By – Ramananda Wangkheirakpam
“The uninterrupted flow of power radiating from Loktak is transforming pastoral Manipur into an emergent industrialized state. Power so vital for economic and industrial growth, will play a catalytic ole in Manipur’s overall development and in raising the quality of life of the people.”
– National Hydro-Electric Power Corporation Ltd.
“We prefer to use kerosene lamp than suffer like this. Please find a way to destroy the Ithai dam, Loktak Lairembi is angry”.
If dams are ‘temples’, some were definitely laid at the altar as sacrificial lambs. When the impacts of the project started becoming visible, there were reports of the government handing out rice to some of those who are affected by the dam in order to appease the locals. The residents did accept the rice because they are powerless. As the wetland gradually deteriorated the effect became alarming, even to many who supported the dam.Various organizations and groups were formed to look into the problem. In July 1985 elected MLAs of the fifteen affected constituencies in the 3 districts of Imphal, Bishnupur, and Thoubal formed the Loktak Flood Control Demand Committee (LFCDC) to protest against the inundation of the cultivable land. As a response to this development, the Government of Manipur constituted the ‘Loktak Development Authority (LDA)1 in 1986 (Singh, N. L., 1993). Efforts of de-silting and de-weeding by LDA did not satisfy the affected people. On 5th December 1990, representatives of some of the voluntary organizations from the three districts submitted a memorandum to the then Governor of Manipur to look into the problems created by the inundation of paddy fields and to take corrective measures (ibid.). Response from the social scientists and activists and the local people was the formation of Action Committee- Loktak Project Affected Areas, Manipur in 1991. The fishing community of Thanga village also formed an association called the Loktak Khangpok Fisherman Association in 1992 to protect the social, economic, and cultural life of the inhabitants at Thanga Island (ibid.). In the same year, in view of the increasing deterioration of the socio-economic problems of the affected people, various organizations and academicians of the state constituted the All Manipur Ithai Barrage Peoples Organization (AMIBPO).The main aim stated was ‘mobilizing the people to pressurize the government to formulating a means to mitigate the hardships of the affected people’. Recent developments include demand for compensation for inundated patta land by the peoples’ organizations.
In many parts of India, particularly in the Northeast, access to and control and management of land, land based resources, and water bodies were linked with the communities that lived on it. With the coming of the State, such rights became the property of the State. More often than not, such rights are not recognized or are suppressed by the state. There is even a general feeling among State functionaries that de facto communal resource holding systems have stagnated development activities in these areas (Roy Burman, B. K. 1999). The new ownership has led to a ‘take-over’ of the more productive resources by powerful individuals and groups and opened access to resources that were previously managed by communities (Swallow and Bromley, 1995; Moorehead, 1998). A closer look at the land acquisition at the local level reveals the State’s role in dismantling the common property resource use system and its effect on the people and the eco-system managed by these communities.
The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act was enacted in 1960 to establish the State’s right over the entire landed area in Manipur. The Act declares that “All lands, public roads, lanes and paths and bridges, ditches, dikes and fences on or the same, the beds of rivers, streams, nallahs, lakes and tanks and all canals and water courses, and all standing and flowing water and all rights in or over the same or appertaining thereto which are not the property of any person and are hereby declared to be the property of the Government”
In Manipur, waterways and water-bodies have traditionally been held as community property. This clause has been specifically inserted to invalidate community rights that have been customarily held by specific clans/villages. Women have traditional inheritable fishing rights in the community. With the State de-recognizing these rights and enforcing individual ownership system, the traditional indigenous systems seem to be in disarray.
The Wetland and the People
The Imphal valley, originally a wetland fed by the numerous rivers from the encircling hills is drained by a single river, the Imphal river2 . Over a period of time, according to the oral histories of the Meitei, the valley partially dried itself out and was settled in permanently by some of the peoples of the surrounding hills, who later evolved into the Meitei people. The settlers then proceeded to harness the waters of the valley, channelling the major rivers into more permanent courses by the construction of massive earthwork dikes. Some lands were reclaimed as permanent dry land for agriculture and habitation, some were left open to seasonal flooding so as to facilitate wet rice agriculture, and some areas were retained as pat3 or reservoirs of water or wetland, with the capacity to absorb the annual monsoon floods and conserve the source of water through the dry months. The greatest such reservoir is the Loktak-pat to the South of the valley, from where the Imphal river drains the entire valley. Regretfully, this is now almost the only such reservoir left, the rest having fallen prey to reclamation of land for unplanned urban expansion in the last few decades, or fallen into neglect by the disintegration or deliberate disconnection of the feeder channels that replenished them.
Moirang principality, now Moirang Sub-division of Bishnupur District, in southwest Manipur near the Loktak Pat was the homeland of the Moirang clan. As some historians suggest, the people who came from the east and west settled here primarily for ecological reasons. There were abundant resources for Moirang to build and sustain an independent principality for several centuries (Kabui, 1991). The surrounding hills in the west and the south with its vast forest resources gave protection, and the Loktak offered its varied flora and fauna, especially fish, easy means of water transport and rich agricultural lands. The Moirang Ningthourol Lambuba, the chronicle of Moirang, records the digging of Nongangkhong canal to connect the Loktak with Khordak River; this was to drain away the excess water from the Loktak (Kabui, 91.p.184). The word Loktak is suspected to have been derived from loklou, the Moirang word for water. (Singh, W.I.1986. p.202).
The Loktak Wetland System
Loktak is situated 38 km. south of Imphal and between longitude 93.46 degree, 93.55 degree east, and latitude 24.25 degree to 24.442 degree north. Isotopic data indicates that this wetland may date from the middle of the last glacial period, about 25,000 thousand years ago (NEC, 88.p. 4.01). The accepted version is that once the entire Manipur valley, which is some 2,000 sq. km. (9% of the area of the total area of the state) was one vast wetland. With natural eutrophication, human settlement and agriculture what remained was patches of water bodies, with Loktak being the largest. It is reported that the present Loktak has shrunk from 495 sq. km. in 1971 to just 289 sq.km. in 1990. As part of this system, there are other marshy and water bodies on the other side of the Manipur river, the major ones being Ikop Pat (2,600 ha.), Lousi Pat (450 ha.) Waithou Pat (275 ha.) and Phumlen Pat (3500 ha.). The predam Natural water rhythm of the Loktak ecosystem spreads over an area of 82.9 sq. km. during lean season and expands to 275.52 Sq. Km during the rainy season (Sarat, L., 1999). Existing at 768.5 m above sea level, the area comes under the sub-tropical monsoons, and the annual rainfall varies from 982.21 mm to 1980.8 mm. The rainy season is mostly from April to September, with the maximum rainfall recorded in the month of July. The mean daily minimum and the maximum temperature recorded were 1 degree centigrade and 29 degree centigrade respectively (Singh, R.N. et al 99). The Loktak pat acts as the only natural reservoir of water from the different rivers and streams of the valley, and the hills of Manipur. Some of the main rivers that flow into the pat are the Nambul River, Yangoi River, Tagjoi Macha, Thongjarok, Ningthoukhong, and Khuga River. Loktak is the largest freshwater inland natural reservoir in the eastern region of the country and has been identified as a major wetland of India by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). An important feature of this wetland is the aquatic vegetation; 86 species recorded (Sharma, B M., p.14, 1999) that cover a large portion. Bhatia et al. (1979) listed 172 macro species: 14 floating, 15 submerged, and 5 rooted-floating.
The areas around this wetland include Moirang, Lammangdong (Bisnupur), and Mayang Imphal, and the islets of Thanga, Karang, Sendra and Ithing. These areas include 65 villages and an almost contiguous stretch of Phumdi land of about 40 Sq. Km. forming the present Keibul Lamjao National Park. The park is the only natural floating National Park in the world, and also the only habitation of the endangered deer known locally as Sangai (Cervus eldi eldi). Though the government has de-reserved some areas of the pat for distributing it to the local people who are not traditional holders, much of it continues to be held, in practice, under the traditional system. Understanding the pat and the effect of the Ithai barrage on the pat and the people requires an understanding of the larger ecosystem that surrounds it. Other than the various streams, the other pats situated nearby are particularly filled by monsoon water from the Manipur River, which is connected by the Khordak channel making Loktak a natural reservoir. The importance of the pat to the people of Manipur is such that without this wetland the densely populated valley will be under water during monsoon and will face drought during dry period (De Roy, R. 1992)4. The Manipur River further downstream is blocked by Sugnu Hump, an 8 m. high rocky barrier at Sugnu, which reflects the water back to Loktak again. During lean season Khordak channel also acts as an outlet from Loktak, maintaining a delicate balance of water. This is the time when one can identify the various pats that otherwise make the vast water of the Loktak.
It is clearly visible here that the state has totally disregarded the existence of wetlands systems, and instead calls them ditches or Nallahs which removes them of them of their importance.
Is also known as the Manipur Rive
The word pat is a Meitei word for natural water bodies, differentiated from pukhri which are stagnant and artificial water reservoirs. Pat can vary in sizes and shape or depth
Annual flooding in the valley has increased in severity, inundating lands. In 1997, the floods affected over 50,000 hectares of paddy land and thousands were made homeless.
The Barrage and the Pat
The Ithai Barrage was constructed in 1979 at the downstream of the Manipur River as a part of the Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project, to maintain sufficient water volume in an artificial reservoir. This river is connected to Loktak by Khordak River and is the only inlet/outlet for the Loktak. The water stored is transferred through a mountain range, west of Manipur valley to the narrow Leimatak River, which is at an elevation of 312 meters lower than Loktak (NHPC, 1994). “The main aim of the project was to regulate the water of Loktak where the rocky hump rises in the river bed near Ithai village” (ibid.). The report for the construction of the project was prepared in 1967 and the actual construction work commenced in 1971 under the control of Ministry of Irrigation, as a central sector project. The project was handed over to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation on 1st January 1977. The construction was taken up under the Ministry of Irrigation and Power in 1971. It was executed by the National Hydro Power Corporation and commissioned in 1983 at an estimated cost of Rs. 115 crore, with a capacity of 105 MW of power by 3 units (each producing 35 MW) and to provide lift irrigation facilities for 24,000 hectares of land. (Singh, T.H., 1993) This dam has ‘permanently’ raised the water level of this wetland to 769.12 meters (measured at park area), and has blocked the natural flow of water to and/or from the wetland, and has altered the hydrologic cycle of this delicately balanced system. Before the construction of the Ithai barrage, the natural dredging process continuously cleared the silt that is brought down by the various streams and rivers from the valley and the hills. The roots of phumdi and other aquatic vegetation during lean season, i.e., when the water level reduces, touches the bottom for nutrients. During monsoon water level rises and with this the vegetation rises up bringing up the silt with them. Much of this silt gets washed by the current of the rivers, which flows out through the Manipur River. Along with these waters, some of the vegetation or the phumdi flows out through the river itself, serving as a natural control device to get rid of extra vegetation. This is the natural decay and regeneration, the life and death, of the Loktak. In the post-barrage scenario the water level is maintained, or at least sought to, at a particular level all throughout the year resulting in silting up of the wetland at an unprecedented rate. Other changes include gradual thinning of the floating phumdi (vegetation), endangering original aquatic vegetation, extinction of fish species, and destruction of fish migration and the increased spread of phumdi now covering almost half of the total area of the present water body. Remote Sensing studies conducted jointly by the Manipur Remote Sensing Application Center and the Space Application Center, Ahmedabad (1999) shows that the area under phumdi has increased from 10499 ha. In 1990 to 13506 ha. in 1994. Presently deposition of approximately 336,325 tons of silt annually is reported and as in other reservoirs this is ‘more than the siltation rate expected when the project was conceived’ (NEC, 88). According to the Loktak Lift Irrigation Project (Revised) Vol.1, May 1980, it will take about 160 years to reach the dead storage level. But considering the high rate of siltation, the life expectancy of the reservoir is feared to be much lower. The other problem associated with siltation, weed infestation and proliferation of the phumdi is the gradual reduction of the water holding capacity, which results in reduction of power generating capacity of the project.
The water pollution is due to the ‘inflow of organo-chlorine pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in agricultural practices around the wetland. Further, municipal waste brought by Nambul River, soil nutrients from the denuded catchment areas and domestic sewage from the city settlements contributes to the slow death of this wetland. But recent study under the aegis of Government of Manipur indicates that the water is found to be chemically ‘unpolluted’. It is instead microbial pollution that has exceeded in Keibul Lamjao area, beyond the permissible limits of drinking water. This finding indicates major health implications for the people who directly depend on the on the water for their daily need of water. On the degree of inundation it is reported that some 20,000 to 83,000 hectares of cultivable lands got submerged after the construction of Ithai Barrage. The Government’s estimate of 20,000 hectares is considered an under statement, on the other hand the estimate done by S. Ibomcha of an area of 83,000 hectares seems to be slightly exaggerated. (Singh, N. L., 1993) However proper survey and estimation has not been conducted on the total inundated area, either by the Government or by others. One reason for the discrepancy in figures could be because the Loktak does not have a definite shoreline and its extent is primarily determined by rainfall pattern (N. Randhir Singh et. al. 1999). Nevertheless, it will be possible to come to a reliable estimate through an understanding of the dynamics, land use system and the cropping pattern of the population that surrounds the wetland. De Roy (1992) estimates that 30 % of them along the wetland got submerged and some 12,000 local people are now no longer able to use shallow fishing techniques”.
The Loktak Khangpok People
Human habitation on the floating phumdi is claimed to have started many centuries back. The Gazetteer of Manipur of 1886 records that this wetlands is dotted with floating islands used by the inhabitants for fishing. In 1986 Singh, K.H. observed 207 Khangpok, and in 1993 the number of Khangpok increased to 688 (DRDA, 1993). Present estimate by the Loktak Development Authority (1999) is around 800 Khangpok. It should be noted here that this phenomenal increase occurred during the post-dam scenario. Among the Khangpok people, ownership of fishing grounds is based on the inheritance from their ancestors. Such grounds are collectively held and sale of these grounds is prohibited (Singh Ch. B, 1978). It is believed that disposing off the fishing grounds will invite the wrath of their ancestors. A non-member fisherman can legally fish on such areas, only by getting the permission of the elders of the descent group. But not all parts of the wetland are under the control of such patrilineal groups.
Loktak was the source for the indigenous species of fish for the valley population of Manipur. In 1992 it was estimated that almost 60% of the fish catch of Manipur came from Loktak alone1, and more than 75% of the state’s population consume fish, which is the main source of protein in Manipur. But of course the scenario has changed, as the ‘indigenous’ varieties are nonexistent in the post dam scenario. (Singh, K.S. 97; LDA, 99; De Roy, R. 1992). In turn the Government of Manipur has introduced exotic species. With the loss of the indigenous varieties of fish specie2s one also finds the degradation of the original varieties of aquatic vegetation, which in turn is substituted by alien varieties, much to the concern of the people who depend on these for their livelihood.
The conversion of the Loktak into an artificial reservoir resulted in a series of ecological changes and in the process marginalising the subsistence users of the pat. With the water level kept at a constant level and with the proliferation of the aquatic vegetation the traditional tools and method of fishing have changed. For example, the fishing nets were small and made of simple cotton threads but they now they are larger and made of nylon. The pressure to use bigger nets may have arisen due to increase in population of the fishing families and increased demand for fish. Over this, the need to use ‘better’ methods and tools is claimed by the fisherman, as the quantum of fish catch in the post-dam period has reduced tremendously. In order to sustain their livelihood they have to exploit more than they used to. To add to this, many of the displaced families from the inundated agricultural lands had to take up fishing, many of them by permanently living on floating huts now. Recent survey shows a two-fold increase of Loktak-Khangpok, which is indicative of such a shift in profession. The pressure felt by the Khangpok people due to the environmental groups can be observed from the protests by local population against demarcating a large portion of the wetland as Keibul Lamjao National Park. An undated and unsigned leaflet supposedly released by the Government of Manipur (A Note on Vandalism in Keibul Lamjao National Park) reports that about 600 villagers from Thanga Island attacked the patrolling officers and burnt down the Khangadong-Khuningthek wildlife check post when being treated as encroachers. What was not acknowledged by the state is that reeds with other vegetation found inside the demarcated zone are used for various purposes, and keeping out the traditional users resulted into conflict with the government. The resultant conflict between the communities living on and around the pat with those interested in ‘conserving’ the wetland is yet to be manifested at a larger level. Living perpetually or at least most of the year on water evolves a waste disposal system very different from what is practised on land. There is no space provided for toilet or for bath, and other waste from the kitchen. The wetland acts both as a vast space for waste that comes from different sources and as well as the source of drinking water. Before the construction of the dam the natural movement of water took care of water quality. Even the waste brought down by rivers from the city was largely taken care by the same process. But with the dam, stagnant water, which accumulates the waste, both from the Loktak based people and of the city dwellers, become hazardous for consumption. Because of dwindling natural resources, various changes are taking place in the political economy of Loktak-Khangpok people. The phenomenal increase of Khangpok population between 1986 and 1999 occurred together with the sharp increase in the number of fish farms3 in the district of Bishnupur. There are no reliable available data on the number of families whose land have been inundated, yet an approximate figure can be arrived at by observing the increase in number of Khangpok population and the people now engaging in fish farms in the inundated areas. Many of the new fishers and Khangpok dwellers at Loktak are those displaced by the project. This increasing population of Loktak-Khangpok families may create further demand on the already depleted resources (as a result of the barrage).
It is also known both from experiences of fishers and also from previous research, that fish population on the wetland has decreased tremendously, and also that traditional aquatic vegetation which was once main source of food and income has largely vanished from the wetland. The result is that fishers have to market all the fish they catch in order to buy essential household items, leaving little or nothing for household consumption. The gravity of the problem is such that children in these communities are found to be suffering from protein malnutrition. According to a research done by Yaima (1989) it was found that children below the age of 12 years were suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition. The wetland is not ‘free access’ for everyone but are ‘commons’ and is governed by community laws and ethics. However, there are signs of degeneration of the commons, which are partly a result of government laws on common property and partly as a result of the project.
There are various symptoms visible in the present practices of the local people that can be interpreted as erosion of traditional water use system. One prominent shift is the individual effort to catch and market fish as much as possible. Traditionally, it was an accepted norm that fishers do not catch fingerlings, but now nobody cares about other people or about the pat. Anything and everything that can be consumed or taken to the market is extracted using any means. In any commons, when community laws break down, resource use can become unsustainable and destructive. It is not intended here to paint a picture of total breakdown of community life among the fisherpeople. There are still unwritten and commonly accepted laws in managing the wetland. Helping each other, which is a must in such a terrain, for laying large nets or for repair of the Khangpok is still seen everywhere on the wetland. The formation of a fishermen association at Karang can be interpreted as a response to this degeneration, and also an effort to defend themselves from further onslaught by the government or other vested interests.
Floating vegetation on the wetland is of immense importance to Loktak people. Not only that many build their huts on the phumdi, but also some of the vegetation are main food items. The vegetation is also breeding ground for fish. The eutrophication of the pat has increased to the extent of covering half of the surface area of the wetland. And this increase of aquatic vegetation has created tremendous problem for both the wetland and the people. It is not that there was no problem of phumdi before the barrage, but the accumulation of phumdi during the monsoon season used to get carried down when the water from Loktak drained out through the Khordak Channel. Residents of floating huts report blocking of the navigation path by the vegetation, sometimes getting stranded for hours at one area unable to reach their destinations. More areas covered by phumdi means less breathing water area for fish, depletion of dissolved oxygen, suppression of phytoplankton and the release of methane1 consequent to the anaerobic decay of weeds resulting into slower growth and decreased fish directly affect the fisher people.
It is difficult to establish an income differential by taking into account the inflation over time i.e., of pre 1979 and the present, as these are reports of perceived income in the past by individuals/families. Nevertheless, the average of all the incomes of pre 1979 compared to the average of the present income reveals that the earning capacity of the Loktak people has reduced to a considerable extent. The average earning per day of a family before the construction of the dam is estimated to be Rs. 903 while the present average income of the families comes out to Rs. 355 a day. These incomes do not represent the earning of these families for all the days of the year but of the lean season only, which is during the month of December to March/April. The rest of the months, and particularly during the monsoon, the catch is relatively reduced compared to the lean season. The income during these seasons is difficult to estimate, as the respondents did not specify the catch. Another aspect of this pre 1979 income is that it comprises not only the income from selling fish but also from edible aquatic vegetation. In the post-dam scenario, income from the second is absent as the vegetation has been taken over by alien vegetation.
The knowledge of the Loktak-Khangpok people about the wetland is vast. They have an intricate knowledge of the life cycle of fish, how different species from the river migrate to the wetland, what kind of food they consume, and in what season they grow up to the right sizes for catch. The dwellers can predict the wind direction, which helps in their navigation. They have also identified each of the vegetation Loktak supports, and the names of birds that feed on the water. Any changes or any new external introduction, whether vegetation or waterfowl is easily identified. After the barrage was constructed the face of the wetland has transformed so much that many of the fishers reckon it as an alien and not the one they once knew. There are no available pre-barrage data on the quality of water making it difficult to arrive at a definite conclusion on the deterioration of water quality and the diseases associated with it. However, frequent complaints of getting sick after drinking water or skin rashes by lake dwellers confirm pollution2. Residents fear that their only source of water is getting too contaminated. Available data on the incidence rate of the major diseases (Enteric fever, Gastroenteritis etc.) in the district of Bishnupur points to this too. For a community where life is centred on water, the degeneration of quality and quantity of water could mean an end point.
With the reduction of fish population in Loktak, it is known from the residents that they have to spend more time and resources to eke out their living. As a consequence of this, they have less and less time to attend to health needs. The major health complaints of women are muscle pull on their thighs and back pain. Women use a kind of fishing net in which the thigh muscle acts as fulcrum. As result of reduction of fish, the frequency of using the net has increased to a considerable amount. So they have recurrent muscle pulls and lower back pain. For men, the problem is restricted to back pain due to more time spent on fishing. Parents also have little time to attend to their children and to other aspects of community life.
The thinning nature of the phum results in people drowning when they step on it. This happens particularly to children. Residents complain that as a result of destruction of natural cycle of the lake, the thickness of the phum vegetation recedes at a fast pace, making it difficult for residents to repair it. Malnutrition, overexertion, deterioration of water quality, water-borne diseases, unavailability of medicine, bad government health services and most importantly the acute reduction of earning capacity are the immediate cause of health problems among the residents. Other than these there are other indicators of psychological stress associated with increased insecurity of future and present impoverishment. Increased alcoholism among residents and at the islands and high dropout rates from schools point to some of the psychosocial impact of the conditions created by the dam.
Women have suffered more because of changes in the pat. The woman’s role of taking care of the household, fishing and marketing of fish has heightened as a result of the decreasing resource base. Another implication for women relates to their productive capacity. The traditional fishing equipment used by women has not seen much change despite the fact that the gears used by men has changed in order to adjust to the new environment. With their ‘unsuited’ and nonadaptive’ technology they invest more time and energy, while taking care of the household at the same time.