The Loktak lake of Manipur is the biggest freshwater lake in Northeast India. Before the Loktak Multipurpose Project (LMP) came up, its size pulsated between 250 sq km and 500 sq km, depending on the season. The lake is fed by numerous streams and is connected to the Manipur river by the Khordak channel. The uniqueness of the lake is that it is mostly covered by phumdis (heterogeneous mass of vegetation, soil and organic matter), the biggest being the 40-sq-km Keibul Lamjao National Park (KLNP), the only floating national park, that is the natural home to brow-antlered deer or sangai.
The lake suffers from severe eutrophication due to the flow of highly polluted nutrient-rich water through the Nambul stream, which passes through Imphal city. This has led to deterioration of water quality. Besides, large-scale deforestation in the catchment areas of the lake has led to soil erosion. The state government’s focus is on developing the lake as a tourist spot and various initiatives were considered, but unfortunately these were never taken up in consultation with people dependent on the lake.
Loktak was designated a Ramsar site on March 23, 1990, and on June 16, 1993, was listed under the Montreux Record — a record of Ramsar sites where changes in the ecological character have occurred or are occurring or are likely to occur. Most of the changes occurred after the LMP became operational in 1983; in an effort to mitigate the problems, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) was established. It was tasked with taking measures to improve the lake’s condition. For the LMP to impound water in the lake, the Ithai Barrage was constructed over the Manipur river. The project had led to regular flooding of the Manipur valley as there was no storage space for storm water during the monsoon.
As a high water level has to be maintained for the LMP, the vegetation, which during the lean season sucks nutrients from the bed below, perpetually floats. As a result, the phumdis, including in the KLNP, are slowly becoming thinner and a time may come when it may not be able to support the weight of the sangai.
The number of species of plants that grows on the phumdis has come down from above 100 to around 60. Indigenous fish that moved from the Chindwin river stopped migrating due to the barrage. Traditionally, the fisher folks constructed athaphums (artificially cultured floating islands) using phumdis, in which fish are reared.
In 2006, the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act-2006 was enacted and the LDA became a statutory body. Under the Act, the lake was divided into two zones — a core no-development zone and a buffer zone. Some provisions of the Act were strenuously contested by the local population. The lake suffers from severe eutrophication due to the flow of highly polluted nutrient-rich water through the Nambul stream, which passes through Imphal city. This has led to the deterioration of the water quality.
Further, large-scale deforestation in the catchment areas of the lake has led to severe soil erosion. The LDA started dredging the lake bed during the 1980s, without much benefit. It started harvesting the phumdis, but without much success.
Then the phumdis, which proliferate generously, were cut and made to float down the Manipur river. Most of the control measures were engineering solutions and only when international agencies like Wetland International Asia came into the picture, was a more comprehensive mitigation plan developed.
Traditionally, small huts were erected over the phumdis, called phumshangs, which served as resting places for the fisher folk, but from the 1960s, residential huts were erected. Champu Khngpok, a conglomerate of huts over the phumdis with 300 people, was designated as a census village from the 1991 Census. There seems to be a belief in the LDA and government circles that the deterioration of the lake was due to such huts, detrimental fishing practices and the proliferation of phumdis. Efforts were made to evict the huts and the eviction carried out in 2011 led to Paban Kumar’s award-winning documentary Phumshang (2015), which includes footage of the eviction drive. It won the Golden Conch at the 14th Mumbai International Film Festival.
The state government’s focus is on developing the lake as a tourist spot and various initiatives were considered, but unfortunately these were never taken up in consultation with people dependent on the lake.
Earlier, the mitigation efforts included the construction of check dams in the catchment areas, removal of phumdis, eviction of fisher folk residing on the lake and dredging the bed. Only during the past two decades was an environmental approach adopted, including plantation of trees in the catchment areas. Efforts were made to clean the polluting Nambul river, but the project did not include cleaning of its tributary, the Naga stream, which is more polluted than the Nambul river. It is only recently that a project to clean up this stream was prepared.
In July, the LDA issued a notice mentioning that the state government is striving hard to rejuvenate the ecological condition of the lake and delist it from the Montreux Record and it has observed that the exponential rise in the number of athaphums, houses and huts constructed on the phums have put the lake at risk. It has also been observed that such homestays have become a social issue as these are operated without proper regulation and, therefore, exercising the powers conferred by Sections 4, 19 and 20 of the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, read with Section 5 of the said Act, it was notified that all athaphums, huts or houses on phumdis within the premises of the lake, excluding Champu Khangpok, shall be dismantled by the individuals concerned within 15 days of the date of publication of the notice.
This order created fear psychosis among the fisher folk as well as those who operate the homestays. Many are concerned that the next step may be a ban on fishing in large swathes of the lake. The irony is that in tourism advertisements, athaphums and homestays in the lake are projected as the USP.
There is a general belief that tourism in the lake will be transferred to moneyed people and the locals will be left high and dry. The state tourism department had developed a mega eco-tourism project, whose details are still not available in the public domain, though people were invited to see the detailed project report in the office of the Director, Tourism. What the Loktak lake needs is a comprehensive and holistic approach, involving locals, that takes into all its aspects to arrest further deterioration. Following a debate among experts, the components of the final project may be prioritised. No development project can sustain itself if the local population is dead against it.