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You are here: Home | Environment | Loktak: A dying lake | The trade-off between food security and 'development'

The trade-off between food security and 'development'

By Thingnam Anjulika Samom

Most of Manipur’s population, especially people in the valley area, depend on the lake’s fish and vegetation resources for their nutrition and food security. The Loktak hydropower project has given them a few hours of electricity every day, and better roads. What is that trade-off worth, asks the third in our series on this common property resource in Manipur

Read | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5 |

Kola and her grandson Nanao making way to their Loktak fishing area

“The power situation is better now, so are the roads. But today, in Toubul, there are only a few families who do not buy rice from the market.”

For dam-worshippers and anti-dam lobbyists alike, there’s food for thought in the words of 58-year-old Thoudam Gyaneshor of Toubul village in Manipur, in the northeastern periphery of the country, bordering Myanmar.

Toubul, with a population of around 4,044, according to the 2001 census, located in Bishnupur district, 34 km from the state capital Imphal, has been one of the worst casualties of the Loktak hydropower project and its constituent Ithai barrage. The project is under the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) Ltd.

The 105-megawatt-capacity project takes its water from the largest freshwater lake in northeast India, Loktak Lake, which comprises over 20 smaller lakes and has a fluctuating hydrological system. The project required that water levels be maintained at a constant level of 768.9 m throughout the year, to provide adequate water for the scheme. As a result, a huge agricultural and settlement area on the periphery of the lake has been adversely affected.

A case filed by the Loktak Lake Affected Areas Peoples’ Action Committee, in the Guwahati High Court, Imphal Bench, states that an estimated 80,000 hectares of arable land have been destroyed in the subsequent inundation, and frequent flash floods that occur through the year.

Gyaneshor lost 3 hectares of agricultural land to Loktak after the project was commissioned in 1983. It was the same for most families in Toubul. The loss is significant, since Toubul was once known for its production of taothabi, a variety of rice grown on wetlands.

“At one time (the people of) Toubul had no dearth of rice in their homes. But after the barrage came, almost every house is compelled to buy rice from the market for consumption,” says Gyaneshor.

Soraisam Kola points at where her fields used to be, now part of Loktak

Sixty-four-year-old Soraisam Kola used to feed her family of 20 rice grown on her 1.5 hectares of agricultural land. “The produce was so good that even after we ate and sold some there would be so much left over from each season that some of the rice would eventually get mouldy,” she recalls. Now, she buys rice at Rs 26 a kilo!

Oar on her shoulders as she prepares to go down to the lake for her afternoon fishing trip on Loktak, she says: “Loktak ate my fields, it ate my cows too now that the fields are no longer there… Loktak ate everything.”

Gyaneshor used to harvest 200 phoubot of rice annually from his fields (phoubot is a local measurement amounting to around 50 kg). He would sell around half the harvest, leaving the rest for his family to use. “I was not rich by rich men’s standards, but I was not poor either. I had rice and there was fish from the lake and vegetables from the kitchen garden. There wasn’t much I lacked,” he recalls.

After losing his agricultural lands, Gyaneshor was forced to convert part of his fields into a fish pond. But not without apprehension: water from the lake often spills into the ponds during the monsoons, carrying away most of the fish. If the floodwaters spare him, he earns around Rs 40,000-50,000 annually. “It is my land and I have to put it to some use, no matter how much I gain or lose,” he says.

Gyaneshor’s neighbour, 70-year-old Keisham Brajamani, continues to pay revenue tax for his 1.5-hectare field that now lies “about two men’s height” under water. “If we don’t pay, it will become khaasland/wasteland and be lost to us,” he says. Behind his statement is the hope that one day the water will dry up and he will be able to sow paddy again.

Brajamani, who used to harvest around 100 sacks of rice annually from his own fields, now farms 1 hectare of land on lease. He invests both manual labour and money and gets around 30-40 phoubot of rice; the owner gets around 20 phoubot after each harvest. 

Both sides of the 0.5 km stretch of road leading from Toubul market to the banks of Loktak Lake are testimony to how proponents of the Loktak hydropower project failed to take into account the project’s effect on the lake’s ecosystem and the people and wildlife whose lives are inextricably linked to the lake. What used to be paddy fields have been converted into strips of fish ponds framed by eucalyptus trees on one side and the huge sheet of vegetation-covered water that is the lake on the other.

Considered the lifeline of the people of Manipur, Loktak Lake plays an important role in the socio-economic and cultural life of the state. Around 12% of Manipur’s population are directly dependent on the lake for their livelihood. Much of the rest of the population, especially people living in the valley area, depend on the lake’s fish and vegetation resources for their nutrition and economic security.

Overall, 132 plant and 54 fish species have been identified in the lake. While fish forms a major part of the local cuisine and socio-religious practices of the people, especially the majority Meitei community, plant resources are used as food, fodder, fuel, thatching, fence material, medicines, raw material for handicrafts, and for religious and cultural purposes.

When the 105-megawatt Loktak hydropower project was first commissioned in 1983, it was in the hope that the project would rapidly usher in an era of industrial, commercial and agricultural prosperity in the otherwise backward state. But the question being asked today is whether the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

The Ithai barrage has stemmed the passage of migratory fish from the Chindwin-Irrawady river system, causing a decline in fish stocks in the lake. It has also blocked the natural flushing of loose phumdi, or floating vegetation, down the Manipur River to the sea, thereby accelerating eutrophication in the lake.

Thoudam Gyaneshor of Toubul village by his inundated field now converted into a fishpond

The changed hydrological regime and ecosystem has affected the endangered brow-antlered deer, known locally as sangai, found only in the Keibul Lamjao National Park. High water levels in the lake have more or less destroyed the vegetation that grows on the phumdi -- loklei and pullei -- and forms the deer’s diet.

What’s more, the project has never been able to provide regular power supply even to villages on the periphery of Loktak; there are daily outages of around 16-18 hours in most parts of the state.

Manipur gets a share of around 32.01% of the project’s power output; the rest is sold by NHPC to Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Tripura. The multipurpose Loktak power station also provides lift irrigation to over 23,000 hectares of land in the Manipur valley.

On top of that, there are the issues of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement of people affected by the Loktak hydropower project. State Forest and Environment Minister Th Devendra Singh clarified in the Manipur legislative assembly on July 15, 2010 that matters relating to the omission of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement at the time the MoU was signed between the state government and the NHPC were currently being monitored by the state government.

Delays in payment of compensation have added to the people’s frustration. Twenty-two cases are still pending in the Guwahati High Court, Imphal Bench, registered by various farmer societies and committees.

The Loktak Lake Affected Areas Peoples’ Action Committee, which has around 6,000 members, filed a case for crop compensation in the Guwahati High Court, Imphal Bench, in 1994; the petitioners are still awaiting payment even though the court ruled in their favour a few years ago!

Meanwhile, thousands more are bound to be affected by state policy, the most significant being the recently passed Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006. An important part of the Act is division of the 236.21 sq km Loktak Lake into two zones -- a core zone comprising 70.30 sq km, which is a ‘no development zone’, or ‘totally protected zone’, and a buffer zone of other areas of the lake excluding the core zone.

A vital aspect of this division is the ban on building huts or houses on phumdis inside the lake, planting athaphum, or engaging in athaphum-fishing in the core area. This clause will adversely affect over 10,000 people living in phumdi huts, as well as thousands of others dependent on the lake’s resources.

According to Ningthoujam Rakhon, general secretary of the All Loktak Lake Floating Hut-Dwellers Progressive Committee, phumdi huts are essential for migrant fishermen who stay in the huts during the fishing season. “There are high winds on Loktak, and squalls could develop suddenly. How can we fish in the Loktak waters without having a hut nearby to take refuge? It would be the same as asking us to throw ourselves into the lake to be killed,” he says.

Rakhon lives with his family in Champu Khangpok, a phumdi village on Loktak Lake populated by around 1,500 people. “My great great grandfather lived here, and those before him. We have no agricultural land or homestead on the mainland. Loktak is our lifeline,” he says. Interestingly, Champu Khangpok is on the state’s 2001 census list. Also, many residents of the floating huts are said to be on the electoral lists.

Another aspect of the Act is that athaphum is the only phumdi formation recognised for compensation by the local and state authorities. In a memorandum submitted to Chief Minister Okram Ibobi in January this year, the All Loktak United Phumdao Koitha Owners Welfare Association (ALUPKOWA) requested that phumdao -- a phumdi formation of between 3 acres and 20 acres in area -- be left alone during the LDA’s phumdi-removal programme on Loktak.

“There are around 250 households, amounting to more than 3,000 people, dependent on phumdao. They feed their children, educate them, and earn money for other expenses from the phumdao. If the government snatches away this lifeline, how will they live,” asks Heisnam Brojen, general secretary of ALUPKOWA.

He points out that since the phumdao are not anchored with stones, and stay afloat, they serve as cleaning agents, crushing loose phumdi formations known as phumjoi. “The government should leave these beneficial phum alone and concentrate on removing the phumjoi instead,” he says.

With Chief Minister Ibobi stressing, in his Khongjom Day celebration speech on April 23 this year, that there will be no let-up by the state government in removing phumdis from the lake and evicting hut-dwellers, the people of Loktak will surely witness a new cycle of dispossession, displacement and loss of livelihood.

(Thingnam Anjulika Samom is a Manipur-based journalist. She won the FES-Infochange Media Fellowship on Common Property Resources this year for her series on the impact of modernisation, development and state policy on the traditional use, control and management of Loktak Lake, the largest common property aquatic resource in Manipur. This is the third in her series) 

Infochange News & Features, September 2010

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