By – N. Lokendra Singh
Water management has been a subject of much concern and attention for contemporary Manipur Society. Loktak and other lakes in Manipur have been serving historically as the reservoir of heavy monsoon rain and the Imphal River which is known by different name, a different stage of its entire course serves as the only channel which drains the excess water from Manipur valley. Thus, it is through a complex mechanism of the balance of natural forces and delicate and efficient handling of the river and canal system that a unique socio economic system emerged in the valley as well as the hill areas of Manipur. Any disturbance in the given balance and any careless manipulation in the delicate system without proper precautions would naturally create a lot of distortions in the process. The Loktak Hydro-electric Project and its integral part, Ithai Barrage reflects a case of uncritical and over simplified attempt to harness the large mass of water resources in Manipur.
The Ithai Barrage constructed with the purpose of regulating the required volume of water at Loktak Lake for the working of Loktak Hydro Electric Project had created tremendous socio-economic problems for a large number of Manipuri peasants in as many as 15 Assembly Constituencies in Thoubal, Bishenpur and part of Imphal district. Out of about 100 villages listed by S. Ibomcha (S. Ibomcha: Ithai Damgi Ithil Imphal, 1992), some of the villages which have been seriously affected are in the constituencies of Mayang Imphal, Hiyanglam, Wangjing Tentha and Sugunu. Due to the possible at this stage of the study to quantify the exact nature and amount of damages done by the after effects of Ithai Barrage, although available literature and information on Loktak Hydro Electric Project and Ithai Barrage, throw sufficient light on the disastrous socio-economic problems created by the Barrage.
As is a generally known, Ithai Barrage is closed during 8 months of the year, from October to February when the water resources are limited and open only in the four rainy month i.e. June, July, August and September to release the excess rain water. Contrary to the ideas of the planners and architects of Loktak Project many unnoticed and unexpected problems have emerged creating havoc for many of the Manipuri peasants who have been used to a pre-modern Agro-fishing based economic way of life. More than 90 % of the people in the villages earn their livelihood by growing paddy and vegetable, fishing in the rivers, ponds, lakes and other shallow water and also collection of edible aquatic plants grown in the lakes. The Manipuri peasants also used extensively ‘Singmuts’, ‘Singnages’, ‘Charots’, thatch etc. for construction of houses. All these sources of livelihood are, however, gradually destroyed by the constant inundation of paddy fields and increase of the water level in the Lakes. Heavy siltation is being carried on in Loktak Lake in the last 8/9 years because of denudation in the catchment areas of the lake. Distortions in the natural courses of water currents have also filled up the bottom of the lake, resulting to an automatic extension of the deluged area. The question of how such excessive siltation could be prevented is for the specialist of lake management science and policy planners to examine. To a student of social science, however, what basically concerns him is the ever increasing threat of the extension of flooded area around the lake, submerging more and more areas of agricultural land and thereby disturbing its traditional ecological and socio-economic system. What were originally thought and cherished as the harbinger of a new life of people for many of the Manipuri peasants in terms of supply of electricity and sufficient water supply and also possible reclamation of 25,000 hectares of cultivable land have turned out to be an absolute fiasco.
The most acute problem is the severe inundation of a large amount of cultivable land, the estimate ranging from 20 thousand hectares to 83 thousand hectares. The former estimate made by the Government is certainly an understatement whereas the estimate of 83 thousand hectares made by S. Ibomcha seems to be a slightly exaggerated one. The sustenance of a large number of peasant family in the villages particularly many of the farmer peasant proprietors and tenants who depended on land are uprooted from their traditional sources of livelyhood. The shrinking of total cultivable land in these regions further compounded of total cultivable land in these regions further compounded their problem. Even if many of such peasant wanted to their problem. Even if many of such peasants wanted to become tenant of some landlord, they could not do so, because of the unavailability of land. As a result, many of the farmers were depeasentised and wage basis like landless labourers. During the off season many of such farmers would come to urban areas and work as manual worker, on daily wage basis. The majority of the Rickshaw pullers registered in Imphal Municipality Office represents a section of the depeasantised farmers. Female workers of many such villages have come out as vegetable vendors in Imphal market. Child labour particularly young boys and girls working in well-to-do houses as helpers has become a visible trend. Because of worsening economic condition, children education has been considerably ignored and the general socio-economic and cultural life has been to a great extent adversely affected. Thus, a rapid process of social differentiation is being taken place in many villages in Manipur, Social differentiation in terms of modern agricultural development is understandable but rural proletarianisation because of a faulty project is uncalled far.
A notable economic change that is being taking place in water affected villages is the beginning of a number of fisheries. A lot of investment is being made for commercial fishing, but much are still to be achieved because production has not even succeeded in meeting the local demands. A negative effect of Ithai Barrage in this regard however is the gradual disappearance of a large number of nutritious local fishes and these should be of immense concern to the Zoologist and Ecologist. A large number of important flora and fauna have also disappeared and even the Keibul Lamjao national park is being threatened because of dramatic changes in the environment and ecology.
It has been in view of the worsening socio-economic life of the peasants that both the common people as well as the local leaders of the affected raised to the problem. The elected MLAs of 51 constituencies in the Imphal, Thoubal and Bishenpur districts formed a ‘Loktak flood Control Demand Committee’ in July 1985 to initiate ways and means of solving the inundation of cultivable land. In response to the popular demands as well as the initiative of the LFCDC, the Government of Manipur constituted ‘Loktak Development Authority (LDA) in 1986 with a fairly sizeable financial allocation to make ways and means of solving the problems of the water affected areas. Under the imitative of the LDA a number of measures have been taken up. An assessment of the siltation at Loktak and Pumlen lakes have been made by WAPCOS (Water and Power Consultant) and one dredging machine has been acquired. So far about 2.5 lakhs cubic metres have been dredged and a weed harvester to remove weed and reeds has so far removed about 1.8 million sq.m of phum from Loktak Lake.
Despite such measure taken up by the Govt. of Manipur as well as the LDA the gravity of the problem increased and on 5th December 1990 representatives of some of the voluntary association of Thoubal, Bishenpur and parts of Imphal district submitted a representation to the Governor of Manipur to take corrective measures of the continuing inundation of paddy fields. The increasing awareness of the eroding traditional ecology of Loktak lake, the indispensible between Loktak and the people of Manipur also made some of the social scientist and social activists to organize ‘Loktak Day’ for 3 days between 21-23 October, 1991. The programme constituted talks and cultural activities to popularise the necessity of preserving the Loktak Lake. Pressed by the ever persisting socio-economic problems of the peasants an organization called “Action Committee-Loktak Project effected areas, Manipur” was also formed to demand due compensation for the affected farmers. The fishing community of Thanga Village also formed an association called “The Loktak Khanpok Fishermen Association’ in 1992 to protect the social economic and cultural life of the inhabitants at Thanga.
Since the socio-economic problems of the affected people deteriorated, the youths and local clubs of the affected areas in 15 Assembly Constituencies in collaboration with some of the social activists of Manipur University held a joint meeting at the premises of the University at Canchipur in July 1992, and the meeting resolved to form an organisation called ‘ All Manipur Ithat Barrage People’s Organisation (AMIBPO) to mobilise public opinion on the problem and to formulate ways and means of combating the issue. In the last 7 months the members of the AMIBPO conducted intensive campaign by organising local meetings in the villages and also by interacting with a number of media men and social activists. Realising the strong momentum of the movement, the Government of Manipur discussed the issue on the floor of the assembly and constituted a committee to examine the various issues involved in the problem. However, much is still left to be achieved.