Eviction fear worsens plight of wetland villagers amid Covid times

In the effort “to preserve the wetlands of vital importance”, the Kakching district administration on March 23 issued an eviction order of “unauthorised occupation and activity within the wetlands”.


Pumlen Pat, Kakching district, Manipur (PHOTO: Wikipedia)

 

Pumlen Pat and Kharung Pat - major wetlands of Manipur located in Kakching district have been facing ecological deterioration for 30 long years. Now, the wetlands are fast getting submerged due to the impact of the Ithai Barrage construction. Now, the state government is making an attempt to preserve the wetlands. In the effort “to preserve the wetlands of vital importance”, the Kakching district administration on March 23 issued an eviction order of “unauthorised occupation and activity within the wetlands”. The “encroachers” were given 30 days to vacate the land. The dateline for eviction was April 23. Aggrieved by the eviction notification, villagers strongly voiced against the government’s decision.

Pumlen Pat, a shallow weed-infested lake with two-third of its water surface covered with Phumdi (floating biomass), is situated 55 km away from Imphal, and is reportedly the worst affected. Ithai Barrage is situated at southwest corner of Pumlen. Kharungpat lies in the south-eastern part of Imphal, around 40 km from the capital.

According to the Census 2011, there are about 40 houses in Kharungpat village, while Pumlen Pat has a settlement of 25 villages in its several lake islands.  

Opposing the eviction order, a local organisation Pumlen Pat Khoidou Lamjao Kanba Apunba Lup said the eviction notification issued by the Kakching deputy commissioner in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is “inhuman in nature”.

The Pumlen Pat Khoidou Lamjao Kanba Apunba Lup represents residents of 25 villages situated in Pumlen pat islands.

The 25 villages in Pumlen Pat area are Nongmaikhong, Arong Khunjao, Arong Khunou, Tokpaching, Sarik, Hiyangkhong, Konuma, Sekmaijin Khunou, Sekmaijin, Khoidum Lamjao, Tera Pisak, Hiyanglam, Hiranmei, Lamjao, Langmeidong, Thounaojam, Yangdong, Elangkhangpokpi, Thongjao, Waikhong, Komnao, Langoipung, Yangbi, Kakching Khunou and Thongam.

Speaking to this Imphal Free Press reporter, Salam Joy, secretary of the Lup, said that the DC notification is “highly objectionable”.

“The residents here have settled and been associated with the wetland since decades, generation after generation,” Salam said.

The definition of “encroachers” in the context of Pumlen residents is vague and cannot be equated with any land issues as it pertains to inundation by Ithai Barrage for more than 30 years and that in some areas, wetland rules seem to be more appropriate than just mere MLR and LR Act of 1960, he said.

“We have lived here since time immemorial. This is the land of our ancestors. We want our children and their children to continue living here as we are now in peace and tranquility and one with nature,” said Salam.

Salam said that if anything has to go, it is such laws that have been enacted which attack the rights of the indigenous people of Manipur.

“Our traditional ways of living with wetland ecosystems as fisher folks and farming communities benefits not merely Manipur, but the entire Northeast region,” he said.

Salam also said, “The failure of the state in acknowledging our rights to live here, or any law that claims we are trespassers is blatantly unconstitutional and against the fundamental principles of humanity”.

Meanwhile, the Pumlen Pat Khoidou Lamjao Kanba Apunba Lup has sent a representation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh as well as the district DC stating that issuing such an order under Section 11 of Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act of 1960 is a fundamental violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees the Right to Life and Livelihood to communities, including those of Pumlen Pat.

Responding to DC Kakching notification which mentioned whole areas of Kharung Pat and Pumlen Pat under Kakching district, the Lup sent a response, seeking withdrawal of notice with immediate effect on April 22.

“We are not occupiers. The whole area of Pumlen Pat is being notified for eviction of encroachers or occupiers. It should be withdrawn,” said Salam.

Salam added that it is not ascertained on what basis the DC is referring to encroachers in the context of Pumlen Pat residents. This Lup objects to the terminology adopted as undemocratic processes such as “non-consultation with the village authorities and the bypassing of Panchayati Raj Institution responsible for local self-governance in the area”, he said.

Environmentalist Ram Wangkheirakpam, convenor of Ngamee Lup, told the Imphal Free Press that when COVID-19 pandemic is raging across the country and governments along with healthcare authorities are struggling to control the spread of the disease, such notification for eviction is “totally arbitrary law in nature and totally inhuman act”.

“The eviction notice to the settlers in the areas is “mental harassment”; it shows no respect to people,” the environmentalist said.

On behalf of the villagers, the Pumlen Pat Khoidou Lamjao Kanba Apunba Lup has asked for immediate withdrawal of the notification issued by the Kakching district administration. It stated that the notification has spread fear among the villagers. The deputy commissioner must bear all responsibilities for loss of life, damage and trauma caused as a result of the notification and for any action taken up by the DC, it added.

Pumlen Pat is considered the second largest lake in Manipur after the Loktak Lake. It is a conjoined lake formed by Khoidumpat in the North, Lamjaopat in the Northeast and Pumlen main basin in the south. During the rainy season all these merges into a single water body covering a total area of 84 sq km.

According to reports of the Manipur government forest division, the wetland has a total area of 32,26 square kilometres with a direct catchment area of 127.75 sq km and indirect catchment area of 335.45 sq km. It lies at an elevation of 765.5 m above mean sea level. The direct catchment area of the lake is 127.75 sq km.

It is surrounded by around 26 different lake basins from all sides. Of the total lake area, 58 per cent is covered by Phumdis (floating biomass), 41 per cent by open water area and one per cent by islands. The lake receives water from precipitation, surface runoff from the northern agricultural fields, indirectly from Sekmai and Manipur rivers.

According to several studies, the lake has a rich biodiversity in terms of flora and fauna. The flora species consists of 194 species (95 marginal/marsh species, 15 floating leaved species, 14 emergent, 10 free-floating, nine submerged species and 52 species that colonised the phumdis) and about 244 faunal species (46 invertebrates and 198 vertebrates) are found in the lake, according to studies of sustainable management of wetlands in the central valley Manipur conducted in 2007. And as many as 29 floral species are reportedly found in Kharung Pat/Ikop Pat.

Unfortunately, a remote sensing survey report stated that Pumlen pat is among the highly degraded lakes in Manipur. The fate of the lake with historical significance is on the verge of extinction due to the resulting consequences of the Loktak lake project.

The total area of 32.26 square km has deteriorated since the construction of the Ithai Barrage. The barrage is as a part of the Loktak Lake project started in 1986 over the Imphal River. With the Ithai Barrage obstructing the weeds of the lake from flowing down, 80 per cent of the lake has been covered under thick weeds, leaving almost no space for the fishermen to earn their living. It may be mentioned that fishing is a way of the life of the villagers and they depend on fishery products for their livelihood.

It may also be pointed out that the Manipur Forest Department plans to translocate a section of the rare species of the endemic and endangered brow-antlered deer Sangai to Pumlen Pat, which is close to its only existing habitat in Loktak Lake area.

Arun RS, state deputy conservator of forest (park and sanctuary), was quoted in a media report in 2015 as saying, “Our objective is to have another set of population of the deer. We have identified Pumlen Pat for translocation as it is also a Phumdi and also has small hillocks for shelter. The proposal would be ready and within two-three years they would start the process of translocation”.

He also stated that the big task is to acquire land for the project as the wetland is encroached by fisherfolk and local villagers.

Further, the Manipur State Wetland Authority announced Pumlen Pat as a conservation area and the second home for Sangai, which is found only in Manipur and is the state animal of Manipur. Following it, the Centre for Research and Advocacy (CRA), Manipur raised serious concern on announcement of wetland as a conservation area by the Manipur State Wetland Authority “without consulting the stakeholders”. It said the government’s move would be infringing upon the rights of the locals.

The CRA also stated that the area in Pumlen Pat demarcated for conservation and setting up of second home for Sangai in Pumlen Pat is vast and it will impact the livelihood of the villages and several others in the periphery of the wetland.  

The DC’s notification of March 23 stated that “to preserve the wetlands of vital importance in Kakching district, any unauthorized occupation or activity within the wetlands under the schedule of the whole area of Kharung Pat and Pumlen Pat should not be taken up by an individual or group without prior approval of the concerned authority”.

“Further, any person who occupies or continues to occupy any land within the area of Kharung and Pumlen Pat without lawful authority should be regarded as a trespasser under Section 15 of Manipur Land Revenue and Land Records Act, 1960 and maybe summarily evicted therefore any building or construction erected or anything deposited on the areas of the land, if not removed within 30 days that means April 23, should be liable to be forfeited. And such trespassers should also be liable by way of penalty to pay a sum which may extend to six times the annual assessment of the land”.

Since the construction of Ithai Barrage, villagers' dependence on Pumlen Pat has resulted in a decrease in residential and agricultural land and increase in dependence on ataphum (floating fish ponds) to avoid the continuing high-water levels. The barrage has already affected the ecosystem and livelihood of the indigenous villagers living in the surrounding area. Now, the eviction order has added to the woes of the villagers.

Speaking to the Imphal Free Press, deputy director of the Directorate of Environment and Climate Change, T Brajakumar said that Pumlen Pat is yet to be notified under wetlands for conservation. The process for notification has been started. Notice has been sent to the revenue department for identifying areas, encroachers, etc. Even if it is notified as a conservation area, activities may be taken up according to National Wetland Rules, 2017.

Kharung Pat and Pumlen Pat are listed as major wetlands of the state as per the study titled 'Major Wetlands of Manipur' conducted as a part of the National Mission on Himalayan studies (NMHS), Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of India.

It may be recalled that World Wetland Day observation was held at Pumlen Pat on Feb 2, 2021, in a bid to spread awareness about the degradation of Pumlen Pat. During the awareness programme held for the locals living in and around the area,Wangkheirakpam said aglobal campaign has been started to protect the unique Loktak Wetland region in Manipur for posterity.

The environmentalist said a law must be enacted after deep and widespread consultation with the people of Loktak region to ensure that their traditional rights and livelihoods are protected, and they continue as custodians to protect and conserve this biodiversity rich wetland complex for posterity. The Loktak region must be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in acknowledgment of the living heritage that fisher and farming communities here have shaped over centuries.

Wangkheirakpamfurther said the campaign demands that the Loktak region must be declared a ‘Community Conservation Area’ as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and as a ‘Biodiversity Heritage Site’ in accordance with the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. As a first step towards this goal, statutory mandates to constitute Forest Rights Committees and Biodiversity Management Committees must be followed, he said.

All fundamental and traditional rights of indigenous communities living in the Loktak region, particularly their right of domicile, right to housing, and right to livelihoods, must be recognised and with due dispatch, he added.

Pumlen Pat farmers also shared their grievances and pointed out that a recent report prepared by the LDA and Wetlands International South Asia (WISA) titled ‘Loktak, Integrated Wise Use Plan’ has brought to the fore a blatant attempt to dislocate farmers (fishing and agriculture) who are dependent on the Loktak, Pumlen, Ikop-Kharung and Khoidum wetlands in the name of ‘wise use and conservation’.

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First Published:April 24, 2021, 10:13 p.m.

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