In Quest of Tourism Development: Loktak Lake and the Issues that Matters

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By: Devjani Soraisam

Much has been said and written about the beauty of Loktak Lake of Manipur, the largest fresh water lake in north-east India and the only floating lake in the world. It is also one among the four identified wetlands in India under The Ramsar Wetlands of Significance. Loktak Lake lies in Bishenpur district and is situated at the vicinity of Moirang Town. The lake and its surrounding areas are unique and rich in heritage that still subsist in various forms. From the tourism viewpoint, the places in and around Loktak lake area is indeed a State tourism asset but entangled with controversies. Any development in the area has to acknowledge the controversies first.

Mention may be made of the communities that underwent several traumas of displacements and human rights violations due to military operations in Loktak Lake, such as Loktak Operation in 1999, Operation Summer Storm in 2008 etc. In addition to this, the Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric project in 1984 (by constructing Ithai Dam), not only submerged more than 83,000 hectares of prime agricultural land, displaced several thousands of people, but also devastated the biotic ecosystem leading to extinction of several endemic plant, animal and aquatic species. Communities affected by the project are yet to be resettled and rehabilitated. Further, Loktak Protection Act, 2006 and the scam of “Cleaning of Phumdis from Loktak Lake” project by Loktak Development Authority (LDA) and K-Pro led to arsonist act of vandalism, of nearly one thousand floating huts by Manipur Police in 2011. The communities not only received blames as polluters of the Lake but were also subjected to forced eviction and State brutalities.

The livelihoods of several communities of the lake have been snatched as prohibition on indigenous fishing methods and agricultural practices have been imposed. Farmers around the lake are also left landless for agricultural practices. The removal of phumdis has resulted in drastic change in the occurrence of current waves in the lake and has become unfavourable to the traditional canoeing and fishing practices. Traditional wooden canoes are used in the lake mainly for fishing, as a form of local commuting and as leisure activity catering to visitors. Among the three types of traditional canoes used in Loktak, the smallest one is soon to disappear as it can no more withstand the rise in current waves post removal of phumdis. After controversial eviction, only few phumdi huts/khangpoks are remaining, thanks to the timely intervention by whosoever, for saving these floating huts and the brave indigenous community who still continues to resist anymore arson by the authorities. Currently, communities are facing the brunt of ‘development’.

Issues as to who are indigenous people of Loktak lake & its surrounding areas and who all are unwelcomed migrants deserving eviction, who all can legally depend on the lake for livelihood and benefit from the lake, who are the pollutants and who the guardians or the protectors are, etc. remain an unending debate for all. It goes without saying that the affected communities have been subjected to unending agony by the series of actions and there is an urgent need to sensitively relook at their situation and devise ways to give back their rights and empower them.

Back then, the mystical formation of the floating phumdis, rich biodiversity, local dwellers and their traditional livelihood activities in the lake were the most interesting aspects witnessed by visitors to Loktak Lake. The lake has been a significant resource to the State. It directly and indirectly supported survival of many lives. It produced lot many indigenous vegetables & floras in abundance. It was an embodiment of rich wildlife & biodiversity. Several migratory birds used to flock the lake area in its season. But, after the series of events that took place in Loktak Lake, it now remains a ‘mesmerising’ clean wide and large lake but with no soul.

The fate of both Loktak and communities in and around the lake has become increasingly uncertain with new ‘developments’ ventures. These includes introduction of adventure water sports in Takmu, recently inaugurated mega project – “Integrated Cable-Car, Ropeway and Lakeside Development, Loktak Lake” which aims to promote wide scale tourism activity in Loktak area and generate large revenue, inland water transport project. The lake being a tourism asset of Manipur, it is understood that other tourism projects in and around Loktak area are in the pipeline. With this plethora of activities, tourism in the area might flourish sooner or later. It is here that the type of tourism and its impact both on the people and the environment becomes a major concern.

Tourism development in and around Loktak lake area can actually be a game changer if taken up as a “Responsible Tourism Development Project” as the area meets all the basic 5A criteria for responsible tourism to do well.

1. Attraction: Loktak lake and its surrounding areas viz., Sendra, Thanga, Karang, Langonsabi, Ningthoukhong, Moirang, Keibul Lamjao National Park, etc. posses enormous tourism potential to attract both domestic and international tourists.

2. Accommodation: Accommodation requirement to be met through home-stays in traditional huts and floating phumdi huts. Home-stays to provide good catering of local foods and hygiene.

3. Accessibility: Good connectivity of road, just 40-50 kms (approx.) and around 1 hr road travel from Imphal. Easily accessible by private vehicles, local transport and taxis.

4. Activities: In responsible tourism, the tourist are encouraged to voluntarily engage themselves in day-to-day activities of the locals, be it fishing at Loktak, learn about the flora & fauna, language, cuisines, history, attire, dialects, archeological study, traditional practices of handloom and handicrafts, age-old tools and techniques, instruments, etc. They get to participate in local fairs and festivals, cultural programs, indigenous games and customary practices, etc. They can also undertake recreational activities like nature walk, bird watching, safaris, traditional boat rides, trekking, sightseeing, etc.

5. Amenities: Favourable climatic condition throughout the year, indigenous cuisines consisting of varieties of vegetable items, fish delicacies and other meat items, shopping in famous local market where the sellers are only women, wide range of arts and crafts products, several traditional fairs and festivals, unique rituals, etc. to look out for.

“Sustainable Development” approach: Assessment of Carrying Capacity and Tourism Impact Assessment should be carried out followed by careful and wise marketing to not cross the Carrying Capacity of the destination. A year can be segregated into seasons(s) of Tourist and No-tourist Period to give time for the people and the lake and its surrounding areas to rejuvenate by itself without any disturbances during tourist offseason. Power requirements to be met from sustainable energy sources such as solar, hydro, wind, biomass and any other sustainable alternatives. Rain Water Harvesting and a proper Waste Disposal Mechanism should be adopted. Walking, cycling or boating in the traditional canoes must be encouraged and minimal emphasis should be paid for use of motor vehicles for tourism activities in the areas. This is to check pollution and other ecological conflicts. “Polluters Pay Principle” is to be implemented.

Human resource requirement, from decision making level up to the executives’ level, is to be met by the locals. For this, locals should be trained and prepared well in advance through effective Human Resource Development and Capacity Building programmes. Traditional practices of livelihood and form of settlements to be encouraged so as to retain the authentic characteristic of the place through assistances, incentives, tax exemption, sponsorships, awards and recognitions for best practices, etc. Creation of tourism friendly atmosphere and preparedness along with tourist sensitisation can be done through mass tourism awareness programs and other responsible activities. Requirement of nominal investment as the baseline of this type of development is to optimally utilise and sustain on the available resources. Responsible tourism development with sustainable approach can be part of the solutions to some of the unending issues of Loktak Lake and its surrounding areas as in the case of Eagle’s Nest eco-tourism (community based) in West Kameng district, Arunachal Pradesh and Lepchas community eco-tourism initiatives in Sikkim has contributed significantly in conservation of the area and preservation of its characteristics at the interest of both the community and the tourist. The outcome was dissemination of tourism benefits to the locals, primarily, through active community participation and boost to local trade, local area development, multiplier effect on the local economy by ready marketing opportunities of local products as a result of direct customer interface, etc. It also contributed to overall economic development of areas, created opportunities to qualified youths and shaped reverse brain drain. A sense of pride arise in traditional and inherent practices of arts & crafts, fishing, boating, handloom & handicrafts, rituals, indigenous games & sports, fairs and festivals etc. and help uplift the practices.

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