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Loktak Lake: A gem perishing in front of our eyes

By: M. Asnikumar Singh

Today the 5th of june marks the world environment day. The simple meaning of environment comes up as, “the surroundings or conditions in which a person,animal,or plant lives or operates.”
I grew up in humble and serene surroundings of a village called keibul lamjao with our state’s gem, the Loktak Lake in the background.
After two and a half decades of having lived in the hustle and bustle of Imphal city one can’t help but admire the ingenuity and charm of the lake, whenever the chance arrives. But this charm and ingenuity is on the brink of fading into oblivion due to some shortsighted decisions taken 47 years ago. Atoning for that is perhaps the biggest will we can leave behind for our children.
Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater lake of Manipur, is the lifebelt for the people of the state. But it has an emotional and spiritual connection with the fishermen community. This lake is their primary source of livelihood. But now it has become a fight for survival for the fishermen. Government policies announced to conserve the lake constitute huge threats to the fishermen as most of them lack alternative livelihood skills.
According to the jewel of India’s folklore, Loktak was formed when gods sought the support of the valley’s people. The lake has seen the very notion of Manipur take form. It was on its shores that the beloved Meitei folklore of princess Thoibi and Khamba and their timeless romance came to life. Poubi Lai, a mythical creature integral to the Meitei belief system, is believed to inhabit the heart of the lake.
Encompassing an area of about 26,000 hectares, the Loktak lake is our state’s largest fishery resource, accounting for more than 50% of the fish producing area. About 12% of the state’s population depend on its resources. No wonder, it is referred to as ‘Mother’ by our fishing community.
Something which we often ignore while discussing our state’s climate is that the lake serves as a generating base for bio energy of the region, particularly for our state. It synchronizes climatic conditions and stimulates different ethos, cultural fabrics in the area.
In a sense the Loktak lake itself is a generator of all kinds of cultural and ethnic endemicity for the people of Manipur, particularly the fishing community in and around the periphery of the lake. Of which it may be cited one of the best and remarkable points is the technique of ‘Phum Namba’ which is still in vogue for the livelihood of the region.
The term Phum Namba is known in the region since the time immemorial.
It may be described as follows:
The people of the region particularly fishing community and the community of the Thanga island and people of the peripheral area of the Loktak lake who practise this technique (basically the fishing community) cultivate water weed in the form of circular as well as semi-circular just at the water level of the lake.
This particular Phum Namba will be preserved for about a year. During this period the local indigenous fish species sanitate in and around the Phum.
The fishing community also feed a plethora of local nutrients to the area every day. These nutrients are mainly derived from rice husking powder and some other aquatic vegetables.
So, as in and around, the Phum will always concentrate inside the core of the planted Phum , all these Phums will be harvested during the lean season of the year, which commences from October and concludes in the month of March.
This type of harvesting is known as Phum Namba . It is also reported that there are more than 1000 floating Phum hut dwellers. Their basis cultivation is the cultivation of Phum and to above, i.e Phum Namba for their livelihood.
There are other techniques of fishing other than Phum Namba techniques are namely:
1. Trapping by net ( Lang Thakpa)
2. Bamboo Trap ( Lu Thumba)
3. Pulling of Fishing Net (In Chingba)
4. Ancling and Longthinba
However, the removal of a large number of fish culture ponds from the core area of the lake has led to massive economic deracination.
In the 70s, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Limited (NHPC) pitched an ambitious project to the then government of Manipur; a power station to harness the hydropower potential of the Loktak Lake. The 105 MW capacity power station would provide cheap electricity to Manipur and its neighbouring States. It would also provide lift irrigation for 23,000 hectares of land in the valley. The State government approved the project without making any effort to study its impact on the lake’s ecosystem and on livelihoods dependent on the lake.
In 1983, NHPC constructed a barrage at the conflux of the Manipur and Khuga rivers — two of the five major rivers that drain into Loktak Lake — near Ithai village. The Ithai Barrage was to act as a barrier and create an artificial reservoir with the water level maintained at 768.5 metres throughout the year, much higher than Loktak’s water level.
The barrage became operational that year. First, Loktak’s perimeter broke. Then thousands of hectares of agricultural land around the lake was flooded and thousands of people lost their lands and homes overnight. Farmers became fishermen. And the fishermen now became too many.
Loktak and the 20 other wetlands became one water body for good; seasonal changes in the water level stopped and the ecosystem started crumbling.
From time to time, the fishing community are rendered unable to practice their traditional technique. Before the implementation of the Loktak National Hydro Electric Project and the commissioning of Ithai Barrage there were two different seasons of fishing to all the surrounding fishing areas;
viz one on the arising of the Loktak level and another in the following of the Loktak water level and another in the following of the Loktak water level during the lean seasons.
Now, as a consequence of the loktak hydel project, the lake’s water level remains high throughout the year. Hence, the two seasons of fishing in the region has already been spoiled in an unreplaceable condition: over and above most of endemic plants of Loktak has also been endangered seriously.
In all honesty, the lake is slowly but surely dying in all forms.
There’s a saying, “We realise the value of certain things once we lose it”. Let us not be known as the generation that did nothing while perhaps our most precious resource perished slowly right in front of our eyes. This world environment day, let us all; the people of Sanaleibak, take a pledge to contribute in concrete, meaningful efforts to save this god given treasure, whose immense value we have often ignored.

(The writer is an Environmentalist, Secretary, Manipur Thinkers Forum and presently he is also the state Vice President of BJP Manipur state unit.)

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