AHRC issues urgent appeal on burning down of Loktak fishers` huts

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IMPHAL, Nov 18: The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has issued an urgent appeal on the recent displacement of Loktak fishers after their floating residential huts were burned by the state authorities as a part of the Loktak Lake cleaning project.

In the appeal, AHRC stated that the government of Manipur has started burning down floating huts, Khangpokshang, built over Phumdis (floating plant mass) of the fishermen living on Loktak Wetlands in central Manipur from November 15 till today. The officers from the Loktak Development Authority and the state police carried out the deliberate burning down of the huts. The Loktak Development Authority had issued an eviction notice to the residents on 11 November 2011. Nearly 200 floating huts have already been burnt by November 17 and the remaining 1,132 floating huts are to meet a similar fate. There are about 5,000 persons living in the floating huts located in Khuman Yangbi, Nambul Machin and Karang Sabal within the Loktak Lake.

The burning down of the floating huts is in accordance with the provisions of the much controversial Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, in particular Section 19 and 20 of the Act, which divides the 236.21 sq.km Loktak Lake into two zones – a core zone comprising 70.30 sq.km, which is a ‘no development zone’, or ‘totally protected zone’, and a buffer zone of other areas of the lake excluding the core zone. A vital aspect of this division is the prohibition on building huts or houses on Phumdis inside the lake, or Athaphum fishing, a destructive form of fishing using vegetation enclosures in the core area. This however, will adversely affect over 10,000 people living in Phumdi huts, as well as others dependent on the Lake, the appeal mentioned.

The burning down of nearly 200 floating huts has led to the displacement of nearly 950 community members so far, who have been living in these floating huts for generations. The number of affected families is expected to increase since the burning down of huts is continuing. The victims, including women, children and the aged have sought refuge at the Ningthoukhong Makha Leikai community hall in Bishenpur district, Manipur. The fishing gears and nets of the communities, their only means to catch fish from the Loktak wetlands were also burned and this has left the community having no means to find food to survive. Having lost all their belongings, including books, uniforms and school bags, many children can no longer go to school. With the winter already setting in Manipur, the displaced villagers are left to fend for themselves during the harsh weather, AHRC statement noted.

Each household was offered Rs. 40,000 as compensation before burning down their huts. However, most of the villagers rejected this payment as the amount is too meagre and cannot compensate their livelihood and survival needs. Moreover, there is no process to rehabilitate the affected villagers and their right to free, prior and informed consent has not been complied with. The Manipur police commandoes are threatening and intimidating the affected villagers before burning their huts. In many cases, the police also forced the displaced family members to burn their own huts.

The appeal further stated that the burning of the floating huts and the destruction of livelihood of the indigenous people dwelling in Loktak Lake constitute a serious violation of the “right to life”, “right to adequate housing” as guaranteed by the Constitution of India and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and also the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which India is party to and has sworn to uphold and practice. The failure to obtain consent of the affected communities also constitutes a serious form of discrimination targeting the marginalised communities and also violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, it said.

Affected peoples on several occasions had been raising vehement opposition to the introduction of the controversial Loktak Protection Act, 2006, which they feared would break the age-old bond between the lake and its people. Indigenous peoples depending on the Loktak Lake for survival continue to demand complete scrapping of the Act.

The Government of Manipur, through its Loktak Development Authority has been blaming the indigenous peoples dwelling in Loktak lake for polluting and causing contamination of the Lake. However, the impact of the Ithai Barrage of the Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project, commissioned in 1984, which led to huge scale devastation of Loktak wetlands ecosystem, loss of indigenous plant and faunal species, disturbance of the wetlands` natural balance and cleansing system leading to an accumulation of pollutants in the lake has been ignored, the statement said.

There is no comprehensive government policy to protect the environment in Manipur. In the pretext of protecting wetlands to mitigate climate change and also to conserve wetlands, there is an increasing effort to evict poor fishermen and villagers who depend on the Loktak Wetlands and Lamphelpat Wetlands. The Loktak Wetlands Ecosystems has already been destroyed by the Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric project. The government has also been adopting an indiscriminate policy of converting the Lamphelpat Wetlands for heavy and widespread construction, including several government offices, military camps, Imphal Sewerage Treatment Plant, National Information of Technology buildings, National Games village, Langol Housing complex and the Police Housing complex, all of which has led to widespread destruction of Lamphelpat Wetlands.

Development policies and projects have been pursued along with the militarisation of the state, whereby indigenous peoples` right to land and resources are denied with assistance from the military. The indigenous peoples` cry for help and calls for sustainable development and the respect of their rights are increasingly met with military might, suppression and violation of their human rights. Military operations in Loktak Lake are a common feature and on several occasions have led to displacement and human rights violations of people living in and around the Loktak Lake, the AHRC added.

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