In all of these years since its inception in 1987, the implementing agency, namely, the Loktak Development Authority appears to have not considered it of utmost priority to validate the actual existing boundary of the lake.
By Salam Rajesh
“Loktakna mingshelni” – this oft quoted phrase transliterated as “Loktak is the Mirror (of Manipuri civilization)” may have transgressed into a picture of a fragmented mirror distorted by time and by the hands of humans unmindful of an asset that not only reflects the passage of a more than 2000 years of known human history whereas it places Manipur in the world map of biodiversity sensitive zones.
In reference to the global discussions on the emerging significance of wetlands as one of the active carbon sinks available to minimize the impact of an ever increasing rise in global temperature, wherein the process of global warming is reported to be creating havoc everywhere, it does appear that Manipur is definitely neglecting one of its precious natural assets – the freshwater Loktak Lake.
In these past four decades, the stories revolving around Loktak has been one on the sadder tone, of a natural heritage that has been ripped apart by vested human interests that do not look into the future needs but is plagued by present interests and unmindful of the colossal damages they commit in the process.
It does appear that people are not the least concern that Loktak is a Ramsar site of international importance, meaning thereby that it is one amongst highly biodiversity sensitive wetlands in India, and in the world. Conserving freshwater resources is a major concern of the world community today as water crises plagued planet Earth, and yet it does look as if Manipur is gradually losing its grip on one of its most important freshwater resources – the Loktak Lake.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (Government of India) vide its circular of 26th September, 2017 notified the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and in supersession of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, for the conservation and management of wetlands throughout the country on the principle of “wise use”.
The term ‘wise use’ can be interpreted as an integrated management strategy that looks at the long term preservation and conservation of wetlands through an approach that is scientific in outlook and in temperament, and tackling the social, economic and cultural aspects in tandem with the needs of humans and the wildlife that thrive upon the resources of the wetlands.
Section 4(g) of the Wetlands Rules 2017 define strategies for conservation and wise use of wetlands within their jurisdiction; the wise use being a principle for managing these ecosystems which incorporates sustainable uses (such as capture fisheries at subsistence level or harvest of aquatic plants) as being compatible with conservation, if ecosystem functions (such as water storage, groundwater recharge, flood buffering) and values (such as recreation and cultural) are maintained or enhanced.
Section 7 of the Rules which deals with the delegation of powers and functions to the State Government administration, specifies that ‘The concerned department of the State Government shall within a period of one year from the date of publication of the Rules prepare a Brief Document for each of the wetland identified’ (7:1).
In the case of Loktak Lake, it can be said that so far this ‘Brief Document’ outlining the statistics on the lake has not been prepared by the concerned administration. The Manipur High Court had taken up a Public Interest Litigation on Loktak of its own motion, and it is learnt that the Court had sought the relevant Brief Document on Loktak Lake, whereas, the implementing agency had so far failed to present the document.
The Brief Document is expected to provide detailed statistics on the lake, of which two important factors are reflected in section 7:1(a) requiring demarcation of wetland boundary supported by accurate digital maps with coordinates and validated by ground truthing; and section 7:1(d) which require the accounts of the pre-existing rights and privileges of local communities within and in peripheral areas of the lake.
In all of these years since its inception in 1987, the implementing agency, namely, the Loktak Development Authority appears to have not considered it of utmost priority to validate the actual existing boundary of the lake. In the absence of a validated wetland boundary, the lake had suffered extensive human aggression through reclamation, physical modification, and conversion of parts of the wetland for settlements, farming and other commercial activities.
The other aspect that has been a sore point in the amicable relationship between State and local communities is on the question of State’s interpretation of “encroachers” within the lake premises. The definition is rather vague in the sense that the State identifies the original fishing community as the ‘encroachers’ without taking into consideration the actual encroachers or land grabbers who have acquired land documents in areas that were previously water bodies but reclaimed today, mostly in the Northern Sector of the lake.
The national Wetlands Rules 2017 specifies that the accounts of the ‘pre-existing rights and privileges’ of local communities needs to be assessed at the time of implementation of the Rules in the particular wetlands. It does not talk about kicking out the original settlers and those thriving upon the wetlands solely for their livelihoods through ages.
This factor is explicitly mentioned as in section 4(i) where it says that “in cases wherein lands within boundary of notified wetlands or wetlands complex have private tenancy rights, recommend mechanisms for maintenance of ecological character through promotional activities”.
Section 4(o) of the Rules further emphasizes to “undertake measures for enhancing awareness within stakeholders and local communities on values and functions of wetlands”. The interpretation is that local communities dependent on the wetland resources can be part of the management scheme in the long term conservation process for the particular wetland(s).
The principle of lake management as outlined in the fairly controversial The Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, however, is in sharp contradiction to the principle outlined in the national Wetlands Rules 2017.
When the national Wetlands Rules 2017 suggests co-existence as a process of wetland management and conservation, the Manipur Act of 2006 outrightly suggests initiating ‘conflict of interest’ between State and local communities by defining the indigenous Loktak fishing community as “occupiers” (Section 2).
Equally antagonizing for the fishing community is Section 20 of the Manipur Act of 2006 that seeks to prohibit activities in the core zone of the lake, which defines the Central Sector and the main water body of Loktak Lake that is primarily utilized by the fishing community for their main fishing activities, and the construction of the shelter huts Phumshang on the floating biomass phumdi.
And to top the icing, Section 33 of the Manipur Act of 2006 removes the right of local communities to seek judicial remedy as in the cases of state-perpetuated human rights violations. In its totality, the Act of 2006 removes all priority for roping in the local communities as co-partners in the long term conservation of Loktak Lake.
(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be reached at [email protected])