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Scions of a changing lake

By Thingnam Anjulika Samom

The people of Loktak Lake in Manipur are nostalgic about the days when the king would lease out areas of the lake to individuals and communities. It was a system that replenished the lake and resolved all conflict, they say. Today the Loktak Development Authority is struggling with the comprehensive management of the lake, balancing human needs with the multiple values of the lake

Read | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |

Eighty-six-year-old Heisnam Manik, seated on a reed mat in his front verandah, found it hard to believe that 15 years after he stopped fishing in Loktak Lake someone actually wanted to know about his fishing techniques and exploits.

The smell of smoked fish permeated the air in his courtyard located in Thanga Heisnam village in Bishnupur district on the southern banks of Loktak Lake, around 50 km from the state capital, Imphal.

In a corner of the ramshackle outhouse piled with trap cages locally known as lū, his daughter-in-law, 60-year-old Keinahal pokes at the fire and gently turns rows of ngapai fish on mesh wires above the fire. Her husband, 61-year-old Momon and eldest son Mangoljaoba squat nearby dexterously weaving bamboo slivers to form the cages that will trap the fish.
Thanga is one of three prominent hills in the southern part of Loktak Lake, with a population of around 13,085 according to the 2001 census. Around 95% of the population are fisherfolk.

Manik launched into his tales: “In my time, the fishing traps would be full every day. Once I could not lift one of my traps and had to seek help. When I counted my catch there were 218 nga samjet in just that one trap! If you think I am lying, I’m willing to swear by Goddess Loktak Ereima. Such was the catch then; now it is not so anymore.”

Momon and Mangoljaoba agree that the fish harvest from this largest freshwater lake in Manipur, indeed the whole of northeast India, is dwindling rapidly. Both catch around Rs 300-500 worth of fish a day, working on the five phumdao they have between them. “Last year, I earned Rs 15,000 in a day. But this is very rare,” Momon explains.

It’s not just the quantity of fish in Loktak that has declined, but also the system and techniques of fishing. “Thingom pat, Thingei pat, Loktak pat… we’d go to these lakes and fish as we wished. We just had to give around Rs 20-50 as tax to the pat chaba,” Manik recalls.

The pat chaba was both a post and system under which the king would demarcate certain areas of the many lakes in the state and auction them off on lease for a year. The person who won the bid became the pat chaba for the said time period and lake area. In turn, he would let the local fisherfolk fish in the area for a daily rental.

Sixty-three-year-old Heisnam Sajou, another Thanga resident, recalls the practice. “There was one person from Thanga Salam village whom we addressed as Pebet Ningthou. He was the pat chaba of this area during 1967-1976. After that the system collapsed.”

“The pat chaba would, in turn, pay around Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 as tax to the government annually. The amount varied. Laishram Amuyaima was the pat chaba for Thingom pat area. He paid Rs 1,500 every three years as revenue to the government. In turn, he took Rs 5 from us,” he says. Sajou was still in his early teens then, running errands for his father, a close friend of Amuyaima.

The pat chaba system had the added benefit of preventing and resolving conflict. “You could leave your tools behind without fearing that they would be stolen. If someone encroached on your fishing area, he would be there to mediate so that no conflict arose,” he adds.

According to environmentalist Dr Kh Shamungou, the practice of leasing out common property existed not only in the lake but also in the hills. After the monarchy ended, the lake area began to be used by individuals or cooperative societies as farmland or for pisciculture.

Ngangom Sanajaoba Meitei, project coordinator of the government implementing agency Loktak Development Authority (LDA), explains that the pat chaba system was a phenomenon practised during the lean or dry season when water in the lake was confined to pockets.

The 300 sq km Loktak Lake, spread over the three valley districts of Imphal West, Bishnupur and Thoubal, comprises around 20 smaller lakes including Loktak, Takmu, Ungamen, Laphupat, Thammumacha, Khulak, Yena, Sana pat, Utra pat and Tharopokpi. Earlier, these smaller lakes used to be seen individually when water levels ran low in the dry season. During the monsoons, however, the waterbodies joined together to form a single contiguous spread of water.

In the past, migratory fish from Chindwin river used to breed in the wetlands supporting a large population of fishermen living in and around them. As the monsoon receded, local people would reclaim the shrinking wetlands for seasonal agriculture. Fluctuations in the water regime also allowed the phumdis to regenerate whilst maintaining the quality of water in the lake.

However, with the commissioning of the Loktak Hydropower Project on the Manipur river, in 1983, and the 10.7 m high and 58.8 m long Ithai barrage at the confluence of the Manipur river, the Khuga river and the Ungamen, there has been a drastic change in the hydrological system of Loktak, the most important being that Loktak has now been transformed into a reservoir, its water levels at a constant high.

The fishing tradition and management of lake resources, which were once wholly dependent and synchronised with the natural seasonal cycles, have changed drastically over the last few decades.  

“Loktak goddess always replenished the fish population. No matter how much (fish) we caught, they would never vanish. Now the catch is decreasing,” says Manik.

An altered water regime, increasing competition among fishermen, indiscriminate fishing, and the use of sophisticated tools are believed to be factors behind the change.

“My father was there, then me, now my son also fishes in Loktak. So the (numbers of) fishermen are increasing but the fish are decreasing. We are just taking out; no one is putting in. Earlier, we had just the cotton nets, dip nets and trap cages to fish. Now even the nylon nets come in so many varieties of length, breadth and interlock sizes that it is possible to catch anything from minnows to big fish in all seasons,” Momon says. Momom has around three phumdaos of between 1 and 3 acres in size.

The Ithai barrage has also blocked the migratory pathways of a number of fish species such as khabak, pengba, ngaton, ngasep, ngaten and sareng, leading to a decline in their population and ultimate disappearance from the state.

“Ours is a riverine system. Replenishing fish in Loktak and restocking is very much supported by and dependent on the river. The ecosystem was able to sustain them at that time,” says LDA Project Director Thokchom Ibobi.

Set up by the government of Manipur in 1986 for overall improvement and management of Loktak Lake, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) aims to check the deteriorating condition of the lake and bring about improvements in the lake ecosystem. It also looks after development of Loktak and its surrounds, in the areas of fisheries, agriculture, tourism and afforestation of catchment areas, in collaboration with various departments.

Before the Loktak Hydropower Project and the Ithai barrage were commissioned, the phumdis in the lake were managed by the community. Every year, a common schedule was worked out wherein all communities were involved in deepening channels and cutting and sending phumdis down through the Khordak channel. In the lean season, when the phumdis were dry, they were burnt.  In the post-Ithai barrage scenario, the natural process of cutting and sending phumdis down the channel stopped, leading to a proliferation of phumdi and rapid eutrophication of the lake.  

Increasing monetary returns from athaphum fishing brought more people into the occupation, leading to competition amongst the fishermen, exploitation of fishery resources and a decrease in fish catch. An informal jurisdiction over the lake area has also emerged as individuals exercise rights over areas that are used to lay enclosures; others are allowed only after mutual consent.

Phumdi management has therefore been an important part of the LDA’s activities. It recently commissioned New Delhi-based K Pro Infra Works Private Ltd to clean up around 132.94 lakh cubic metres of phumdis from the lake, in a joint venture with Progressive Construction Ltd (PCL) based in Hyderabad. The Rs 224 crore contract, scheduled to be completed in two years and three months, is progressing after being inaugurated by Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi on January 6, 2010. The State Planning Commission has also sanctioned Rs 400 crore for the purpose of clearing phumdis from Loktak Lake.

With the passing of the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act 2006, the LDA became a body constituted under the Act, empowered by it as the “authority”. The new legislation aims “to provide for administration, control, protection, improvement, conservation and development of the natural environment of Loktak Lake and for matters connected with as incidental thereto”.

Over time, there has been a shift in the LDA’s activities. In the early years, it identified problems in the lake area and carried out engineering projects like dredging heavily silted areas. Now, it attempts to address the causes of the problems and develop strategies for sustainable management of the lake through the Sustainable Development and Water Resources Management of Loktak Lake (SDWRML) Project, jointly initiated with Wetlands International South Asia (WISA) in 1997.

The LDA has transformed from being an organisation largely engaged in sediment and phumdi management to one that undertakes comprehensive lake management from an ecological and socio-economic perspective, focusing on treating the causes rather than the symptoms of lake degradation.

As early as 2008, the Authority stressed that conservation and management of Loktak mandates a strategic shift in water management, balancing human needs with the multiple values of the lake, and adopting a stakeholder-driven approach.

It also pointed out that water use within the Manipur river basin for ecological purposes (restoration of Keibul Lamjao National Park, improving water quality, restoration of natural fish recruitment, etc) needs to be harmonised with human demands for hydropower, agriculture and domestic use.

It proposed that a rationalised water use plan should form the basis of the Ithai barrage and other upstream and downstream hydraulic structures to enable allocation of water for multiple purposes and yet maintain the multi-functionality of the wetlands.

This win-win situation that the LDA envisages would involve not just the sincerity of stakeholders but also strong political will to effect changes and adjustments. Only then will five-year-old Heisnam Rojit of Thanga village be able to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather Manik and know the true worth and love of the Loktak goddess.

(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 last article in her series) 

Infochange News & Features, October 2010