Loktak Lake is at the base of the identity of the fisherfolk community that has resided for years in the lake and preserved its existence. Attempts of the government to commercialise the fragile ecosystem under the purported goal of development threatens the loss of livelihood and identities.

Loktak Lake in Manipur is the largest freshwater lake in all of North-East India, known for its distinctive floating islands, popularly known as “phumdis” by the local people. The lake spans an area of 286 square kilometres. It is also home to the world’s only floating national park housing the endangered Sangai deer. About 12 lakh people in the state are estimated to be indirectly or directly dependent for their livelihoods on the lake.

The Loktak Development Authority (‘LDA’) is a statutory body which has been entrusted with the responsibility of administering the lake. On August 3, 2016, the LDA forcibly evicted fishermen families by claiming that their houses were government property. Acquisition of their land was a consequence of the state government’s plan to open a parking lot for tourists.

This wasn’t a singular incident of contestation between the fisherfolk community and the government. Conflict has long marred the history of the lake. The construction of the Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project in 1971 led to the submergence of agricultural land and large-scale socio-economic displacement, which threatened the survival of the valley. The government has failed to rehabilitate the indigenous population ever since the completion of the project in 1984. Huge profits earned have not generated any accountability towards the safeguarding of traditional ownership, enjoyment and possession of property.

Following directions from the Supreme Court in 2017, the Manipur High Court started proceedings to conserve the Loktak ecosystem and sought suggestions from LDA. The LDA responded, seeking approval to solicit tenders for eco-tourism projects in the lake. The state’s Director of Tourism stated that once approved, Manipur will witness the greatest development of the Loktak Lake with world class amenities to attract tourism.

The survival of Loktak today rests on political grandeur and the fragile power play of political parties within the state. At the centre of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s political campaign in the recent elections was the proposal for a plan named ‘Loktak Manipur: An integrated Plan use (2020-2025) by Westland International South Asia and the LDA’. Activists and fisherfolk of the Loktak community have staged protests against the proposal, which could prove to be ecologically and socially disruptive for the lake. The eco-tourism project seeks to generate revenue at the cost of the sustainable livelihood of the lake and its people.

In 2020, the High Court of Manipur granted permission to the Manipur government to proceed with the implementation of the plan. Pursuant to this, the Chief Minister N. Biren Singhsought an intervention from the central government to secure funding for the project from the World Bank. On February 25 this year, the high court directed the authorities of LDA to ensure that no construction or developmental activity could take place without prior permission of the court.

The current predicament stems from the government’s position of viewing the rights of the fisherfolk of Manipur and their presence within the lake’s eco-system as a “growing menace” for the state’s plan to commercialise the historic status of Loktak to benefit its exchequer.

In July, the government has ordered the removal of all allegedly unauthorised activities within 15 days for the purported ecological conservation of the lake. Traditional fisheries, huts, houses and homestays have all received notices demanding eviction. The current predicament stems from the government’s position of viewing the rights of the fisherfolk of Manipur and their presence within the lake’s eco-system as a “growing menace” for the state’s plan to commercialise the historic status of Loktak to benefit its exchequer.

The status quo at the moment concerns the challenge indigenous fishermen community of Loktak have levelled to the government’s developmental projects, which directly threatens the livelihood of 140 families living in the Champu Khangpok floating village. Oinam Rajen, the secretary of All Loktak Lake Area Fishermen Union Manipur, has asked an important question: “[H]ow long will the state continue to violate our fundamental right to access the territory of our life?”

What are the implications of the conflation of public purpose with commercialisation?

The Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006 governs the administration of the lake and reposits such powers with the state government. The LDA constituted under the Act has been granted powers under Section 17 to grant approval for “commercial utilization” of any lake resources and permitting any activity which may be conducive to efficient administration of the lake. The wide-ranging power granted to the state government to acquire land to facilitate commercialization of the lake is similar to the powers granted to the Union Government under the LARR Act, which mandates compulsory sale of land to the government when justified under the “public purpose” enumerated under its Section 2(1)(b). The central legislation has also additionally defined “public purpose” to include land acquired for PPPs and industrial corridors, among others.

The Supreme Court, in Sooraram Pratap Reddy & Ors. versus District Collector, Ranga Reddy District & Ors. (2008), noted that “any purpose wherein even a fraction of the community may be interested or by which it is benefitted” could justify the land acquisition powers of the State. The excessively wide nature of judicial understanding of public purpose has led to unchecked commercialisation of natural resources. Section 17 of the 2006 Act is a reflection of the same trend.

Commodification of nature is clearly visible in the presence of extractive tourism industries. The acquisition of land by the Andhra Pradesh government to make Hyderabad a “Business-cum-Tourism Centre for the state” has been held to be a public purpose in Sooraram Pratap Reddy. In Fomento Resorts & Hotels & Anr. versus Miguel Martins & Ors. (2009), the Supreme Court held that since tourism is an important industrial activity, it generates ancillary benefits to the state and hence, qualifies as public purpose.

But the development of the tourism sector today has seen a marked shift towards greater adoption of PPPs and benefits of the SEZ policy. Tourism is seen as a coherent whole where there is no classification made between different kinds of tourism projects; ones which are open to access of public and ones which are cloistered by the privileged. While there is a case to be made that access to roads and sanitation facilities are covered under the ambit of tourism, there is no reason for land to be acquired for luxury resorts in the name of “public purpose”.

The judiciary’s token response to most of the challenges to such commercialisation has been simply not to engage with determining whether the State’s claim to further ‘public interest’ is bona fide or not. The Supreme Court’s observation in Bajirao T. Kote (Dead) By LRs. & Anr. versus State of Maharashtra & Ors. (1994) is noteworthy here: “it is primarily for the State Government to decide whether there exists public purpose or not, and it is not for this court or the high courts to evaluate the evidence and come to its own conclusion whether or not there is public purpose.” Similar kind of reasoning has resonated in a number of other court judgements.

The judiciary’s token response to most of the challenges to such commercialisation has been simply not to engage with determining whether the State’s claim to further ‘public interest’ is bona fide or not.

The lack of judicial scrutiny due to the “hands-off” approach by courts has culminated in judicial sanction to any act of land acquisition of the government which could be justified in the name of ‘public welfare’, even though it lacks genuine ‘public utility’. In Indrajit C. Parekh of Ahmedabad versus State of Gujarat & Ors. (1975), compulsory land acquisition by the State, which had only resulted in the addition of a single rupee towards the state exchequer, was held to be sufficient to grant it the status of “public purpose”.

In light of such judicial trends, it is imperative for courts to:

Firstly, adopt a conscious attempt to limit the sphere of what constitutes ‘public purpose’ by according due importance to the cost which is to be incurred by local communities and persons in lieu of the purported ‘public purpose’ to be fulfilled. The Supreme Court recognized the importance of such an analysis in Dev Sharan versus State of Uttar Pradesh (2011) by pointing out that the State’s desire to acquire land for promoting a public purpose benefitting a particular section of the society at the cost of the interest of the larger part of the society, especially indigenous populations, defeats the very purpose of public purpose.

Secondly, ‘public purpose’ should be recognized to be limited to only State-sponsored projects. The provisions for acquisition of land for private companies and PPPs must be deleted instead of being diluted as the government has sought to do in the LARR Amendment Act, 2015. As the Supreme Court has observed in Sulochana Chandrakant Galande versus Pune Municipal Transport & Ors. (2010), once the land is acquired, a person becomes non-persona grata to the extent that they are restrained from claiming restoration of land and only have a vested right to compensation. Thereby, the government must be restrained to claim only the bare minimum required for any State-sponsored project to prevent its potential misuse.

How to ensure the safeguarding of the voice of the marginalised in this process?

Under the LAAR Act, once a property or land has been decided to be acquired; an invitation is sent out to record objections. The assessment of objections is facilitated by the conduct of the Social Impact Assessment (‘SIA’), which decides whether or not a particular area of land can be permitted to be acquired. The assessment is carried out “in consultation” with the gram sabha or any other equivalent body in the area. The nature and significance of public interest, along with the socio-economic impact on local communities, is studied as well as the possibility of better alternatives. An “expert group” further constituted by the Union Government examines the findings of the SIA and decides whether there is a bona fide public purpose which could potentially justify the acquisition of the land.

The houses, home stays and land owned by people of Loktak are not just private property, but markers of ethnicity and identity. Camouflaging its destruction under the veneer of development and protection of ecology does not hide the violence displayed by the State in its land acquisition plans.

Similarly, Section 34 of the 2006 Act provides absolute power to the state-constituted LDA to undertake schemes for the development of the lake. The composition of the LDA fails to provide for the participation of the indigenous community in this crucial decision-making process, which is vital to the future of the lake and its ecosystem. (See Section 7). This is a clear disregard of the principles in the Ramsar Convention on the Conservation of Wetlands, which mandate participation, consultation and consent of local communities. Even the procedure under the LARR Act is not democratised as there is no statutory requirement for the expert committee constituted by the state to include representation from indigenous population being displaced. (Again, see Section 7) The government is additionally not legally bound by the decision of the committee, as it can reject the same by recording its reasons in writing….