Loktak floating school: Answering to distress call of displaced children

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Salam Rajesh

Thursday the 2nd of February 2017 was a red letter day for many children living in ramshackle homes built on floating biomass in one of India’s well known freshwater lake – the Loktak Lake, a Ramsar site of international importance. On this day, an open school to facilitate education for kids, school dropouts and illiterate elders saw the light of day under a collective effort of All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union, Manipur, People’s Resources Development Association (Bishnupur) and ActionAid India with support from several individuals and civil society groups. This, perhaps, is the only known “floating school” in the entire world, built on floating biomass in the middle of a lake!

For kids like Thoi whose mother was worried to death thinking on her daughter’s future in the absence of a comfortable living and deprived of education, the opening of an elementary school in her locality was the proverbial silver lining in the dark clouds. The newly opened school, named simply as “Loktak Floating Elementary School” was a ray of hope for several worried, harried parents whose entire day and night was consumed with the one activity in their life – fishing. This occupation is their only means of earning the bread to feed the hungry mouths, clothe and educate their children, and provide for their few leisure items.

There was a wide curiosity on why such a “floating school” was being conceived at this point of time. To turn back to time, in 2006 the Manipur Government promulgated an ‘unpopular’ legislation termed as The Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act of 2006. This legislation, set on the backdrop of conservation of Loktak Lake as a wetland of international importance by its definition under the Ramsar Convention, had a small flaw. It did not take into consideration the impacts on the natives once it came into force, particularly speaking the social and economic impacts on the fishermen community and farmers who largely depended on the resources of the lake for their livelihood and sustenance.

During November 2011, the implementing agency –Loktak Development Authority – launched an all out effort to evict all of the fishermen families from the lake while also clearing all of the fish culture ponds (locally known as ‘Athaphum’) from the core area of the lake. Dwelling huts of the fishermen families were burnt down and their properties ransacked. With the fish culture ponds gone, the earning capability of the fishermen families declined sharply, resulting in untold hardships for the families. One of the undesired consequences of the government’s move on the fishermen community was the displacement of young children in different ways. One of these was the loss of opportunity to have proper education in the face of economic displacement of their parents.

The so-said Champu Khangpok floating village is a revenue village as per the definition of government’s white papers. Komjao and Langolsabi are the two main localities that make up this revenue village, officially under the jurisdiction of Thanga assembly constituency. So, as per the government’s laws, Champu Khangpok is a recognised, accepted existence, and not an encroachment upon the lake as many had accused. When the Loktak Protection Act of 2006 was conceived, there obviously was no detailed discussion on possible impacts on natives who thrive upon the resources of the lake. As much as Champu Khangpok village is in the middle of the lake, similarly the islands of Karang, Thanga, Ithing and Sendra are also more or less inside the lake. If Champu Khangpok has no right to be inside Loktak, then Karang, Thanga, Ithing and Sendra similarly has no right to be inside the lake. That’s that.
It, therefore, was perceived by the implementing agency of the Act that for conservation of Loktak Lake, priority was to be given on eviction of all human settlements within and in peripheral areas of the lake. That, perhaps, was the very basis for bringing about conflicting views between community and the state. The effort or campaign by the Loktak Development Authority to evict the fishermen families from Champu Khangpok village was stiffly opposed by the natives. However, the large scale removal of the fish culture ponds from the core area of the lake, which incidentally is the main fishing activity area for the local fishermen, had considerable impacts on the community. The removal of Athaphum broke the backbone of the fishermen, literally speaking. With the loss of their fish culture ponds, the hard earned earnings went down drastically. The fish catch also dipped down sharply as the fish population literally migrated to the shoreline with the clearing of the floating biomass from the lake’s water body.

So, with the downward chart in their earnings, the axe fell on the children. Families gradually started withdrawing their children from schools and boarding houses as they could no longer afford to pay for their school fees, tuition fees and boarding fees. This writer knew a young boy reading in standard eight, bright in mathematics, giving up education to go fishing with his family as they now have to work extra hard to support the family. The tragedy is retold in many families at Langolsabi and Komjao. With much more effort at to labour to make out a living in these tiring situation, families can no longer devote to their children’s education. In the face of adverse situation, the children at Langolsabi and Komjao have literally become the sacrificial lamb. All these thanks to a “thoughtless” Government’s policy.

In any forum of discussion on conservation of wetlands, rivers, forests and other natural landscapes, it had been emphasized time and again that unless local communities or natives who are part of the landscape are made part of that conservation effort, no objective of conservation will be achieved wholly. Any effort by the Government to bring in a ‘good’ policy minus the involvement of local stakeholders will definitely come up against different forms of hurdles, including resistance from the natives if and when that policy goes against their interests and well being. The conflicts that has had been happening in the Loktak Lake areas since the commissioning of the Loktak hydro project in 1983 is an example that stands out glaringly. The stiff resistance by Langolsabi villagers against government’s policy to evict them outrightly is also another glaring example.

All said and done, it definitely is time now for the Government to reflect on what or where it has gone wrong on its set agendas, and work up a new strategy that meets the need of the lake and for the natives who thrive upon the lake’s resources. For Thoi and the other children at Langolsabi who had become victims of an agenda that they will not understand for a long time from now, it is time for the Government to come up with a policy that fits them into the picture. Conservation of Loktak can only become meaningful when natives become very much part of that conservation effort.

Source: The People’s Chronicle

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