Imphal: The Chadong Church, one of the most significant landmarks consumed by the rising dam water, is still standing tall, but in gaunt condition. The church bears witness to the paradigm shift that the village in Ukhrul district of Manipur have experienced over the years.
Locals believed that it is the church which keeps their hopes alive in their struggle for survival.
The Thoubal river that once flowed gracefully is now being disconnected with the valley. Once gifted with bountiful land, culture and sustaining livelihood, the people of Chadong village are now struggling to make ends meet.
The picture changed after the construction of the contentious Mapithel or Maphou Dam reservoir on the Thoubal river along the Mapithel range. What was constructed in the pretext of development, has now become a nightmare for those who were once dependent on Thoubal River.
“How could we say that life is good out here. We don’t know what kind of legacy or memories to be kept for younger generations. It’s all about struggles here in the village, we have nothing left to pose or proud of. We are even scared that this village might no longer exist in future due to villagers scattered in different places after dam constructed,” said Louis, an elder of Chadong village.
The dam has submerged forests, cultivable land and grazing grounds of the people living in the affected areas stretching to over 2,000 hectares.
So far, a total of 22 villages, both upstream and downstream, have been affected by the project.
“After we had lost all the agricultural lands, we couldn’t send our children to metro cities for further studies. Knowing the struggles faced by parents at home, my son once told me that he will join an underground group. It broke my heart when he said that,” said Khayaola Kashung, a mother of three.
Unlike the authorities, locals had foreseen what was on the books for them. It garnered anger and hatred for seemingly taking away what they had rightfully owned since ancestral times. Several protests were carried out demanding review of the plan. Students, local bodies and civil societies came together to protest the dam. But all in vain.
Honreikui Kashung, a local of Chadong village said, “During the initial land survey days, many locals, especially youths, used to get beaten up by police for stopping the officials from get into the village. Those who got hurt during the retaliation with forces have become either physically weak or some have already died. During this phase of struggles, many have lost their near and dear ones as well.”
However, officials associated with the project state that it is due to internal crisis among the villagers that led to protests. The protests were carried out by the younger generation, while the village elders had already given their clearance.
G Robindro Sharma, chief engineer, Thoubal Multipurpose Project, said, “The demonstrations and the resistance started much later. The head of the society of the tribal had already agreed with the politicians. Since the money was not there and the work did not begin in full swing, the people of the next generation started resisting the project. However, the heads of the villages had already signed an agreement and only then the land was cleared after giving all the clearances.”
Located at a distance of 36 km from state capital Imphal, the dam was first proposed in 1980 at an estimated cost of Rs 47.25 crore. The construction began in 1990. With irrigation potential of 33,400 hectares, the dam is supposed to produce 7.5 MW of power and supply around 45.46 million litres water a day, most of which would be directed to Imphal. But due to unwarranted delays, the project failed to see the light of the day till date.
Following resistance from the villagers, the government of Manipur held talks with the locals in 1993. On June 19, 1993, a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) was signed between the villagers and the state government. According to the MoA, the process of rehabilitation and resettlement was to be completed within two years of signing the agreement. However, little headway has been made till date.
Now, with one of the shutters of the dam being opened, the water level in Chadong has gone down to nearly 80%. One can see the remnants of household items, wooden planks, and already worn-out buildings belonging to those families who refused to give up their lands scattered around the place.
Along with their survival, the villagers are also battling connectivity issues. With bridges and roads that once connected the valley totally swallowed by the dam water, the only means of transportation are the makeshift boats that take hours to even cover a short distance.
Peacerose Kashung lost her motherhood in the struggle. “I went into labour by 11 pm at night and till 5.30 am; I was in the village waiting for transportation. Later, we went down to the boat station and crossed the river. By the time I reached Lamlai Khunou/Ramrei, I was already heavily bleeding and before reaching Imphal, I had delivered the baby at Ngarumphung village. Unfortunately, I lost my baby there but maybe that was God’s plan,” she said.
Chadong village, which was once known for its close-knit community, is now scattered in different places due to the state’s ambitious power project. The price had to be paid by the families living here.
“We are demanding to claim our ancestral land rights, only then we will take the compensation package. However, during this process, some of the villagers were trapped under the government’s divide and rule and took the money without our knowledge. Since then, it is unfortunate to say that the village has been created into two parties,” said Wungnaoyo Kasar, a Chadong headman.
Ramrei is another village which was completely submerged by the contentious dam project along with their paddy fields. Even though the village of 125 households had managed to shift and settled on higher sites across the river before the water level started rising in 2009, life in this hill village gets tougher due to meagre source of available livelihood.
Shimreishang, a local, said, “Earlier, we could support our children’s education from resources we get from our paddy fields. However, after the fields were submerged, our livelihood approached has drastically changed. Those who can do menial jobs are somehow figuring out to survive, but many are still struggling in finding an alternate source of income.”
Like many other youngsters in the dam-affected villages, Raingam is also trying to figure out what life holds for him. Raingam took to running ferry services in the Chadong river. However, it was the fateful Sunday afternoon of April 28 this year that still haunts Raingam despite his act of bravery where he saved the lives of nine people. But the same tragedy will always be remembered by the people of Manipur as it claimed the lives of three people.
One can still feel the anxiety and fear as he narrates the incident. His boat still lies severed from the incident.
A local of Ramrei village, Raingam said, “After my boat was capsized, forgetting my own safety, I tried to save all the 12 passengers traveling on my boat. After saving nine of them, I dived down under water thrice to search the three missing persons but unfortunately during that time, another windstorm came and took us far away from where the incident occurred. After that, I couldn’t go back to the incident site due to unstoppable wind hovering around the place. That’s how we lost three of them during the accident.”
“Since I didn’t study for long, I thought that I’ll drive the boat for livelihood. But since the unfortunate incident happened and completely damaged my boat, I am left with no other option other than being a daily wage labourer,” he added.
Raingam spent nearly Rs 1 lakh in repairing the boat before the tragedy took place. Now, with no financial assistance or compensation from the government, Raingam remains clueless about his future.
Meanwhile, the chief engineer of the project said that most of the villagers have already been compensated. He also said that some of the locals are being manipulated to draw extra money.
“Only 30 families are left out of 394 which is also already verified and agreed. They have been actually wrongly guided by some people who are doing the green tribunal case. The families are paid 14 lakh per family. So the amount becomes around Rs 375 crore up till now. So now they have been given a wrong perception and if they do the case with green tribunal they will be paid 40 lakh which is never possible,” said Sharma.
“Now, these 74 people they have never taken it because they have assured that 40 lakhs will be given. When they came to us and the real story was shared 40 of them have already taken and 20 are under process to take. We have taken care of this and one by one they will take [the compensation]. The Centre will never provide extra money because the project is closed. Whatever is there in the project report we have already paid everything. There is nothing left with us,” added chief engineer Sharma.
To the wailing hearts of the affected community, the structure which was meant to bring prosperity has metaphorically become a structure that spells sorrow. While the reservoir and its surroundings became one of the main tourist attractions of the state, the locals continue to struggle with each passing day.