In Manipur, an indigenous people and their way of life faces threat in the name of development

The stillness of the waters is compelling. A few stray boats glide across the surface in the distance but the waters remain unbroken by the passage. The silence of the present is in stark contrast to the dynamism of the lake in the past. Not many months ago, thousands of fisher folk used to manoeuvre their narrow boats through the phumdis or floating biomass, but are now being evicted from the lake.

The Loktak Lake in the heart of Manipur, is the largest freshwater lake in north-eastern India and touted as the only floating lake in the world due to the phumdis. The wetland, spread over 286 sq km area in three districts of Imphal west, Thoubal and Bishnupur, is designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. For centuries, the local human populace has coexisted with the lake in harmony. But today, it bears an eerie quietude that is evocative of the destruction of the indigenous tribe and culture that is taking place.

Salaam Mani Masa, wife of Salaam Tomba, from the Sendra settlement around the lake in Moirang is afraid of what awaits them. “We have been fishing for generations. I go fishing, my husband goes fishing, my daughter also goes fishing. If we are not allowed to fish anymore, how will we survive?”

A typical day for people in the area begins early in the morning with a member from each family taking a boat out to the lake for fishing. Once into the water, the communities meet and fish till late evening, and sometimes even well into the night. There was a time when they were able to earn Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 from selling their catch in the market in one season alone, but the trade has been suffering of late, not helped by security personnel swooping down on the lake to flush out insurgents. The population of migratory birds was reportedly affected and the ecosystem of the place disturbed by hovercrafts making their way into the region.

Once upon a time agriculture used to be one of the main occupations in the region, but a hydro electric project raised the water levels leading to flooding of the farmlands.. It was then that people took to fishing, but now are being stopped from pursuing that too.

Many families have already been evicted from the lake settlement and the Salaam family knows that there isn’t much time before its turn to go will also come. The police have been dismantling homes and though the evicted have been promised compensation, not much has reached them yet.

“The government may have announced Rs 50,000 but by the time all the officials and people in between take their cuts, the amount that reached us residents was Rs 5,000. How is a family supposed to start life afresh with that amount?” asks a resident who has been evicted and is temporarily taking shelter in his brother’s house.

Before the phase-wise eviction of the concrete houses started, the Loktak Development Authority had burnt down temporary bamboo shelters built by fisher folk on the lake waters. The fisher folk used to stay on the bamboo structure for days and even a week sometimes to catch fish in the phums (ponds). To disable the few who continue to fish in the lake, the government is trying to remove the phumdis that forms on the lake surface. The fisher folk create cage farms from these naturally floating water plants to catch fish. “So much money is being wasted for removing the phums. But they will keep coming back. Because it is nature,” asserts Laishram Macha, a fisherman.

He rattles off the names of around 15 varieties of fish that thrive in the lake. The Keibul Lamjao National Park on the lake is the only remaining natural habitat of the endangered brow-antlered deer or the dancing deer, locally known as Sangai. A few years ago, around 2,000 cattle egrets were said to be sighted near the village, but now their numbers have dropped to below 70.

The fisher folk fear eviction any time now but want a clear cut plan for their rehabilitation. “What we really want is that even if we are evicted, we should be allowed to fish in a designated area of the lake. We hear that they want to number the boats to be able to collect tax. Our livelihood has become difficult by the day but it should not be taken away from us,” says Laishram. It is being said that the lake, which is already reeling under pressure from the hydro electric project and filth that flows in from the rivers, is being made people-free for developing tourism around the lake.

Yet again, a way of life is being brought to an end to make way for so-called development.

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