By RK Nimai
One of the best gifts received this year, was a copy of the book “Loktak the Distorted Mirror” received from the author a couple of days after its release. Although the book is small with only 169 pages, including four pages of references, it is one of the most comprehensive books on Loktak, touching every aspect of the lake. The book which is well illustrated with appropriate photographs can be viewed as a Love’s Labour as in every pages; the love, admiration and respect of the lake by the author can be felt.
The book does not carry any preface, foreword, acknowledgement or about the author. Ngangom Sanajaoba Meitei, the author, is an engineer by profession who had been associated with the preservation of the lake for many years and his experience and the result of his research resulted in this book. The language is such that it gives the feel of a literary work. Despite a few typos, grammatical errors and a couple of collocation errors which however do not detract from the main theme, the book refreshes one’s nostalgic memories of the lake.
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It holds 12 chapters and the first chapter ‘Ancient Portrayal’ deals with the mythic origin of the lake as also the relation of the lake with the myths and culture of the state; especially Moirang. Mention of nine streams (lok) and nine sacred sites find a mention as also a brief account of Yaiding Konu, Lord Thangjing, Khamba and Thoibi, leima Yoiren Tompokpi and Awang Pakhang Yoiremba, etc. The only shortcoming is that the style of describing indicates that the book targets the local readers as most of the Manipuri words are not transcribed into English and the legends referred to is too cryptic for non Meitei readers. Singmut (or Singoot) is referred to by the local name only; if the scientific name of Saccharum narenga is provided in parenthesis the plant would have easily understood. Even for a local reader, using only English common name for some plants may confuse them as in the case of Cogon grass (Emom), oriental pepper (Choakhong angouba), etc.
The second chapter ‘Unique Milieu’ describes the lake with reference to its surroundings. How the Manipur River divides the valley with Loktak as a repository of surplus water during the rainy season? The roles of Khordak and Ungamel in draining out water from the lake do find a mention. Sugnu Hump which acts as a barrier from draining out all the water from the Manipur valley is beautifully described. The rise and fall of the water level in various seasons and its implication were also discussed in brief. There is a description of some of the plants and the change in the water level that led to changes in the profile of the lake.
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‘Fountain of Life and Wealth’ not only describes the denizens of the lake both underwater and above water; that is fishes, birds, eels, wild boar, Sangai, turtles, etc and plants like water chestnut, Manchurian Wild Grass (Wainu chara), Cogon grass (Emom), etc. ‘Loktak Way of Life’ describes the life of fishers with the different gears and how these were used and how a day is spent, through the various seasons. The importance of Soi where the streams meet the lake and the phenomenon of Ngaill lakpa, which are now hardly seen were described in a bit detail. Different methods of fishing were described including the earlier system of fishing through Athaphum which was then seasonal and monsoon wiped out all traces not like the present system when it has become a permanent feature. Even the trade in fishes and other edibles collected from the lake is documented.
Growing of tobacco, on ‘pungs’ dry land exposed after the water level goes down, find a mention. Such practices are now no longer feasible or seen. The genesis of Phumsangs including the name of the first person who started this system was described. “Genesis of Retreat’ a very short chapter details the genesis of major human interference on Loktak. Due to poor harvest for some years in the 1960s led to massive encroachment on the lake with almost all the periphery being surveyed and land given for cultivation (I remember stories of land survey being carried out on boast, using poles to determine its depth). Many drainage canals were dug out to drain out water from the lake and the Revenue Department colluded with the land grabbers to issue patta, leading to only one-fifth of Loktak remaining untouched.
The “Great Game” describes in a bit more detail the hunting of birds and wild animals in the lake. The greed of man to put a record in killing was highlighted. A total of 56, 846 ducks and 56,618 snipes were felled during 1910-32! The preferred species and the reason were given in fair detail. Sangai finds a mention separately in ‘Saving Sangai’ where in the past it was a protected animal under a royal decree when anyone who killed a sangai would lose his hands. How the discovery of a new species was made and due to hunting the animal became nearly extinct, the blow hot and blow cold approach in protecting the animal till the State Darbar in 1934 banned hunting of sangai; though not implemented strenuously. By 1951 it was reported that the species have become extinct but after the rediscovery by EP Gee efforts have been made to save it and the Sanctuary now a National Park, came into being.
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The genesis of the slow death of Loktak was included in the chapter ‘The Dream Plan’ which started with the idea to control flood by blasting the Sugnu Hump. It was also thought to restrict entry of water to the Loktak to reclaim the land at the fringes of the lake. Contradictory ideas were attempted to put into place to form “the unified and integrated development plan for the whole valley”. Beautiful on paper but unfortunately a disaster on the ground, as proper field work was not carried out and many aspects were just not considered. The Dream Plan was the Loktak Multi-Purpose Project. The debate was the level of the water to be maintained; at 2521 feet above mean sea level which is two feet lower than the highest flood level or at the highest flood level as the former will lead to unreliable power generation. Two groups were at loggerheads, one draining the water to increase the farmland and the other to usher in development with power generation by stocking water in the lake.
Whichever the case, Loktak will be hit below the belt and can never be its old self. ‘The Deluge and the Judgment’ tell us the story of how the deluge of 1966 which attained the highest flood level of 2531.6 feet amsl led to the decision to retain the water level for the LHEP at 2525 ft amsl which is 2 feet higher than the highest flood level pre-1966. This made the LHEP viable but Manipur valley is exposed to flooding regularly as there is no storage available for flood water after a rain, as the lake is always in spate! To maintain this level, a barrage is to be built at Ithai which is the narrowest portion; however, the barrage further narrows the river so that even when all the gates are open the carrying capacity is limited.
‘Identity Twist’ describes the limitation of the LHEP and the change in the lake and its environment leading to an identity crisis. The natural system was disturbed, the migratory fishes cannot climb the barrage and their entry into the lake was cut off, the river is now divided into two zones; upstream the barrage which always has water and downstream where the river bed is exposed. Due to non flowing of water from the river to the lake and vice versa, Khordak and Ungamel become smaller including changes in the Keibul Lamjao National Park where Uful houbi during summer in the past is now covered by water all through the year. Due to restriction in water circulation, the quality of the water in the lake deteriorated with the pH in some region going to 3.8; very acidic.
The pulsating level of the water in the lake is a thing of the past and the advantages of the varying level are lost forever. The wild species in the phums has reduced with water hyacinths and para grass dominating impacting on the quality of the phums which becomes thinner and in portion of the KLNP, the phums can no longer bear the weight of a sangai! Due to increased population and the LHEP, catches are no longer what it used to be and life in the lake changed dramatically. ‘Afterlife Agonies’ describes the effect of the loss of the marshes, which used to act as a buffer between the lake and the land, as well as the bringing in of huge modern equipments in changing the scenario of the lake.
Fish farms crop up leading to roads dissecting the lake into a number of parts with the water flow limiting. To adapt, people brought in new practices not for the benefit of the lake that degrades it further. Athaphum increases and is an all season affair. Water Hyacinth reemerges and with the heavy nitrogen load in the water as Loktak is now the cesspool of Imphal city and surrounding habitations, algal bloom becomes a regular phenomenon. Native birds, fishes and animals are in their death throes dominated by exotic species. Despite the despair, the author sees an opening and in the “The Silver Lining” traces the small sane voices for restoring the natural cycle which is becoming louder with every passing year. If the people are sensitive enough, they can force the political leadership to change for the better.
Anybody who goes through this book will learn more about the lake and what ails it at present, besides the yearning of the author to restore the lake to its former glory and also learn many new anecdotes on the different aspects of the lake. It is small but very comprehensive and ought to adorn the library of anyone who has a love for the lake.