Mention Manipur’s most famous places and one of the first names you hear of is Loktak Lake. Located around 45 km from state capital Imphal, Loktak is an ecological marvel; one unlike any other ecosystem in India. Such is its importance that it is recognised as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Wetlands Convention, 1971

Loktak is one of the most productive ecosystems that support the livelihood of locals as well as diverse and unique habitats. The critically endangered brow-antlered deer (Sangai) is endemic to this region. Besides, the massive wetland is critical habitat to migratory waterfowl from Europe and Central Asia, who come here via the Central Asian Flyway and the Eurasian-Australian Flyway during mid-winter.

Loktak lives up to its name, which in Meitei translates to “where streams end” — close to 30 rivers and streams feed into the lake, creating a 287 square kilometre water body, which is roughly the size of 53,000 football fields. Besides being a sight to behold, the lake absorbs floodwater during the monsoon season and supports the livelihoods of over three lakh people in Manipur throughout the year.

Loktak, Pumlen, Ikop, Kharung, Khoidum Lamjao, Waithou, Ngakrapat, Biraharipat, Ungamelpat are distinct yet interrelated wetlands formed by meandering flows of the Manipur river system and spread over 500 sq km, a region popularly referred to as the Loktak Wetland Complex (LWC) south of Imphal. These wetlands are nourished by abundant water, and nutrient flows captured by the surrounding blue mountains, thus creating this astonishing and awe-inspiring wetland complex.

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Meitei fishing communities have worked here over centuries to evolve a lifestyle that helps harvest fish and wetland-based crops and vegetables, which forms the backbone of food security of the wider Manipur area. In addition, their carbon neutral living, involving dugout canoes and phumshangs – huts of bamboo and thatch built on floating biomass – phumdi, constitute a distinctive feature of Manipur’s living heritage, and the world as well.

The Loktak development projects

In the past few years, the increasing popularity of Loktak has not gone unnoticed; especially among the governments — both state and central — who have drawn ambitious plans to ‘develop’ the region. 

They are, however, not going to get support from several important international organisations, who seem to have taken note of the multiple objections raised by stakeholders, experts, and academics. 

To understand this issue, let us first look at the contentious plan.

The Loktak Eco-Tourism Project is a Rs 2,600 crore project that aims to turn the Loktak region into a revamped tourism destination. In November 2020, the Manipur Government invited tenders for the project, which will span over 82 hectares of Loktak Lake. Neighbouring the KeibulLamjao National Park, the mega eco-tourism project proposes to build jetties, a resort, and a golf course. This “world-class tourist destination” will share its space with about 200 aquatic plant species and 400 faunal species, including the endemic and endangered brow-antlered Sangai deer and over 60 species of birds, most of which are migratory.

The 266-sq-km Loktak Lake in Manipur is Northeast India’s largest freshwater lake and a Ramsar site of international importance Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri

Despite the ecological diversity of this region, the state government sees this project’s implementation in Loktak as a game-changer. After all, as they suggest, it will “change the socio-economic status of the State…” by providing alternate livelihood to the local population. They justify the ‘eco’ in the “eco-tourism” proposal by performing filtration and conservation in the lake.

On September 21, 2021, Union Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution and Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ashwini Kumar Choubey announced that the Central government is working to provide a Rs 1,450-crore financial package through the Asian Development Bank to implement an eco-tourism project at Loktak Lake. 

And this is where the state and the central government find themselves in a soup. Asian Development Bank, which is supposed to be funding the project, clarified that the Department of Economic Affairs in the Government of India’s Ministry of Finance had posed the project for ADB financing on February 24, 2021. “ADB will examine the project proposal as per standard procedure. No details are available with ADB at the moment,” it said. 

In short, the minister’s claim that ADB will finance the project rings hollow. 

And then, there is Wetlands International, with its South Asia Division known as Wetlands International South Asia (WISA). They, too, have categorically stated that it does not support the Manipur government’s plan to introduce Loktak Inland Waterways and the Rs 2,600-crore Loktak Eco-Tourism Projects. These initiatives have been developed independently by the concerned state government agencies, it has added.

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The clarifications from both WISA and ADB may put the Manipur government, Loktak Development Authority (LDA), Manipur State Wetlands Authority (MSWA) and others into a sticky situation as the All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union Manipur (ALLAFUM) moved a petition in the High Court of Manipur seeking review of its October 12, 2020 order. In the impugned order, the HC allowed the LDA to proceed with the Notice Inviting Tender (NIT) for the Loktak Inland Waterways Project and Ecotourism Project.

The high court gave go-head with NIT after the Manipur government filed the Integrated Management Plan for Wise Use of Loktak Lake, Manipur (2020-2025) prepared by WISA. The Solicitor General of India submitted that the Asian Development Bank, Japan, is funding this project and funds for this project will also lapse if the NIT is not permitted.

The Government of Manipur had claimed that funds have already been secured from the ADB for the eco-tourism project. The Government allegedly used this false claim to snatch an order from the High Court, and thus lift the interim stay on the activities in Loktak and allow the immediate issuance of NITs for the eco-tourism project and inland waterways project.

WISA puts the record straight

Spelling out its position on the project, which has drawn criticism from several quarters over the un-ecological components of the plan, WISA has made clear that all developmental activities around the Loktak Wetland Complex have to be aligned with the wetland’s ecological character and wise use.

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“Loktak being a Ramsar site is regulated under the provisions of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017. The management plan has called for ensuring convergence in all developmental activities in and around Ramsar site in conformity with wise use principle and the extant regulatory regime,” it said.

WISA, which has been working for sustaining and restoring wetlands, their resources and biodiversity in the South Asia region, issued the clarification following a global campaign to “protect for posterity the unique Loktak Wetland Region in Manipur.”

As part of the campaign, an online petition was launched by Ngamee Lup, in coordination with Indigenous Perspectives, Imphal, Manipur & Environment Support Group, Bangalore, calling for the saving of Lake Loktak, and support of its people. Highlighting the need for greater engagement with these communities and the government to revise its current plans for the development of Lake Loktak, the petition has demanded that Wetlands International withdraw its so-called ‘wise use’ plan for Loktak.

According to the petition, ‘Loktak Manipur: An Integrated Plan for Wise Use (2020-2025)’ developed by WISA and LDA in July 2020, is ecologically disastrous and socially disruptive and a patently unjust proposal. 

The 231-page plan includes proposals for governance of the region led by parastatals and an action plan that promotes the massive expansion of infrastructure for transport and tourism, extractive fishing based on industrial models of production, and a range of consumerist mass tourism. 

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WISA’s plan includes proposals to set up factories in this eco-sensitive region to back extractive fishing, a move that would displace and destroy traditional and artisanal fisherfolk and farmers.

Responding to the petition, WISA said, “Loktak Manipur: An Integrated Plan for Wise Use (2020-2025) was prepared by Wetlands International South Asia for Loktak Development Authority (LDA) at their request. This management plan conforms to the diagnostic evaluation process recommended by the Ramsar Convention and the guidelines of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.”

WISA has further said, “Wetlands International South Asia has no say in the management plan review processes, which are subsequently conducted by the state government through their internal mechanisms.”

Stating that it upholds and deeply respects the rights of indigenous people and local communities living in and around Loktak (Manipur), who have time and again provided valuable advice and direction to wetland management for over two decades of our engagement with this Ramsar site, WISA has recommended a comprehensive reorganisation of the LDA to build its capability to engage with stakeholders.

WISA also said, “We are of the firm belief that all developmental activities around the Loktak Wetland Complex have to be aligned with the wetland’s ecological character and wise use. Loktak being a Ramsar site is regulated under the provisions of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017. The management plan has called for ensuring convergence in all developmental activities in and around Ramsar site in conformity with wise use principle and the extant regulatory regime.”

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Expressing serious reservations on the continued degradation of the Loktak Lake, WISA said it has repeatedly highlighted the insufficiency of existing management, and the fact that Loktak still exists on the Montreux record (a List of Ramsar Site having undergone or undergoing an adverse change in ecological character).

“Addressing alterations of natural hydrological regimes due to the construction of the Ithai barrage, which is at the core of the degradation has been highlighted as central to wetland rejuvenation. Besides mention in the management plan, we have made repeated references in letters to this important issue addressed to the Chief Secretary, Government of Manipur and other key functionaries,” it said.

On petitioner’s claim that WISA has also not discussed the draconian nature of Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, which criminalises indigenous communities, their livelihoods, cultures and traditions, it said it has recommended a comprehensive reorganisation of the LDA to build its capability to engage with stakeholders.

“Wetlands International South Asia does not endorse the November 2011 incident of evicting Phum dwellers from Loktak,” it stated.

WISA also expressed concern that without a well-meaning plan to ensure maintenance of the ecological character of Loktak, the wetland will continue to degrade and impact the lives of the communities.

Environmental red flags

Loktak lake is also home to thousands of resident and migratory birds and flora and fauna endemic to the region. Both this convention and the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 applicable in India reaffirm the necessity of adopting a wise use approach in the governance of wetlands.

Fishing villages living around the Loktak wetlands area are deeply worried about a thrust for un-ecological project components such as a ‘Sea Beach’, golf course, resorts, boardwalks and walkways, motor boating, etc., on a vibrant freshwater wetland ecosystem, as part of the proposed eco-tourism project.

Residents of fifteen fishing villages of Pumlen Pat and Khoidum Pat, wetlands integral to the Loktak area, adopted a resolution on September 26, 2021, unequivocally affirming that the people of Pumlen and Loktak will put up stiff resistance against any project that forcibly displaces the indigenous peoples of Loktak and to any attempts to alienate them from farming and fishing in Pumlen and Loktak area.

They feared that the project would disrupt their traditional livelihoods by blocking fishery activities, and severing inter-generational intricacies that tie people with the lake. An inland waterways project in Loktak will further destroy the ecologically, economically and culturally crucial floating islands of Loktak, and disrupt traditional fishing livelihoods, they said.

They claimed that there has been not a single consultation for the project with the fishing families/villages about any of this, leave alone complying with the Principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

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Salam Joy, the secretary of Pumlen Pat Ngamee Sinmee Lup, a union of a community practising both farming and fishing in the area for their survival, asserted that the wetland is their ancestral territory, and the entire community is resolved to resist the takeover of these biodiversity-rich commons by corporations backed by the government.

Babloo Loitongbam, Director of Human Rights Alert, said the government policy and programs are antithetical to the conservation and livelihood of the people of the Loktak and the other wetlands. He said that the right to life and livelihood are enshrined in the Constitution of India, and the Government of Manipur cannot bypass any of the laws that seek to protect them. He also said that human rights groups in Manipur and also those across the world must help in the defence of the people of the wetlands and their livelihoods.

Ram Wangkheirakpam, Convener of Ngamee Lup said that the proposal of the Manipur government to develop Loktak as a major eco-tourism centre is hegemonic, undemocratically evolved, against human rights of indigenous peoples of the region, violates multiple statutory requirements, and is socio-ecologically disastrous. It is the natural and historical right of local indigenous communities to continue to live in the Loktak region without being disturbed by destructive projects and draconian laws and State action, he added.

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