Pollution is a by-word that finds not much takers in Manipur in finding solutions to the numerous issues on air, water and noise pollution that are becoming public menace in the central urban Imphal areas, not to say the least of the concerns on water pollution of the freshwater Loktak Lake upon which hundreds of families depend on for their living and which provide substantial fish produce for the State, the majority population being fish consumers.

The reference on water pollution specific to Loktak Lake is more on the continued disposal of solid wastes, garbage and sewerage discharges from the urban areas, carried by rivers that flow directly into the lake. The discussion in these past years has been directed on the observed level of pollutant loads that are physically visible on the surface of the water. Until now, there has been no serious attempt to study and analyze the level of pollutants contained underneath the water, in specific the settled matters and particulates from material made of plastics especially.

The concern on water pollution by chemicals contained in plastics, and for that matter antibiotics and pesticides, till now has not been dealt scientifically or otherwise with particular reference to Loktak.

This could particularly be of serious concern for the State if at all the recent report of the United Nations Environment Programme (Chemicals in Plastics: A Technical Report, 2023) has any implication for the lake managers wherein the report states that, ‘Based on the latest studies, more than 13,000 chemicals have been identified as associated with plastics and plastic production across a wide range of applications’. This, indeed, is an extremely serious matter and ought to be of primary concern for the Loktak managers.

As per the UNEP report, ten groups of chemicals are identified as being of ‘major concern due to their high toxicity and potential to migrate or be released from plastics, including specific flame retardants, certain UV stabilizers, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), phthalates, bisphenols, alkylphenols and alkylphenol ethoxylates, biocides, certain metals and metalloids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and many other non-intentionally added substances (NIAS)’.

The report is specific on this issue stating that, ‘Chemicals of concern have been found in plastics across a wide range of sectors and products value chains, including toys and other children’s products, packaging (including food contact materials), electrical and electronic equipment, vehicles, synthetic textiles and related materials, furniture, building materials, medical devices, personal care and household products, and agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries’.

Cautioning on the extensive use of plastics and its subsequent hazardous disposal, the report has a fair warning for all. ‘Chemicals of concern in plastics can impact our health and our environment. Extensive scientific data on the potential adverse impacts of about 7000 substances associated with plastics show that more than 3200 of them have one or more hazardous properties of concern’.

It is more or less cited in numerous discussions on marine water pollution around the globe of how non-biodegradable plastic waste – specifically micro and nano plastics – are having severe negative impacts on the fish diversity and fisheries activity, while also hugely impacting the marine wildlife. There is enough evidence of marine wildlife entangling in discarded plastic fishing nets, and dying. Chemical bleaching is also killing the coral life along the coastal lines.

India’s Wetlands (Conservation & Management) Rules, 2017 contains provisions for the prevention of pollution in water bodies. On the restriction of activities in wetlands, Rule 4(2:iv) of the 2017 Rules restricts solid waste dumping in wetlands, while Rule 4(2:v) restricts the discharge of untreated wastes and effluents from industries, cities, towns, villages and other human settlements. It cannot be ascertained exactly as to how the Manipur Government implements the provision of the Rules to prevent water pollution in the wetlands that are struggling to exist in the State.

Specific to the women and children of the fisher families who consume water of Loktak Lake directly for drinking, cooking and other domestic uses, the UNEP report notes that ‘Women and children are particularly susceptible to these toxic chemicals. Exposures can have severe or long-lasting adverse effects on several key period of a woman’s life and may impact the next generation. Exposures during fetal development and in children can cause, for example, neuro-developmental and/or neuro-behavioural related disorders’.

The report’s finding does not spare the men either, stating that, ‘Men are not spared either, with latest research documenting substantial detrimental effects on male fertility due to current combined exposures to hazardous chemicals, many of which are associated with plastics’.

These concerns develop from the fear and reasoning out of the finding that, ‘Chemicals of concern can be released from plastic along its entire life cycle, during not only the extraction of raw materials, production of polymers and manufacture of plastic products, but also the use of plastic products and at the end of their life, particularly when waste is not properly managed, finding their way to the air, water and soils’.

The finding brings to the fore concerns on health issues for the fishing community of Loktak in specific, as may be true for other wetland dependent communities, who consume directly the fish and edible aquatic plants sourced from the lake.

Pollution in its different perspectives, such as from pollutant loads deposited by inflowing rivers and the chemical residue from the nearby agricultural fields, can largely impact the health of the fishing community and can subsequently impact their livelihoods, too. The corresponding concern is on the health issues – such as water-borne diseases, intestinal infections, maybe cancer too – of the fish consuming population in the State through consumption of fish sourced from polluted water.

It is fairly well known that due to exposure to sunlight, wind and waves, plastics in the environment undergo weathering and break down into smaller fragments to form microplastics and nanoplastics.

On this note, the UNEP report has a fair sounding for the Loktak lake managers. ‘Chemicals leaching out of plastics in the environment can be relevant for environmentally-mediated human and ecosystem exposures. In the aquatic environment, the leaching potential of chemicals is influenced by several factors, including the chemical’s molecular weight, concentration and physicochemical properties, the crystallinity of the plastic, surface-area-to-volume ratio of the plastic particle, duration of exposure to water, the extent of weathering, and environmental conditions such as pH and temperature’.

This observation can be interpreted as a wake-up call to the Loktak lake managers for a studied response post-haste to the possibility of contamination of the lake water through leaching of chemicals from the plastic loads deposited in the lake water year after year without control. The call again can be interpreted as a deep concern on the health issue of people who consume fish sourced from the lake and its feeder rivers like the Nambul, Nambol and Moirang.