In our latest documentary, we look at how govt policies announced to conserve the largest freshwater lake of the state is posing a threat to fishermen living in area
Imphal: Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater lake of Manipur, is the lifeline for the people of the state. But it holds much more significance for the fishermen community. This lake is their primary source of livelihood. But now it has become a fight for survival for the fishermen. Government policies announced to conserve the lake is posing a huge threat to the fishermen as most of them lack any alternative livelihood skills.
"When I was young and was following my elders' footsteps, we could invest Rs 500 in fishing equipment, and catch fish worth Rs 1,000. However, now we have to invest Rs 20,000 in the equipment and we catch fish worth only Rs 500. The quantity of fish in the lake is going down," said Sanatomba, a local fisherman.
Sanatomba spends most of his time on this floating lake, doing what he is best at, fishing and supporting his family.
There are about 3,000 others, like Sanatomba. For them, Loktak is the only way to provide two square meals for their families.
Situated at a distance of 53 km from Imphal, the state capital of Manipur, Loktak Lake is best known for its floating islands and floating huts or Khangpok built on the phumdis, a series of floating islands, by the fishing community.
With an area of about 26,000 hectares, Loktak is the largest fishery resource of Manipur accounting for more than 50% of the fish producing area. About 12% of Manipur’s population depend on its resources.
No wonder, Loktak is referred to as their ‘Mother’ by the fishing community.
However, the removal of a large number of fish culture ponds from the core area of the lake has led to massive economic displacement. Enakhunba, who is a second-generation fisherman, is now struggling to make ends meet.
“This Khangpok on the 'Ema' (mother) Loktak Lake allows us to earn a living and take care of my family. If I stay at home (house on the land, a small island on Loktak Lake called 'Karang') I can't afford to send my kids to school or even feed them. The way we are living (fishing from hut) is because we are poor and don't have a choice. I owe money to other people. I built this hut on 'Ema' Loktak so that I can lead a normal and respectable life in the society. I don't know why people say it is fun to catch fish but to us fishermen it is a hard life,” said Enakhunba.
In 2006, the Manipur government enacted the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act aimed at conserving the lake.
But the government was oblivious about its impact on the fishing community.
Making things worse for the fishermen, in November 2011, an eviction drive to vacate the fishermen from the lake was launched. During the same time the Loktak Development Authority also cleared the fish culture ponds from the core area of the lake.
This resulted in sharp decline of earning capability of the fishermen resulting in untold hardship for them.
Kh Deven, president of the All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen's Union, termed the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006 as the second AFSPA. They are now demanding a Fishermen Welfare Rights Act from the state or the Central government.
"On the govt policy front, one would find that the govt has initiated a lot of policies, but they are not eco-friendly and also not people-oriented. As a result, a fisherman still faces a lot of problems. Today what we (fishermen) want is a Fishermen Welfare Right Act from the state or the central govt, it is our foremost demand. We don't have any policy to do with fishermen specifically, due to which the fishermen have no right of fishing and have no access to central govt sponsored schemes," said Kh Deven.
"We fishermen call it second AFSPA, the Manipur Loktak (Protection) Act of 2006, which is making the lives of fishermen more difficult. The act stipulates a core zone of around 17.3 square kilometres, which is a totally protected area and is a no-development zone and inside this area, we have revenue villages like Thanga, Karang, Ithing. You also have restrictions on fishing. Inside the core zone, one cannot use 'laang' (fishing net), ropes, stones, but how do we fish without a fishing net?" asked Deven.
"We don't want to criticise govt policies, but what we want is that government should engage with the public before the formulation and implementation of any project, so that it becomes a success," he added.
Despite being surrounded by rich resources; most families now living there do not have enough money to buy fishing equipment. This has forced the women folk to sell their ornaments in exchange to buy a large fishing net, locally known as ‘Innjao’ and other fishing gadgets.
"To purchase an 'innjao' (large net), we have to sell our women's gold ornaments since we did not have the cash to buy nets. Each net costs Rs 3000 to 4000 and along with solar panels, battery and lights we spend around Rs 60000 to 70000 on fishing equipment. A poor man like me does not have such a large sum of money so I have to beg and borrow as well. With fishing, we manage to earn Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 on a good day and Rs 200 on a bad day," said Enakhunba.
Fisherman Sanatomba laments that the degrading value of the lake due to various factors is alarming as the pulsating lake, which is about 500 sq km during the rainy season shrinks down half during winter. He fears that Loktak might soon lose its sheen if proper steps to safeguard the lake are not taken. The water level in the lake is surplus from May to November but the level depletes during the rest of the year.
"The quantity of fish in the lake is going down, if this continues, by the time my grandchildren grow up they will only see fish in photographs," said Sanatomba.
Life for the women folk is not easy. Enakhunba’s wife Purnima has to continuously juggle between treating the fish and making them market ready and taking care of her family.
"Men, they catch the fish, and we prepare and smoke it. I come to the hut at night to smoke the fish and work till 10 in the morning. We (women) lose track of sleep and the hunger dies. Compared to men it is more taxing for us. We don't have much. We have to continue doing this to make ends meet. We live and work from the hut on 'Ema Loktak' to seek a better life. It is better than living and working from the land. I visit my house (on the island) around 5 in the evening and return to the hut by 9 pm. I have girls who go to school, so I have to keep a check on them and after cooking food for them and sending them to bed I return and work here (Khangpok)," said Purnima.
"I have to go back to the house on the land as there are no elders to take care of the kids. It is a very tiring life for us. Should we send them to school or should we feed ourselves? Here we work and live in the middle of the Loktak Lake as we don't own any farmland. We have to buy everything. From firewood to food, everything! The only thing that we don't buy is water. Our life is full of struggle," Purnima added.
Loktak receives 1,520 million cubic metres of total annual inflow. Of this, 54% is from streams of the western catchments, 24% from direct rainfall and 22% from the Manipur river system through the Khordak and Ungamil channels.
Oinam Rajen, secretary of the All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen's Union says that due to the construction of Ithai barrage in 1983 the migratory route of fishes were blocked resulting in a reduction in fish population in the lake and rising number of fishermen.
"The dwindling fish population is the result of the construction of Ithai Barrage for power generation. Earlier fish like Sareng, Pengba, Ngaton the native fish of the region used the lake as breeding grounds. These fish would use Khodrak river to get to the lake from Myanmar region using the Irrawady Chindwin channel connected to Manipur river and get to Loktak (now blocked by the barrage)," said Rajen.
"After 1990 the number of fishermen has increased and hence resulting in overfishing. Before this the number of the population dependent on the lake was low, now we have a much larger population fishing throughout the year and whose livelihood is entirely dependent on fishing. This is because of the commissioning of Ithai Barrage in 1983, who after which the population were earlier farming lost their land due to increased water levels in the lake. And to survive, these people who were earlier farmers shifted to fishing -- leading to overfishing," he added.
Amid the struggles and the hardship, there seem to be a ray of hope. Leaders of the ruling BJP is promising to take up the cause.
"Our government led by BJP Manipur, since the inception, Loktak has been one of the core areas of our government. Our honourable chief minister is very keen to resolve the issues of the people specially the fishermen communities of Loktak lake. But there are serious and multiple problems for several years due to multiple factors. Commissioning of the hydel project and specially the changing of the environmental cycle of the lake. Now, the state government is consulting with all the stake holders led by the Loktak Development Authority and other inter-related departments and the fishermen community is also in touch with the government authorities to find out solutions in the near future. I understand there are problems and dissents against the Loktak (Protection) Act, 2006 but as per my and the government’s view, preservation of the lake and concern of the people should be together and in the near future I believe that our government and specially the Loktak Development Authority will try to dissolve all these issues for the purposefulness of the conservation and the preservation as well as the welfare of the people who are dependent upon this lake. I believe our government the communities specially the dwellers of the Loktak lake while formulating and implementing any kind of project related to the conservation and preservation of the lake in future," said M Asni Kumar, environmentalist and vice-president of state BJP unit.