Socio-political and environmental dynamics of Manipur’s Loktak Ramsar site

By Salam RajeshonJan. 24, 2024in Economics and Technologies

Searching for Alternatives

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

For many reasons, whether empirical or scientific, Loktak Lake in India’s far east Manipur State has been embroiled deep in controversies of sorts during these past four decades and continuing. One amongst the declared seventy five Ramsar sites in India, Loktak finds itself in a complicated situation on ground that has given it the status of an ‘aging lake’, perhaps kicking hard to keep itself afloat despite the many forms of pressures upon it, of which anthropogenic influences is paramount.

In 1990, Loktak Lake became one amongst the first layers of inland freshwater water bodies in the country to attain the status of a Ramsar site, which basically implies a water body of international importance considering its ecological and environmental profile. However, sadly, Loktak also found itself listed in the Montreux Record (16 June, 1993), as one amongst some of the Ramsar sites in the country with declining ecosystem.

On the 1st of June in 1983, a twist in the story unfolded when a man-made structure, the Ithai Barrage for the 105 megawatt capacity Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project built across the Manipur River, was commissioned. The narrative on the ecological and environmental profile of Loktak Lake and its associated wetlands turned overnight with the implementation of this singular man-made structure for the Loktak hydro project.

The Ithai Barrage blocked the flow of the Manipur River and the Khuga River, and turned Loktak and several other adjoining water bodies into one single spread of water body, an artificially created water reservoir devoid of the natural characteristics of those once-thriving water bodies. With this, the entire hydrological regime of the Loktak wetland complex changed, giving way to tales of human and environmental woe and misery.

At a rough estimate, locals alleged that around 55,000 to 80,000 hectares of fertile agricultural lands were either fully or partially submerged by the hydro project. Every year since the commissioning of the barrage in 1983 and till this day, large swath of agricultural and settlement areas are repeatedly flooded every time the monsoon showers create havoc with unceasing rains for continuous three to five days.

When this happens, local fish farmers lose their crop when the fish farms in the lake peripheral areas overflow. Paddy crop become wasted when the agricultural fields are fully inundated for days on end. Homesteads are damaged by the prolonged inundation. The misery of the local farmers are writhe large on their faces when these artificial calamities occur, more frequently now with Manipur beginning to experience extreme weather events with the changing climatic conditions.

Scientists studying the ecological profile of the lake say that many species of native plants, fishes and other invertebrates have steadily declined, some classified as ‘extinct in wild’ while others are highly vulnerable and threatened. For instance, one of Manipur’s favourite food fish, Pengba Osteobrama belangeri has now been termed as ‘extinct in wild’ as a direct consequence of the human intervention courtesy of the Ithai Barrage. Other significant and highly relished food fish like Khabag Cirrhinus reba, Ngaton Labeo bata and Sareng Wallago attu are no longer present in the Loktak wetland complex.

Professor Waikhom Vishwanath, a leading author on fisheries in Manipur, says, “Manipur valley was very rich in its native species. Sunder Lal Hora (1921) listed 56 species from the State and described six new species. However, many species have been lost from Loktak Lake as a result of the introduction of fish from outside (introduced species of Indian Major Carps) by the Government of Manipur since the 1990s to replicate the declining fish population in the lake’.

In fact, the lake is now full of introduced and invasive species of fish and aquatic plants that have adapted themselves to the changing environment of the wetland, and in many cases dominating over the native species. Invasive fish fishes like Puklaobi Cyprinus carpio and Tunghanbi Oreochromis mossambicus, which are included by the National Biodiversity Authority in its list of Invasive Alien Species of India, have overrun the water bodies in the Manipur River Basin covering the Loktak wetland complex.

At the same time, aquatic invasive alien plant species like Alligator weed Alternanthera philoxeroides, Paragrass Bracharia mutica and water hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes have caused massive displacements, blocking the water passages, curtailing the available open water space, dominating over the native aquatic and semi-terrestrial plants of food and fodder value, and causing much headache for the lake managers in de-weeding them year after year.

Meanwhile, in 2006 the Government of Manipur enacted The Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006 which came into effect in 2010. In November of 2011, the Loktak Development Authority aided by state police personnel trooped down to the lake and burned 777 shelter huts Khangpok-shangs built on floating biomass Phumdi that are used by the local fishers for rest and shelter during their fishing activities. The eviction drive continued well into 2013.

The fishing community, particularly those living in Champu Khangpok floating island village in the midst of the lake, rose in stiff opposition to the eviction drive, stating that they are natives to the lake and have lived and thrived upon the resources of the lake for ages. They fought back furiously claiming their right to life and access to the lake’s resources on the basis of their claim to Loktak as their ‘territory of life’.

The push and pulls continue to this day with the State Government always eyeing the Loktak fishers as ‘alien’ to the lake ecosystem and as an unnecessary obstacle to their larger plans for taking up various so-said developmental projects that are fundamentally not aligned with the fragile nature of the lake ecosystem.

In 2012, the Loktak fishers formed a union, called as All Loktak Lake Areas Fishers Union, Manipur (ALLAFUM) to fight back the State’s aggression and to protect their rights. After much tussle on the issue, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Government in early 2022 finally consented to accord heritage status to the floating island village. However, as the story goes, nothing affirmative has happened on the matter till this day.

Meantime, a local organization formed in late 2023 – the People’s Committee on Restoration of Loktak Lake and its Associated Wetlands, Manipur – raised objections on the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Limited (NHPC)’s proposal submitted to the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission for the ‘Renovation and Modernization of Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project’, stating that the hydro project had lapsed its productivity lifespan in 2018 and must not be allowed to renew in view of the extensive negative impacts on the human population and the natural environment, being more or less the nemesis of myriad issues on Loktak Lake.

The main ‘bone of contention’ is the Ithai Barrage which is seen as the root of all issues in the lake. The People’s Committee’s thrust is on the call for its decommissioning citing various reasons including biodiversity loss, ecological degradation, effecting massive crop loss with submergence of vast tracts of fertile agricultural lands, loss of livelihoods for local fishers and farmers, and most importantly for the failure of the hydro project proponents in keeping with their assurance on the rehabilitation and resettlement of the affected families – which translate into thousands of displaced families settled in Bishnupur, Thoubal, Kakching and Imphal West districts.

Their voice of dissent also reflects upon the pitiable conditions under which Manipur’s flagship mammal species – the Sangai, Manipur Brow-antlered Deer Rucervus eldii eldii – and the other wildlife are faring amid their deteriorating habitat in Keibul Lamjao National Park, which is often described as the ‘only’ floating national park in the world!

The twists and turns continue to this day even as this feature is being written, with the lake managers always on the lookout for excuses to throw out the fishing community from Champu Khangpok floating island village. In one word, the fishers are “occupiers”, so say the lake managers. At this point of time, there are no alternatives for the fishers than to fight back as best as they can – for their rights to life in their territory of life.

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Salam Rajesh January 24, 2024 at 5:50 pm

Thanks to Vikalp Sangam for publishing this article. Important! Salam Rajesh