From the field Society

Can hope float Loktak’s phumdis?

Fisherfolk on Loktak   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Tomba, 45, used to be a fisherman till about 15 years ago. His day would begin at dawn, when he and the other men in his phumdi (islet) would set off for various parts of Loktak lake to fish. Their children rowed country boats to get to their schools on the Manipuri mainland. By afternoon, the day’s catch would reach Moirang, Ningthoukhong and Bishnupur. And the fishmonger women would take the fish across the State for sale. Today, Tomba sells plants for a living. For a while, after being relocated from his phumdi, he had tried to earn an income plying a cycle rickshaw, but failed. His neighbour Leirentombi is penniless and doesn’t know how to feed or school her children.

Their neighbour Manihar is luckier. He is among the few to own a tin-roofed house near Moirang town, about 45 km south of Imphal, and runs a small grocery with his wife. There is growing resentment, however, against the government among these former residents of Loktak lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Northeast.

It’s close to six years since they were forced to leave their homes in the phumdis as part of conservation efforts, but little has been done by way of rehabilitation, they say. “The Chief Minister is going

Can hope float Loktak’s phumdis?

out of his way to ensure the welfare of the people in Manipur. But he has not said a single word about us,” says Mangijao, a former fisherman and phumdi resident.

Monsoon cycle

Lake Loktak (meaning end of the stream) pulses with life, stretching to about 500 sq. km during the rains and roughly half that in the dry months of February and March. It is famous for the floating biomass islands or phumdis, a rich source of vegetation that have supported humans and animals for decades. In the heart of the lake is the largest phumdi, the 40 sq. km Keibul Lamjao National Park, home to the endangered brown-antlered deer, the sangai, whose habitat is under threat just as the islands are.

The phumdis float during the rains and sink during the dry months, sucking nutrients from the lake bed to replenish their roots and float again when the next monsoon cycle begins. This has been their life cycle for centuries but it is now at grave risk. The Loktak Hydroelectric Project constantly keeps the water level in the lake high.

Unable to feed from the nutrients on the bed, the phumdis are thinning out and even breaking away. Worse, local residents themselves are breaking off pieces of the biomass to sell elsewhere as rich fish culture soil. Edible plants, fruits and roots endemic to the phumdis, and once a thriving food source for Manipuris, are slowly dying.

About 12 lakh Manipuris are said to depend on Loktak lake, directly or indirectly, putting immense pressure on the waterbody. Waste and sewage from nearly 30 streams and rivers find their way into the lake, choking it with plastic and toxins.

The various dams, most prominently the ones that are part of the hydroelectric project, have dramatically altered the lake’s hydrology. Roads and other urban works encroach into and diminish Loktak. The floating phumdis and the fisherfolk who live on them have multiplied manifold, slowly polluting and poisoning the waters. Foreign fish introduced into the lake are killing indigenous species.

Sneak back

In 1990, the Ramsar Convention declared Loktak a ‘wetland of international importance’, and in 2006, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) enforced the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, under which the government began to clear the lake of human encroachment.

Fishermen were asked to leave the phumdis. A ₹360-crore grant was approved to clear the lake of water hyacinths and compensate the fishermen. But the fishing families refused to leave the islets. In 2011, LDA officials and armed policemen torched their huts and around 800 were burnt down. According to LDA officials, ₹40,000 each was paid as compensation to 519 families whose huts were torched. The rest refused to accept the compensation, saying it was too little and protesting the disruption to their means of livelihood.

Now, the fisherfolk hope the BJP government, which came to power in the State early this year, will come to their aid. Among the party’s rallying cry during campaigning was a promise to expose the Loktak “scam” and bring justice to the poor fishermen.

Many villagers have already started to sneak back to the lake every day. The more daring ones have built thatched huts on the phumdis. For now, the authorities are looking the other way. Locals suspect the issue will remain unresolved until the next elections. Environmental activist Salam Rajesh said, “The involvement of the fishermen is a must to conserve the lake.” Loktak is a complex problem that needs a multi-dimensional solution, something successive governments have been unable to provide. Will anything change before it’s too late for the lake?

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 12:22:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/can-hope-float-loktaks-phumdis/article19276922.ece

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