By Kalpana Thaoroijam
Every visitor to Manipur wishes to visit Loktak pat or reminisces a visit to Sendra hillock, a boat-ride in local-made canoes, few clicks and poses, foods and drinks, and leave behind unwanted dumps.Earlier people visited Loktak area during Lai-haraoba (festivals of Meitei sylvan gods) of the local Thangjing deities. People and their clan deities from other parts of the valley gather at Loktak pat during month-long festival in summer.
Loktak Pat, the largest fresh-water lake in North East India, is designated as a wetland of international importance under Ramsar Convention on March 23, 1990. It was also listed under the Montreux Record on June 16, 1993, “a record of Ramsar sites where changes in ecological character have occurred, are occurring or are likely to occur”; considering the ecological status and its biodiversity values (Recommendation 4.8, 4th COP, Montreaux, Switzerland).
Loktak is situated 38km south of Imphal in Bishnupur district. Loktak pat acts as the only natural water reservoir. It is fed by different rivers and streams of the hills and valley of Manipur. Some of the major rivers that flow into the pat are Nambul, Yangoi, Yagjoimacha, Thongjarok, Ningthoukhong and Khuga. The areas around the wetland include Moirang, Lammangdong (Bishnupur), and Mayang Imphal, and the islets of Thanga, Karang, Sendra, and Ithing. These include 65 villages, and an almost contiguous stretch of phumdi land of about 40 sq. km. forming the present Keibul Lamjao National Park.
The Keibul Lamjao National Park, was established in the year 1966 as a Sanctuary, and in the year 1977 as a National Park, which is the last natural refuge of the endangered Sangai or brow-antlered deer (Cervus eldi eldi). It covers an area of 40 km2 (15 sq m), situated in the southeastern shores of this lake and is the largest of all the phumdis in the lake.
LOKTAK PAT AND LOCAL PEOPLES’ LIVELIHOOD
Nobody questions the plight of fishers, or where have they disappeared in this melee. The battle is on who will get the larger portion of Loktak –Loktak Development Authority, National Hydro Power Corporation, private investors, Tourism Department, Fishery, or Forest department (which controls the Keibul Lamjao National Park)!
The traditional economy, sustenance, and livelihood (in the present context) of local villagers are dependent on Loktak pat. Fishers of Loktak are rich with traditional knowledge on fishing techniques, its implements, and familiar with movement and flow of the water. Loktak pat booms in aquatic vegetation; many species are edible, and are integral ingredient for local cuisines.
The Loktak Development Authority (LDA), claims as though, as the only savior of Loktak pat, as mentioned in their website – LDA was formed to provide for administration, control, protection, improvement, conservation and development of the natural environment of the Loktak Lake and for matters connected with as incidental thereto. The LDA has control on the lake comprising of large pockets of open water and marshy land formed at the southern part of Imphal valley upto the confluence of Manipur and Khuga river in the districts of Imphal West and Bishnupur. Under the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act – no resource/research can be conducted in the lake without permission of LDA, and in Section 25 – authority/officials have the right to search any huts in suspicion of insurgents.
LDA have not mentioned about the communities who have been living on the phumdis for generations.LDA does not mention the dilemma or the condition of the fishers whose homes on phumdis have been burnt down. Instead they have accused them for the detrimental state of pat, without checking the urban effluents and garbage that flow down – passing through several settlements in the valley, without a mention of the negative fallout of Ithai dam.
Fishers have been pushed to oblivion. One of the displaced fishermen expressed his concern over recent tourism projects coming in and around the pat, that tourists will come see/visit the pat. But what about the displaced peoples who live here, and whose sole livelihood has been only fishing? How will they survive when their only livelihood is taken away?
Phumdis are natural filters that controls siltation and pollutants entering Loktak. But removal of phumdis have led to irregular flow of strong waves, and resulted in drastic change in the occurrence of current inside the pat, and has become unfavorable for traditional canoeing and fishing practices. The livelihoods of several families of the pat have been seized as prohibition on indigenous fishing methods had been imposed. Farmers around the pat are also left landless for agricultural practices.
TOURISM AND DEVELOPMENTAL WOE BETIDE
Any development will be a sham growth if government or people in power will not include the interest and progress of its local inhabitants. Raped and marred with projects in the name of development, is Loktak pat. Its inhabitants had been victims of displacement, and deprivation of traditional livelihood. Development always has direct impact on environment. Understanding the village perception is important for any development process. Despite various development programmes taken up for welfare of Loktak ecosystem, the ultimate developmental plans/schemes have not benefitted its local populace, and socioeconomic conditions of the fishers are still poor in terms of basic amenities like health, education, electricity et al.
Article 5 of the WTO (World Tourism Organization) – Global Code of Ethics states that local populations should be associated with tourism activities and share equitably in the economic, social and cultural benefits they generate, benefit from the direct and indirect jobs created by it and that tourism policies should be oriented towards improving their standard of living. The need for tourism to be sensitive to the economic, social and cultural climate of the region is echoed in the Commission on Sustainable Development principles that urges governments to advance tourism with appropriate consultation with indigenous groups at all stages including the policy formulating stage, undertake capacity building works with local communities to ensure their active participation and to maximize the benefits of tourism to local communities by developing strategies to eradicate poverty.
According to government of Manipur, Loktak pat is looked as a prospective tourists site and initiated scope for developing Eco-tourism as an alternative livelihood for communities. Tourism accommodation units under the Directorate of Tourism have been announced for privatization while some are already privatized like the one at Sendra hillock. A resort have already come-up at Sendra, and another star category hotel in one of the islands of Loktak is under construction.
The fate of both Loktak and its communities has become increasingly uncertain with new tourism related ‘development’ ventures. The advent of private investors in tourism operation in the area, development of tourism infrastructures and activities are clearly visible. Introduction of water-adventure sports at Takmu, ropeway project between Sendra and Thanga (twin islands within the lake), and recently conceived mega project – ‘Integrated Cable-Car, Ropeway and Lakeside Development, Loktak Lake’to name a few, aims to promote wide scale tourism activity in Loktak area and generate large revenue.
The fishing community whose livelihood depends on fishing is concerned that the introduction of motorboats will have negative repercussion on the locals and their livelihoods, disconnecting their source of livelihoods and transportation, disturb aquatic life, impede movement of fish, and destroy varieties of edible plants. Local wooden canoes that are traditionally used for commuting, fishing, and these days catering visitors for boat-rides will be impaired. And spillage of oil (from motor-boats) will further pollute the already polluted waters.
But the idea of forced household evictions to give way for various tourism projects is a wrong concept. The role of community in tourism prospects must be transparent, and equitable benefit sharing must be the norm. Tourism ventures around Loktak will eventually deteriorate the conditions of the pat, and there are factors that will impact lives of local inhabitants such as –
Tourism infrastructure is given prime attention, ignoring local people’s distress, cultural heritage, traditional livelihoods, land-ownership et al
All projects are in line with PPP model with no clear ways of helping the people of Loktak
There has been no public consultation in any of the developing tourism projects
No community participation or involvement of communities in the projects
Tourism earnings will not reach communities as the benefit will be shared between government and private entrepreneurs.
People are unaware of changes of tourism development. But they are witness to the tourism infrastructures in their areas.
If government of Manipur envisages protection and development of/around pat, they must look at ways to work closely with local people. At a village set up, attention must be given on more awareness and meetings with communities. Involvement of local communities is very crucial, and decision-making must be conducted along with them.
We cannot deprive the communities of their livelihood support. When we vision additional livelihood options for communities, we need to visualize how people will benefit from the venture. Longevity or short-lived of Loktak ecosystems, depends on age-old conservation ways of people. The people of Loktak know the Lake more closely, and we need to consider their traditional pool of knowledge for conservation to be effective.
There is urgency for conservation initiatives as immediate attention to safeguard Loktak pat, and eco-tourism prospects need to take backseat. Protection of local peoples’ rights, preservation of their cultural/traditional practices, and conservation of its habitat had been affected in the development process. It is here we need to include local inhabitants and their traditional know-how; without their support conservation of Loktak will be incomplete.
The government’s outlook of tourism as a metaphor for development is a myth. Loktak pat is an identity for Meitei peoples. There is an inherent need to bring equilibrium for any development to be beneficial for all. Thus, Loktak must be conserved, and its people must be given their due rights to live with dignity. At the moment, there is absolute lack of communication between government of Manipur, and peoples of Loktak (as elsewhere where such private-government partnership projects are lined up).At this stage we need a structural tourism policy that will look into / cover the needs / rights of local populace.
(The writer is free-lance researcher based in Imphal)
Source: Imphal Free Press