How the inland waterways project is posing existential threat to fishing community in Manipur's Loktak Lake

The fishing community living in and around the Loktak Lake is deeply troubled as the Loktak Inland Waterways Improvement Project (LIWIP) poses harmful impact on their habitats and threat to their only means of livelihood.

In a place where a natural traditional system--fishing--is the only means of livelihood for the people, any modern interventions and development move by the government or private parties is bound to disturb the ecosystem of the place and pose an existential threat to the people and their habitats.

Today, the fishing community of Manipur living in and around the Loktak Lake, the biggest natural freshwater wetland in the entire Northeast India, is deeply troubled as the Loktak Inland Waterways Improvement Project (LIWIP), apart from other interventions, poses harmful threat to their only means of livelihood and their habitats. Although waterways are an important mode of transport, the Loktak fisherfolk told the Imphal Free Press that no one from the community wishes to see the inland waterways project. It may be recalled that the Rs 25.58-crore LIWIP was approved by the Union Shipping Ministry in November 2019 following the long-pending demand of the Manipur government.

The habitats of the fishing community in Loktak

Several rivers and streams of the valley and hills in the state find their way into the Loktak Lake which is spread over an area of 26,000 hectares. One unique characteristic of this freshwater lake is the floating Phumdis, a thick heterogeneous mass of vegetation, soil, and organic matter that looks like small lush green islands. On the Phumdis, the fishing community build small thatched huts to live in. The 40 km2 Keibul Lamjao National Park, the only floating wildlife sanctuary in the world, is located at the Loktak Lake and it is home to Sangai, the brow antlered deer, (Rucervus eldii eldii). Sangai has now become one of the most endangered deer in the world. Besides housing a rich biodiversity, the lake also takes its natural role of preventing drought and moderating flood in the state.

Owing to these unique features, the lake was recognized as a ‘Wetland of International Importance’ under the Ramsar Convention in 1990. The main reason for the recognition was the fact that the lake attracts huge trans-boundary migration of water birds which come for their winter nesting from across the world as far as Europe and Central Asia.

What troubles the fishing community of the Loktak Lake 

However, the community which have been settling in and around the Loktak Lake, with fishing as their only means of livelihood, are a distressed lot today. They have raised their voice against the project for extension and expansion of the motorised waterways transport in the Loktak Lake. The authorities behind the project have been accused of ignoring the serious damages to the ecology of the lake and its impact on the livelihood of hundreds of fishing families living in the area. Although it is yet to be determined how this waterways project could affect the Ramsar site, the local communities have objected to the project as it could result in serious hazards which could subvert the benefits which the project is supposed to deliver. Environmentalists pointed out that the claimed benefits of the project appear to have overestimated as its assessments are allegedly made on uncertain calculations and founded on inconclusive assumptions.

The project entails extensive removal of vegetation

The Loktak Inland Waterways Improvement Project (LIWIP) was introduced in 2008 with the assistance of the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), for establishing a modern inland transport system on the Loktak wetlands with motorised waterways. Hence, the project seeks to clear the lake of all obstructions in the water transport with machinery and equipment. The project claims to be a “community welfare” project and promises improvement and better livelihood to the local communities. With the motorised water transport system, the project aims to create better means of transport and help boost tourism, trade and commerce.

However, environment specialists have stated that by ignoring the existing ecology of the lake, the new project aims to undertake an extensive removal of the lake’s vegetation because they pose a major obstruction in the creation of motorised waterways. The main vegetation of the Loktak Lake consists of the weeds and the floating phumdis which are its own unique characteristics. They pointed out that the project does not mention how removing of the vegetation will affect the entire ecosystem in and around the lake.

It may be pointed out that the project proposal (Page 2) addressed the natural vegetation of the lake as a ‘growing problem’ and it proposed to augment the existing machinery and equipment to deal with the growing menace by cleaning the waterways”. The list of activities stated in the proposal included ‘removal of Aquatic vegetation’, ‘Phumdi (grounded removal)’ and ‘removal of Phumdi (Free Floating)’ as the means for ‘Improvement of Designated Routes’ (Page 3).

Environmentalists also pointed out that the claimed benefits of the project appear to have overestimated as its assessments are allegedly made on uncertain calculations and founded on inconclusive assumptions.

A lake already threatened by several interventions as told to the ‘Imphal Free Press’

Voices are being raised to protect this wetland which has been affected by other factors such as increasing pollution and interventions such as the 105 MW Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project of the National Hydro Electric Power Corporation (NHPC). It has been estimated that fishing families with the population of around 1 lakh, settling across eight assembly constituencies and three districts of Manipur, not to mention those living at the lake on floating huts, will be impacted by the project.

Speaking exclusively to the Imphal Free Press, All Loktak Lake Fishermen’s Union Manipur (ALLAFUM) president Khwairakpam Deben said the Loktak lake environment has been damaged by the Ithai barrage which is a part of the Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project. The disturbances in the lake ecosystem by these projects have affected the livelihood of the fishing community in and around the lake, he said.  The water is already contaminated by the development projects which have affected the breeding of fishes and introducing engine boats will harm the habitats and the ecosystem even more, he added.

Deben said the natural breeding of fishes in the lake is already affected due to the damages suffered by the ecosystem. “Some of the migratory fishes have stopped coming to breed in the lake. This has affected the fishermen. The fishing community of Loktak Lake has been earning their livelihood from the lake through their traditional means and lifestyle”.

The ALLAFUM president also pointed out that the large number of fish consumers of the state are dependent on the fishes from Loktak Lake. But now, many fishes are brought in from outside the state to meet the demands in the market.

Oinam Rajen, member of ALLAFUM, also told the Imphal Free Press that many flora and fauna have vanished from the lake due to the clearing of phumdis by the Loktak Development Authority (LDA). He said Thangjing plant (The prickly fruit of water lily), a traditional food item, which used to grow in vast numbers is no longer seen. Other native plants like ‘Loklei Pulei’, ‘Kambong’, ‘Yelli’ are also decreasing in their growth. It is all because of the disturbance to the ecosystem of the lake, he added.

As the quality of phumdis and water is affected due to the disturbance in the natural cycles, the worst affected will be the engineered Sangai deer, he said.  “It is our collective responsibility to conserve and protect the Loktak Lake. Such projects should not be developed in the lake,” he added.

A project sans Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)

Environmentalist Ram Wangkheirakpam, speaking exclusively to the Imphal Free Press, said despite the fact that fish and water birds feed from the lake vegetation, where many insects and microorganisms have been thriving, there is no study mentioned on how the removal of a major chunk of the aquatic vegetation will damage the ecosystem. It does not include any Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) at all.

Ram said the thriving of the aquatic plant ‘Charang’ (Hydrilla Verticillata Royle) in the lake is why birds flock to the environment as the plant serves as their food.

Since the Hydrilla and other aquatic plants have their roles in purifying and keeping the water fresh and support the fishes that thrive only on freshwater, how their removal will affect the fishes and the entire food pyramid yet remains to be answered, he said.

If the project is implemented, there will be nine waterways for motorised boats in the lake, Ram said. This means the fishermen can no longer lay their fishing nets and it will put an end to the traditional methods of fishing in the lake.  These matters have not been highlighted to the Ministry of Shipping by the Loktak Development Authority (LDA), he alleged. In fact, the 21-page project proposal does not even once mention the term “fishing activity” in the lake, he added.  

Contrary to the fear of the fishing community that their lives will be completely thrown out of gear with the implementation of the project, the proposal blatantly mentions that “The traditional boats, which had been used for ages, have failed to keep pace with the modern times”. 

What the fishing community has to say?

Almost all people living in and around the Loktak Lake depend on fishing to earn a living and take care of their families.

“The way we are living (fishing from huts on floating phumdis) like this is because we are poor and this has been our traditional methods of living. Fishes and other edible vegetables have started decreasing in numbers from the lake. The changes are many and the causes may be varied, but bringing in oil boats and opening of stations will pollute the habitats and harm the biodiversity of the place and the livelihood of many," said Kh Ibochouba, a fisherman.

“When I was learning fishing from the elders as a child, I spent most of the time fishing from the lake. I would invest Rs 500 in fishing equipment and catch fish worth around Rs 1,000. But now, even if I invest 10,000 in the equipment, I would end up catching fish worth Rs 500. The quantity of fish in the lake is going down,” he said.

“No one from the Loktak Lake wishes to see an inland waterways project. Different actions have been taken up at the lake which has threatened the livelihood of Loktak people,” the fisherman asserted.

Photo: Anilkumar Yumnam

What about the rules?

In the project proposal, there is no mention of whether the local fishers and farmers dependent on the lake resources, were given any intensive or extensive consultations, Ram Wangkheirakpam said. There are no records which show that the fisher communities took part in any public hearings or had any proper consultations while the project was being drafted. He pointed out that this is a violation of Article 5(4) m of the Wetlands (Conservation) Rules, 2017.

Ram said that though the lake has been declared a Ramsar site with consideration to the presence of migratory birds in the lake, the project ignores the National Wetlands (Conservation) Rules of 2017 which states about maintaining ecological security  and restriction of activities which would give adverse outcomes to the ecological character of wetlands (Article 4(2)(iii). It also ignores the Article 5(4) m of the Rules which gives special attention to the proactive roles of the locals in conservation of wetlands which support the livelihood of communities and wildlife populations.

Before sending the project for approval, it should have been strictly scrutinised by the Manipur State Wetlands Authority, which is the authority for all wetlands of Manipur. However, it was sent directly to the Shipping Ministry after by-passing the State Wetlands Authority. The LDA is subservient to the State Wetlands Authority but it has been completely kept in the dark about the project by the LDA, Ram said. 

Suspicions have been raised that the Shipping Ministry has been allegedly misled by the Loktak Development Authority (LDA).  In November 2011, the LDA burned down more than 700 huts belonging to the fishing community, displacing the lives of hundreds of fishermen who have been settling on the floating phumdis of the lake.       

Ram said, the project may not have been cleared if these facts were known to the ministry. “It appears as if the LDA is continuing its efforts to drive away the community from the lake with the new project,” he added.  

Promises of jobs to locals remain a hollow pipedream

While it is already stated that the project is likely to destroy the livelihood of the local communities, the promises of delivering jobs to the fishermen and improving their business exist as an artfully crafted pipedream, Ram alleged. On the other hand, it is apparent that the benefits will be extremely less than what has been calculated due to the fact they are often taken over as in most cases, by the more influential and powerful sections, he said. It is highly probable that the locals will end up being marginalised in their own habitat without any concrete steps taken to create better livelihoods or delivering any form of compensation, he added.

The project makes big claims that increased tourism will provide huge benefits to the locals as it will lead to more employment in the tourism industry. Though it is expected that tourist traffic will bring in more revenue, the irony lies in the fact that the unique vegetation of the Loktak Lake which attracts tourists in the first place, will be completely destroyed. 

Concerning the benefits of tourism at Loktak Lake, Ram further said it will be high end tourism and it claims that locals will be benefitted by the trickle-down effect. “How such a tourism policy will unfold can be easily perceived. The Sendra Hill of Loktak Lake which was originally owned by the locals has been converted into a resort. Only a few locals are employed at the site,” he said.

Ram also pointed out that “the project further claims that the waterways will also provide jobs but it is quite comprehensible who will be running the business of motorised boats, he said. The fishermen who can no longer catch fish will probably end up as tourist guides or get employed to low paid jobs. Therefore, it is clear that the tourism at Loktak Lake will prove no benefit to them,” he added. 

In view of the above several concerns, experts have expressed that the project be stopped at all costs. They have expressed that there is a definite requirement for a detailed study based on comprehensive and extensive deliberations with the local fishing community, civil bodies, intellectuals, and all stakeholders. The protection of the livelihood of the people along with the preservation of the ecology and biodiversity of this important Ramsar site Loktak Lake can be assured only after these processes are carried out, the experts added.

First Published:Aug. 21, 2020, 4:15 p.m.