WISA, which is Wetlands International’s South Asia Division, has categorically stated that it does not support the Manipur government’s plan to introduce Loktak Inland Waterways and Loktak Eco-Tourism Projects. These initiatives have been developed independently by the concerned state government agencies, it has added. ADB denies approval of its financing project, says it will examine the project proposal
The Manipur government’s ambitious plan to introduce Loktak Inland Waterways and the Rs 2,600-crore Loktak Eco-Tourism Projects, which has been caught in legal tangle, is likely to be embroiled in a more difficult situation. All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union Manipur (ALLAFUM) has moved a petition in the High Court of Manipur seeking review of its October 12, 2020 order.
The review petition followed clarifications from Asian Development Bank, which is supposed to be funding the project and Wetlands International South Asia (WISA), which prepared “Loktak Manipur: An Integrated Plan for Wise Use (2020-2025)” in July 2020 for Loktak Development Authority (LDA) at their request.
In its statement, WISA, which is Wetlands International’s South Asia Division, has categorically stated that it does not support the Manipur government’s plan to introduce Loktak Inland Waterways and Loktak Eco-Tourism Projects. These initiatives have been developed independently by the concerned state government agencies, it has added.
Asian Development Bank has also clarified that the Department of Economic Affairs in the Government of India’s Ministry of Finance has proposed the project for ADB financing on February 24, 2021. “ADB will examine the project proposal as per standard procedure. No details are available with ADB at the moment,” it said.
The clarifications from both WISA and ADB may put the Manipur government into a sticky situation as the HC its October 12, 2020 order had allowed LDA to proceed with the Notice Inviting Tender (NIT) for the projects after the Manipur government filed the Integrated Management Plan for Wise Use of Loktak Lake, Manipur (2020-2025) and the Solicitor General of India submitted that the ADB, Japan is funding for this project and the funds for this project will also lapse if the NIT is not permitted.
The government had claimed that funds have already been secured from the ADB for the eco-tourism project. The Government allegedly used this false claim to snatch an order from the High Court, and thus lift the interim stay on the activities in Loktak and allow the immediate issuance of NITs for the eco-tourism project and inland waterways project.
Besides, an RTI response provided by Manipur government’ tourism directorate on February 9, 2021 has also nailed Manipur government’s lies on the issue. Responding to RTI queries filed by Indigenous Perspectives on January 21, 2021 on status of the project, Tourism director W Ibohal Singh stated that the project has (been) proposed to the DEA but not yet approved.
On the Detailed Project Report (DPR), the Tourism director stated that the project is not yet approved and DPR is not yet finalised.
On media reports on the Chief Minister of Manipur N Biren’s claim that the Tourism Ministry has given an approval of Rs. 1,350 crore worth projects for the comprehensive development of Loktak lake, the director stated that Department has proposed to the Ministry at a total project cost of Rs 1350 crore but it is not yet approved and sanctioned. Also, DPR is not yet finalized, it added.
WISA puts the record straight
Spelling out its position on the project, which has drawn criticisms from several quarters over un-ecological components of the plan, WISA has made it clear that all developmental activities around the Loktak Wetland Complex have to be aligned with the wetland’s ecological character and wise-use. “Loktak being a Ramsar site is regulated under the provisions of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017. The management plan has called for ensuring convergence in all developmental activities in and around Ramsar site in conformity with wise use principle and the extant regulatory regime,” it said.
WISA, which has been working for sustaining and restoring wetlands, their resources and biodiversity in the South Asia region, has issued the clarification following a global campaign to “protect for posterity the unique Loktak Wetland Region in Manipur.
As part of the campaign, an online petition was launched by Ngamee Lup, in coordination with Indigenous Perspectives, Imphal, Manipur & Environment Support Group, Bangalore, calling for the saving of Lake Loktak and support of its people. Highlighting the need for greater engagement with these communities and for the government to revise its current plans for the development of Lake Loktak, the petition has demanded that Wetlands International withdraw its so-called ‘wise use’ plan for Loktak.
According to the petition, “Loktak Manipur: An Integrated Plan for Wise Use (2020-2025)” developed by WISA and LDA in July 2020 is ecologically disastrous and socially disruptive and a patently unjust proposal. The 231-page plan includes proposals for governance of the region led by parastatals, not democratic institutions and an action plan that promotes massive expansion of infrastructure for transport and tourism, extractive fishing based on industrial models of production, and a range of consumerist mass tourism. WISA’s plan includes proposals to set up factories in this eco-sensitive region to back extractive fishing, a move that would displace and destroy traditional and artisanal fisherfolk and farmers.
Responding to the petition, WISA said “Loktak Manipur: An Integrated Plan for Wise Use (2020-2025) was prepared by Wetlands International South Asia for Loktak Development Authority (LDA) at their request. This management plan conforms to the diagnostic evaluation process recommended by the Ramsar Convention and the guidelines of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, it stated.
WISA has further said, “Wetlands International South Asia has no say in the management plan review processes, which are subsequently conducted by the state government through their internal mechanisms.”
Stating that it upholds and deeply respects the rights of indigenous people and local communities living in and around Loktak (Manipur), who have time and again provided valuable advice and direction to wetland management for over two decades of our engagement with this Ramsar site, WISA has recommended a comprehensive reorganisation of the LDA to build its capability to engage with stakeholders.
WISA also said, “We are of the firm belief that all developmental activities around the Loktak Wetland Complex have to be aligned with the wetland’s ecological character and wise-use. Loktak being a Ramsar site is regulated under the provisions of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017. The management plan has called for ensuring convergence in all developmental activities in and around Ramsar site in conformity with wise use principle and the extant regulatory regime.”
Expressing serious reservations on the continued degradation of the Loktak Lake, WISA said it has repeatedly highlighted the insufficiency of existing management, and a fact that Loktak still exists on the Montreux record (a List of Ramsar Site having undergone or undergoing adverse change in ecological character).
“Addressing alterations of natural hydrological regimes due to the construction of the Ithai barrage which is at the core of the degradation has been highlighted as being central to wetland rejuvenation. Besides mention in the management plan, we have made repeated references in letters to this important issue addressed to the Chief Secretary, Government of Manipur and other key functionaries,” it said.
On petition’s claim that WISA has also not discussed the draconian nature of Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, which criminalises indigenous communities, their livelihoods, cultures and traditions, it said it has recommended a comprehensive reorganisation of the LDA to build its capability to engage with stakeholders. “Wetlands International South Asia does not endorse the November 2011 incident of evicting phum dwellers from Loktak,” it stated.
WISA also expressed concern that without a well-meaning plan to ensure maintenance of the ecological character of Loktak, the wetland will continue to degrade and impact the lives of the communities.
Status of the project
In November 2020, the Government of Manipur invited tenders for the project, which will span over 82 hectares of the Loktak Lake. Neighbouring the KeibulLamjao National Park, the mega eco-tourism project proposes to build jetties, a resort, and a golf course. This “world-class tourist destination” will share its space with about 200 aquatic plant species and 400 faunal species, including the endemic and endangered brow-antlered Sangai deer and over 60 species of birds, most of which are migratory.
Despite the ecological diversity of this region, the state government sees this project’s implementation in Loktak as a game changer. After all, as they suggest, it will “change the socio-economic status of the State…” by providing alternate livelihood to the local population. They justify the ‘eco’ in the “eco-tourism” proposal by carrying out filtration and conservation in the lake.
Union Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution and Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ashwini Kumar Choubey announced on September 21 that the Central government is working to provide Rs 1,450-crore financial package through the Asian Development Bank to implement an eco-tourism project at Loktak Lake.
Loktak Lake is recognised as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Wetlands Convention, 1971. It is home to thousands of resident and migratory birds, and flora and fauna which are endemic to the region. Both this convention and the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 applicable in India reaffirm the necessity of adopting a wise use approach in the governance of wetlands.
Fishing villages living around the Loktak wetlands area are deeply worried about thrust being given on un-ecological project components such as a ‘Sea Beach’, golf course, resorts, board walks and walkways, motor boating, etc., on a vibrant freshwater wetland ecosystem, as part of the proposed eco-tourism project.
Residents of fifteen fishing villages of Pumlen Pat and Khoidum Pat, wetlands integral to the Loktak area, adopted a resolution on September 26, 2021 unequivocally affirming that the people of Pumlen and Loktak will put up stiff resistance against any project that forcibly displaces the indigenous peoples of Loktak and to any attempts to alienate them from farming and fishing in Pumlen and Loktak area.
They feared that the project would disrupt their traditional livelihoods by blocking fishery activities, and severing inter-generational intricacies that tie people with the lake. An inland waterways project in Loktak will further destroy the ecologically, economically and culturally crucial floating islands of Loktak, and disrupt traditional fishing livelihoods, they said.
They claimed that there has been not a single consultation for the project with the fishing families/villages about any of this, leave alone complying with the Principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
Salam Joy, the secretary of Pumlen Pat Ngamee Sinmee Lup, a union of community practicing both farming and fishing in the area for their survival, asserted that the wetland is their ancestral territory, and the entire community is resolved to resist the takeover of these biodiversity rich commons by corporations backed by the government.
Babloo Loitongbam, Director of Human Rights Alert, said the government policy and programs are antithetical to conservation and livelihood of the people of the Loktak and the other wetlands. He said that the right to life and livelihood are enshrined in the Constitution of India and the Government of Manipur cannot bypass any of the laws that seek to protect them. He also said that human rights groups in Manipur and also those across the world must help in the defense of the people of the wetlands and their livelihoods.
Ram Wangkheirakpam, Convener of Ngamee Lup said that the proposal of the Manipur government to develop Loktak as a major eco-tourism centre is hegemonic, undemocratically evolved, against human rights of indigenous peoples of the region, violates multiple statutory requirements, and is socio-ecologically disastrous. It is natural and historical rights of local indigenous communities to continue to live in the Loktak region without being disturbed by destructive projects and draconian laws and State action, he added.
Loktak Lake a biodiversity rich common
About 45 kilometres from Imphal, the capital of the far north eastern Indian state of Manipur, lies this ecological marvel. It is one of the most productive ecosystems that support the livelihood of locals as well as diverse and unique habitats. The critically endangered brow-antlered deer (Sangai) is endemic to this region. Besides, the massive wetland is a critical habitat to migratory waterfowl from Europe and Central Asia who come here via the Central Asian Flyway and the Eurasian-Australian Flyway during mid-winter.
Loktak lives up to its name, which in Meitei translates to “where streams end” — close to 30 rivers and streams feed into the lake, creating a 287 square kilometre water body, which is roughly the size of 53,000 football fields. Besides being a sight to behold, the lake absorbs floodwater during the monsoon and supports the livelihoods of over three lakh people in Manipur throughout the year.
Loktak, Pumlen, Ikop, Kharung, Khoidum Lamjao, Waithou, Ngakrapat, Biraharipat, Ungamelpat are distinct yet interrelated wetlands formed by meandering flows of the Manipur river system and spread over 500 sq kms, a region popularly referred to as the Loktak Wetland Complex (LWC) south of Imphal. These wetlands are nourished by abundant water and nutrient flows captured by the surrounding blue mountains, thus creating this astonishing and awe-inspiring wetland complex.
Meitei fishing communities have worked here over centuries to evolve a lifestyle that helps harvest fish and wetland-based crops and vegetables, which forms the backbone of food security of the wider Manipur area. In addition, their carbon neutral living, involving dugout canoes and phumshangs – huts of bamboo and thatch built on floating biomass – phumdi, constitute a distinctive feature of Manipur’s living heritage, and of the world as well.
There is no other place in the world where fisherfolk live in floating villages as in the Loktak region. UN Habitat has recognised this way of living as a model of sustainability for the world and Loktak Lake is a Ramsar site. The Meitei communities have protected this wetland over centuries as a biodiversity rich area. Hundreds of thousands of families live in this highly productive wetland complex respectful of nature’s ways and the limits she imposes.