For decades, 59-year-old Oinam Rajen Singh has made a living by fishing in Manipur’s Loktak Lake.

The freshwater lake in Bishnupur district is known for its phums, or densely packed, floating masses of soil, vegetation and organic matter. The fishing community, who are mostly Meitei, cut up the phums into narrow strips and fashion them into rings, known as “athaphums”.

A net is then spread inside the athaphum and left for days to gather fish. The fish in the ring are then given extra feed so that they are larger and heavier than other fish in the lake.

“We can not catch fish without athaphums,” said Rajen Singh. “Our ancestors have been using this equipment since time immemorial. If athaphums are removed our livelihood will be destroyed.”

But this is exactly what is happening now. On July 18, the Loktak Development Authority, a nodal state agency for managing the lake, ordered the removal of all athaphums as well as huts or houses built on the phums. Only Champu Khangpok, a revenue village in the lake, was exempt.

The government claims the move is aimed at protecting the ecology of Loktak lake and removing it from the Montreux Record, a list of wetlands around the world where ecological changes have occurred because of technological developments, pollution or human interference. The lake is listed as a site of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty on the conservation and use of wetlands.

Local communities claim the government’s move is aimed at clearing the lake for a massive eco-tourism project.

‘Loktak is our mother’

There have been several efforts to halt the move. On July 27, Ningthoujam Ranjan Singh, secretary of the Loktak Floating Homestay Association and Ningthoujam Raghu, secretary of the the Apunba Loktak Ngamee Sinmi Cooperative Society, issued a joint statement asking the government to withdraw the unfortunate notification by July 30.

“Loktak cannot be saved without its people,” the statement read. “Loktak is our Ema [mother]. Nobody has the right to rob the people of the lake from their rights. Nobody who loves the lake would pollute the lake.”

On 29 July, the Apunba Loktak Ngami Sinmi Cooperative Society and Oinam Maipakchao Singh, the owner of a homestay, challenged the Loktak Development Authority notice in the Manipur High Court. The court heard the matter on August 3 but did not stay the notice and listed the case for next hearing on September 9.

On August 3, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh claimed in a Facebook post that lake dwellers were helping to remove the athaphums and floating homestays.

“These actions are clear indication that the dwellers of the lake genuinely understand and empathise with the initiatives of the state government’s conservation mission to save our treasured Loktak Lake,” the chief minister posted.

On August 7, Loktak Development Authority chairman M Asnikumar Singh also said that the athaphums and other structures were being removed with the help of “volunteers from the fishing community.”

But this apparent cooperation seems to hide deep disquiet within the community. “The fisher folk will face huge problems if athaphums are removed as it protects us during rain and large waves,” said Rajen Singh. “They also shelter fish populations. The fish will disappear if they do not exist.”

His five-member family depend on fishing and he does not know any other work. “We earn anything between Rs 200-500 per day, depending on the weather,” he said.

Protecting the lake?

At the heart of the dispute is the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, which the order is based on. According to the government, the law was meant to protect the fragile ecology of the lake, which is part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot and home to the endangered Sangai deer as well as several species of birds. Local residents, however, have called it “anti-community” and long demanded the repeal of the law.

The law designated a core area where the construction of huts and homestays was prohibited, even though there were communities living in this area. It also prohibited athaphums.

The Loktak fishing community has objected that the law was implemented without consultation and discussion with lake dwellers. Local residents also say it violates basic rights to housing and livelihood.

The authorities had used the same law while burning down huts in 2011. There were 1,110 floating huts in Loktak at the time, according to a Loktak Development Authority survey.

“In November 2011, the LDA, with the help of armed police, burnt down 777 of the floating huts in Loktak in an eviction drive,” said Deven Singh, a resident of Champu Khangpok village and president of the All Loktak Lake Fishermen’s Union Manipur. “According to LDA officials, 519 affected families accepted the compensation and provided Rs 40,000 per family. The remaining refused to accept the compensation.”

Ram Wangkheirakpam, director of Indigenous Perspectives, an Imphal-based non-profit that works on environmental issues called the current notice “immature”.

“The floating huts are illegal by law,” he said. “But we are questioning the law as it is problematic. On what basis are they saying that athaphums are bad?”

Photo: Special arrangement


Local communities protest that the law turned residents into encroachers. “We were termed occupiers, despite the fact that we have been using the lake resources for generations,” said Rajen Singh.

Imphal-based environmental activist Salam Rajesh said the government’s decision had come as a shock to the fishing community as they had not been consulted or informed in advance about the move.

“We have always contested this idea of ‘encroachers’ since the lake is a commons for the local people who have lived and thrived upon the lake’s resources for centuries,” he said.

Wangkheirakpam estimated at least 30,000 members of the fishing community would be affected by the removal of the athaphums.

Rajiv Das Kangabam of the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology, who has co-authored a study about the loss of floating islands in Loktak, said, “The removal of athaphums will lead to the loss of traditional jobs and also reduce the production of the fish in the lake.”

According to Rajesh, removing biomass from Loktak would affect the ecology of the lake. He also alleged the Manipur government wanted to clear the biomass and create a clear water body for tourist motor boats. He added that local communities needed to be enlisted as stakeholders in conservation efforts, not ejected from the lake.

Homestays vs ‘eco-tourism’

A similar debate engulfs the homestays on Loktak. According to the Loktak Development Authority, there are about 40 homestays and 150 huts, constructed on the phums, that would be affected by the recent notice.

“Such homestays have also become a social issue as these are operated without proper regulations,” the notice said.

Maipakchao Oinam, president of the Loktak Floating Homestay Association, said the home stays attracted a lot of tourists—both domestic and foreign — to the lake.

“We are not doing any activities harmful to the Loktak lake,” he said. “We don’t dump waste directly into the waterbody”

He alleged the government was planning to remove the homestays to make way for big commercial projects and investors of its choice.

This was echoed by Wangkheirakpam, who felt the state government was removing the homestays in order to bring in its own eco-tourism project.

He referred to a Newslaundry report, which said the state government had proposed a massive eco-tourism project on Loktak lake, funded largely by the Asian Development Bank. However, the bank had raised “questions on the possible adverse ecological impact” of the project.

Such a “mega tourism project” on the Loktak lake had been proposed by the BJP in its election manifesto for the 2022 Manipur assembly polls.

Manipur tourism director W. Ibohal Singh told that the recent notice had nothing to do with the proposed eco-tourism project. The mega eco-tourism project, he said, would be on the western periphery and would not disturb much of the lake.

“The plan is not yet approved or sanctioned. We have made a proposal but there is no development as of now,” he said.

Other threats

Kangabam identified several urgent threats to the fragile ecology of the lake that had nothing to do with athaphums or homestays. He pointed to the fact that the Nambul and Nambol rivers drain into the lake.

“There is an urgent need to have a proper treatment plant on the Nambul and Nambol rivers as the two rivers are carrying heavily polluted water along with solid waste into the lake,” he said.

Then there is the Ithai barrage, which Kangabam said had led to the thinning of the floating islands on the lake.

The barrage, an artificial reservoir, is a major component of the 105 megawatts Loktak hydroelectric project. It is located at the junction of the Manipur and Khuga rivers, connected to the lake by the Khordaka river. The BJP-led state government had asked Centre to decommission the dam in 2017 as it threatens the lake.

In the statement issued on July 27, the Loktak Floating Homestay Association and the Apunba Loktak Ngamee Sinmi Cooperative Society also slammed the Loktak Hydro-Electric Power Project.

“Fishing, collecting herbs such as Loklei-pullei, komprek, thangjing, heikak was able to provide subsistence livelihood,” the statement said, “but with the Ithai Barrage, fish catch declined, brought changes to the ecological and hydrological characteristics, lead [sic] to the decline of migratory birds, livestocks such as buffaloes and cows, and to the overall productivity.”