The Loktak:The tragedy and the way forward

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By Amar Yumnam
The author is celebrating his 25 wedding anniversary today and we wish him many happy returns of the day

To an academic, a semInar is a success if it scores at least on forcing us to ponder on the issues of the seminar not only during the seminar but even after the seminar as well. This is one ground on which I would award a high grade to the recent seminar on the Loktak organised jointly by the Loktak Development Authority and the Loktak Brigade. There are other additional reasons on which the seminar should be valued to which I would turn.

The Tragedy: The Loktak Hydro Electric Project based on the Ithai Barrage is no doubt one of the biggest development wrongs in India and the biggest tragedy for Manipur. The poor foundation of the rationale of the project is getting unfolded increasingly. Almost all the developmental tensions and moves and counter moves at least in and around the adjoining areas of the lake relate to the fall-outs of this ill-conceived project. Today the efforts to address these negative fall-outs have to be necessarily a State-wide one so that any sustainable solution can be achieved.

While searching for solution to the negative impacts of the Loktak Hydro Electric Project, it is no longer feasible to bomb and blast the Ithai Barrage. We have to look for solutions in interventions in areas and aspects other than the project itself. It is in relation to this issue that the recent seminar has turned attention to in a positive way.

Public Good and Development: Intervening into the First Nature in order to create a Second Nature according to our needs always produces shocks, positive and negative. But in the case of the Loktak Hydro Electric Project the negative ones have dominated over the positives, and the impacts linger.

Here it must be mentioned that lakes usually are public goods entry to which is free, unrestricted and non-excludable. Being so, there is usually the problem of over exploitation and free-riders; most of the people living on the lakes tend to extract maximum in the shortest possible time without contributing to their development. But the fall-out of the Ithai Barrage and the years of non-regulation after the commissioning of the hydro project have only aggravated this problem of free-rider associated with the Loktak being a public good. But this is not a sustainable situation for the people as well as the lake. Some regulation and some pricing have to be put in place so that the free-riding is avoided. The present tensions surrounding various policy interventions relating to the Loktak basically relate to this.

The articulations in the seminar by the representatives of the people in and around the lake make subtly clear the desires of the local population. They have enjoyed the benefits of the public good over a period of time, and naturally they would like to revert to the period before the commissioning of the hydro project or at least the absence of the recent legislation by the government and the various interventions through the Loktak Development Authority.

The conflict today is between protecting the interests of the people in and around the lake and the need for regulation to address the various ecological issues. While the important interests of the people are basically local, the ecological issues are necessarily State-wide and global. The challenge before us is striking a balance between these two interests, and thus take the well- being of the people forward.

The Loktak Development Authority has done a good job in straightway organising the Seminar in situ and taking their views to the public. Now there are certain things to be done on the side of the Loktak Development Authority itself.

First, it should not project itself as an implementing agency of programmes envisaged by the government only. We should remember that it is not a department of the government. It should be able to project itself as an agency fully involved in articulating and protecting the interests of the people as well, particularly of those living in and around the lake.

Secondly, the agency itself is in urgent need of empowering further. The dimensions of issues to be attended to by it are so huge that the present nomenclature does no longer do justice to the responsibilities. It should now be renamed as something like the Lake Regulatory Authority with additional powers for intervention in forests, fisheries and of course water.

Third, in order to do justice to the second, the agency should now be broadened with active in-house presence of social scientists and environmentalists. The agency can and should no longer function as stooges of any external authority; it should possess in-house capability to at least address major issues in so far as first round implications are concerned.

Fourth, now that the concerns and resistance of the people in and around the lake a resilient the agency should now be applying its mind on addressing the issues. There is a big collective action issue involved here, and the objective should be to channel this collective action energy towards the goals that serve the interests of the local population while not compromising on the ecological aspects.

There are certain other considerations where the application of the individual as well as collective mind of the local population is paramount. To begin with, we must accept the fact that the practices before the contemplation and adoption of recent interventions were not satisfying the sustainability principles both for the ecology and the people. It is true, whenever certain changes are introduced in any prevailing atmosphere and accompanying set of practices, the interests of some people would invariably be affected adversely. Having said this, I must add that it by no means imply tolerance of decline in well-being of any set of population; no this simply is not acceptable. The issue is adopting certain kinds of policies and programmes whereby the well-being of the adversely affected set of population is ensured at least at the level before the current interventions were put in place. This is where the Loktak Development Authority should be working closely with the local population, and evolve a dynamic package of schemes attuned to the emerging needs of the population.

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