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'There's nothing you didn't get from Loktak'

By Thingnam Anjulika Samom

You would never come back from Loktak Lake empty-handed in times past, people say. Manipur’s freshwater lake provided fish, fuel, fodder, thatching material, medicinal plants and raw material for handicrafts. Today, both fish and vegetation have dwindled, and with it an important source of livelihood and security for thousands of local residents

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A local fishing for the elusive catch in Manipur's Loktak lake, where both fish and vegetation have dwindled

Common carp at Rs 160 a kilo, in Manipur’s local markets, is not too much to pay for your favourite sister-in-law’s lunch visit. Thirty-seven-year-old Tombi would have preferred the more expensive and tasty pengba or sareng khoibi, but given the unavailability of these indigenous fish varieties in the market, she had to settle for the common carp.

For 44-year-old Sorokhaibam Tampak, Tombi’s compromise means another kilo sold from the 30 kilos of fish that she has brought to sell this morning at Singjamei market, around 3 km from the capital Imphal.

Fish is an important part of the local cuisine in the northeastern state of Manipur, especially for the majority Meitei Hindu community inhabiting the valley. Annual demand for fish in the state is around 25,000 metric tonnes. Most of it comes from Loktak Lake.

Fish is not only an important source of protein, it’s an inextricable part of indigenous religion and cultural practices. The ipan thaba ceremony of the Meiteis, usually conducted on the sixth day of the birth of a child, involves as many as seven fish varieties. Nga thaba, which is the release of ngamu or murrel into a pond, is an important religious rite performed as part of the marriage ceremony. Friends and relatives usually visit the sick with live fish.

Hailing from Sekmaijin Awang Leikai village, in Thoubal district, Tampak is one of thousands of unjha, as local women fish traders are known here, dependent on fish from Loktak and other wetlands in Manipur for their livelihood. 

“This is Loktak fish, not like fish from your farm grown on artificial feed or frozen fish flown in amongst icepacks,” she says, haggling over the price with a particularly trying customer. Tampak spends the early hours of the day, starting at dawn, gathering fish from fisherwomen in and around Loktak. By 8 am she is at her favourite spot in Singjamei market, selling her fish.

Fishery is a vital economic resource in Manipur, contributing approximately 3% to the state’s gross domestic product. Both men and women fish, the women using dip nets to catch smaller varieties. Processing and selling fish is usually done by women.

Thousands of unjha or local women fish traders dependent on fish from Loktak for their livelihood

According to the Economic Survey of Manipur 2009-2010 report, fish production in the state for the year 2007-08 was estimated at 18.65 thousand tonnes, as against 18.53 thousand tonnes in 2006-07. Total fish requirement far exceeds indigenous production, therefore large quantities of fish are imported to fill the gap.

Tampak has lived all her life by the banks of Loktak. As a young girl she and her friends would gather aquatic vegetables that grew in the lake for consumption at home. Tampak now supplements her husband Ibopishak’s income by selling fish. She makes around Rs 200-300 on a lean day, Rs 700-800 on a good day.

“Earlier, it was easy to sell two or three maunds (one maund is 40 kg) of fish in a day. Now it is becoming increasingly difficult to sell fish due to rising prices. Also, the fish catch in Loktak is dwindling rapidly,” she says.

The Loktak Atlas, co-published by Wetlands International, Loktak Development Authority and India Canada Environment Facility (ICEF), in 2004, reports that at the time of the joint study the fish catch from Loktak accounted for merely 11% of total fish production in Manipur. Prior to the 1950s, the lake contributed 60% of total fish production, of which migratory fish from the Chindwin-Irrawady river system contributed 40% of total capture fishery. As many as 54 fish species representing 17 families are found in the lake.

Broadly, three groups of fishing communities -- the phum-dwellers, island communities and lakeshore communities -- inhabit Loktak Lake and the adjoining areas. All depend on the lake and its resources for various products, besides fish, including food, fuel, fodder, thatching material, medicinal plants and raw material to make handicrafts.

Besides fish, local people have subsisted on leaves, stem, roots and fruits from Loktat for generations

While the phum-dwellers engage in fishing as their sole source of income, people in other areas are dependent on fisheries to varying degrees. Loktak Lake is spread over three districts in Manipur -- Imphal West, Bishnupur and Thoubal.

“Loktak is a goldmine. If you go to Loktak you will never come back empty-handed. There’s fuel, fish, vegetables… even if you just pick tharoi it will become your curry for the night. There’s nothing you don’t get from Loktak,” Tampak insists, heaping escargots into the empty rasgulla tin that serves as her measuring cup.

Another popular produce from Loktak Lake is heikak whose leaves, stem, roots and fruits are eaten as a vegetable by local people. For children, heikak has been a nutritious snack for generations. “When we were younger, my uncle used to bring us sackfuls of heikak, and we would spend hours eating it. Sometimes, my mother would cook heikak with a little bit of rice,” says Tombi, whose mother is from Moirang in Bishnupur district, on the banks of the Loktak.

But heikak is more than just a snack. “During the floods of 1966, even during times of food scarcity, many people, especially those from lower economic backgrounds, would come to buy heikak as they could not afford rice,” says 62-year-old Heisnam Sajou of Thanga village in Bishnupur district, around 50 km from Manipur’s capital city Imphal. Heikak fruit cooked with a little bit of cereal produces enough food to replace the staple diet of the state, rice.

However, both fish and heikak are slowly disappearing from Loktak Lake. “When we were young children following our father on his fishing trips, what struck us was the mass of heikak stems and fruit in the water that would make rowing almost impossible. Nowadays you don’t see them in Loktak; they are bred artificially in farms,” says Ramananda. Hailing from Ningthoukhong area in Bishnupur district, Ramananda uses gill nets to fish in Loktak Lake.

Located between 24°25’ to 24°42’N latitude and 93°46’to 93°55’E, the 300 sq km Loktak Lake is not a single contiguous waterbody; it comprises several smaller lakes. Water levels in the lake used to rise during the monsoons and recede in winter, allowing the lakeshore inhabitants to use the lake bed for agricultural purposes. The receding waters also allowed heikak seeds to germinate and take root.

When the Loktak hydropower project and its constituent Ithai barrage were commissioned, however, there were drastic changes in the hydrological system. The natural wetland with its fluctuating water levels became a reservoir with a more or less constant water level that is maintained throughout the year at 786.5 m to provide adequate supply to the hydro project.

“After the Ithai barrage was built and the hydroelectric project started running, the lake water level is always high. This has meant not only a significant reduction in the germination and growth of heikak plants, but also the decrease, and in some case extinction, of fish populations in the lake,” says Sajou.

Loktak Lake used to serve as a breeding and spawning ground for pengba and other migratory fish from the Chindwin-Irrawady river system. However, the Ithai barrage has blocked the migratory pathways of these fish causing a decline in their population and ultimately their disappearance from the state. Both government and individual fish farmers have been trying to revive pengba populations in fish farms in the last few years.

Fish and heikak are not the only produce from Loktak that forms part of the local food economy of Manipur. Overall, 132 plant species have been identified from various parts of the lake.

A woman selling heikak: The black item locally known as heikak is a nutritious snack for children

Some of these, including komprek, kolammni, thangjing, ishing kundo, ishing ikaithabi and tharo are not only eaten as vegetables but are also used for medicinal purposes.

All 53 settlements in and around Loktak, located in the valley districts of Bishnupur, Imphal East and Thoubal, are directly or indirectly linked to the lake. The total population of these communities in 2001 was 279,935, accounting for 12% of Manipur’s total population. 

According to the Loktak Atlas, 33% of lakeshore households harvest aquatic vegetation for use as fuel; 18% for use as vegetables; 2% for use as fodder; and 1% to manufacture handicrafts. Annually, 15,400 MT of plant biomass is harvested for use as fuel; 1,900 MT for use as vegetables; 230 MT for use as fodder; and 40 MT to make handicrafts.

Most of the aquatic plants and fish resources in and around Loktak Lake are a source of income for the local people. But the Loktak hydropower project and the Ithai barrage, besides other factors such as rapid increase in the number of fishermen, changes in fishing techniques, and indiscriminate fishing have significantly reduced these livelihood opportunities.

The need of the hour is to harmonise using the waters of Loktak to fulfil human demands for food security, livelihood and hydropower, along with effective ecological management of the lake’s resources.

(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 second in her series) 

Infochange News & Features, August 2010