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EXCLUSIVE: Loktak, fragmented mirror of Manipuri civilization


A lot of money has been pumped in for the management of the lake during the past decade and more, whereas, evidently not much has been achieved in field.

By Salam Rajesh

Much has been said and written on one of India’s most controversial wetlands – the Loktak Lake of Manipur – in these past 37 years, capping discourses on conflicts of interest between State and the community, and stroking controversies social, cultural, economic, political and ecological in nature.

A recent report of the Wetlands International, titled as ‘The Source: 2020 Annual Review of Wetlands International’ adds spice to the discourse with a truly blunt remark: “Loktak Lake in Manipur, India – known as the ‘mirror of Manipur’ – is under threat by a large concrete barrage built downstream and is one of the wetlands listed in Ramsar’s Montreux Record”. For the records, New Delhi based Wetlands International-South Asia (WISA) partners with Loktak Development Authority (LDA) in planning management strategies for the lake.

In defining wetlands, Wetlands International puts it simply as: “Wetlands occur wherever water meets land – mangroves, peatlands, marshes, rivers, lakes, deltas, floodplains, flooded forests, rice-fields, and even coral reefs. Healthy wetlands are key to restoring nature and healing our climate, yet the world has lost up to 65 percent of its original wetlands”.

Flouting its role as ‘The only global not-for-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands’, Wetlands International (WI) spells out its mission as ‘To inspire and mobilise society to safeguard and restore wetlands for people and nature’. This, unhappily, has not been the case with the local communities settled within and around the lake’s peripheral shores particularly during the past three decades.

The commissioning of the Ithai Barrage in 1983, a major component of the 105 megawatt capacity Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project, ushered in a new era of conflicts and disputes within the wetland complex. Quite in contrast to the mission objective of WI, there has been no achievable strategy of WISA and its partner organization LDA to incorporate a long term strategic action plan for the local communities, comprising of both fishers and farmers, in working on a partnership for the management and conservation of the lake.

A lot of money has been pumped in for the management of the lake during the past decade and more, whereas, evidently not much has been achieved in field. The same problems are there today as it were there twenty to thirty years back, implying that the activities by the lake managers have not achieved the targets originally mapped out in the work plans of WISA and LDA. The isolation of the local communities from these work plans are seen as a major reason for not achieving things meaningfully.

The WI publication makes a brief reflection on Loktak as the ‘mirror of Manipur’, obviously referring to the oft quoted phrase “Loktak, the mirror of Manipuri civilization” – whatsoever in its context. However, Loktak in its present condition is far from living up to its status. The lake is actually in a state of fragmented, half-broken mirror reflecting a vague picture of its past glory. Plagued with myriad issues, one of the pervasive issues is the rehabilitation and resettlement of the several hundred displaced families in both upstream and downstream of the barrage – courtesy of the Ithai Barrage.

The underlying issues of habitat fragmentation, ecosystem degradation, loss of biodiversity, siltation and pollution, continued encroachments, physical modifications and distortion of the lake’s territorial integrity, and the displacements of its human population have more or less depicted the picture of a wetland in its throes, struggling to stay alive.

Wetlands International makes it a point to let people know that in 2020 it became an active partner to the United Nations’ global campaign on its Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), pledging to ‘work with others to recover diverse, functioning wetlands as a basis for a resilient and liveable Earth’. In tune to this purposeful objective, WISA-LDA as part of WI’s functionary requires to review whatever they have been doing during the past decades and come up with a fresh-look strategic action plan that is broad-based and which encompasses local communities in long term strategy for the management and conservation of the lake.

The WI publication also mentions Loktak as still being among the list of wetlands in the Ramsar’s Montreux Record, which is a negative implication and indicating the ill health of the lake. Considering the amount of planning and the money pumped in for the management of the lake in the preceding years, Loktak should have been out of the list by now. That is not the case, and, therefore, an entire revision of the work plan for the lake needs to be done at the earliest to suit with WI’s action plans for the decade.

Jane Madgwick, Chief Executive Officer of Wetlands International, says, “We have set high ambitions for this decade in our Strategic Intent, including 2030 global targets on wetland recovery which we are inviting others to adopt and integrate in their action plans. The scale of wetland recovery that we need is daunting, which means that sustaining and restoring wetlands needs to become everyone’s business”.

It undoubtedly becomes a mandate for WISA-LDA to take up the cudgel for restoration of Loktak’s degrading ecosystem in line with Jane’s outline of the goals set by WI towards meeting the UN’s declared targets by 2030 in achieving ecosystem restoration of all habitats in the best possible ways, scientifically and academically with an integral support at the base. Over 2020-2030, Wetlands International aims to safeguard and restore tens of millions of hectares of wetlands, bringing multiple returns for nature and people on the basis of its principle “to inspire, mobilise and upscale”.

Under its ‘Resilient Communities’ strategic intent, WI proposes to ‘secure water and food for wetland communities’. It aims at to ‘prevent further wetland loss and degradation that undermines the natural productivity and water storage capacities of peatlands, floodplains, mangrove forests, deltas and lakes’. WI, too, intent to ‘improve and diversify the livelihoods of people dependent on wetlands, and promote best practices in agriculture and aquaculture, integrating wetland values into the local economy’.

Hopefully, WI will set its sight on the situation around Loktak Lake and integrate a feasible work plan for its ecosystem restoration, with of course by integrating the interests of the local communities who are directly dependent on the resources of the lake for their living and sustenance. A wholesome working plan that integrates WISA-LDA’s activities revolving around the day-to-day activities of the fishers and farmers can help realize the target on scraping Loktak out of the Montreux Record.

It otherwise can be said that unless there is a healthy relationship between the lake managers and the local communities, nothing meaningful will be achieved. Instead, in its place the years of conflict will drag on, with neither parties gaining anything other than sleepless nights and tensions over water rights and, of course, concerns on human rights violation. It’s high time for Wetlands International to take stock of the ground reality on actual situations concerning Loktak Ramsar site.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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