May 13, 2022

On the brink of fading into oblivion

I grew up in the 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 are on the brink of fading into oblivion due to some shortsighted decisions taken 48 years ago. Atoning for that is perhaps the biggest will we can leave behind for our children.

Loktak Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the entire world, is the lifebelt for the people of the State but it has an emotional and spiritual connection with the fishermen’s community. This lake is their primary source of livelihood. But now it has become a fight for survival for the fishermen. Government policies of the past which were meant for the preservation of the lake constitute huge threats to the fishermen as most of them lack alternative livelihood skills. Encompassing an area of about 26,000 hectares, the Loktak Lake is the State’s largest fishery resource, accounting for more than 50 percent of the fish-producing area. About 12 percent of the State’s population depends 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 the bioenergy of the region, particularly for our state. It synchronizes climatic conditions and stimulates different ethos and 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 most remarkable points is the technique of ‘Phum Namba’ which is still in vogue. The term Phum Namba has been practiced in the region since time immemorial. The people of the region particularly the fishing community and the community of the Thanga island and people of the peripheral area of the Loktak Lake who practice this technique (basically the fishing community) cultivate floating water weeds in a circular form. This particular Phum Namba will be preserved for about a year. During this period the local indigenous fish species will breed and grow in and around the Phum.

The fishing community also feeds 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 in October and concludes in 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 basic cultivation is the cultivation of Phum with Phum Namba as their livelihood.

Other techniques of fishing other than Phum Namba techniques are trapping by net (Lang Thakpa), bamboo trap (Lu Thumba), pulling of the fishing net (In Chingba), angling, and longthinba (spearing). 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 livelihoods dependent on the lake.

In 1983, NHPC constructed a barrage at the confluence 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 meters 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 were flooded and thousands of people lost their lands and became homeless 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 has been rendered unable to practice their traditional technique. Before the implementation of the Loktak National Hydro Electric Project and the commissioning of the Ithai Barrage, there were two different seasons of fishing in all the surrounding fishing areas – one on the rising of the Loktak level and another in 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 have already been spoiled in an irreplaceable condition. Above all most of the endemic plants of Loktak have also been endangered seriously. In all honesty, the lake is slowly but surely dying in all forms.

The circumstances we face today in terms of rapid environmental degradation, epidemics, natural disasters, etc are proof of the acute need to understand and protect the earth’s natural ecosystems from further degradation.

Think global, act local is a popular phrase when it comes to environment-related actions on part of stakeholders. Keeping this in mind, our focus ought to shift to our Loktak Lake. Mistakes and shortsighted decisions of stakeholders of the past have played a huge role in the decline of its ecosystem and the quality of life of the people that depend on it for sustenance. But we cannot keep shifting the blame on what transpired in the past. As responsible stakeholders, it is our responsibility to step up and rectify the mistakes made by those before us. This is the example we ought to set for those that will come after us.

We realize the value of certain things once we lose them, I ask people to not be the generation that did nothing while perhaps our most precious resource perished slowly right in front of our eyes. On the eve of World Environment Day, I call upon the people of the State to take a pledge to contribute in concrete, meaningful efforts to save the Loktak Lake, a God-given treasure, whose immense value we have often ignored.

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