable livelihood. The state should restore the freedom of Thoubal River to flow.
The writer teaches politics of development in Special Centre for the Study of North East India, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]