This article is an extract from a larger ongoing work on Loktak. Descriptions have been briefed so as to suit the reader. The details of this article are based on a research work of the author.
By Ram Wangkheirakpam
The story is of Loktak people or Patmee and their boats or Hee and their struggle to defend a living space. Surviving in the lake, on a floating hut or Phum Khangpok is a more rigorous negotiation with nature than living on land. But just living with nature is an art that has been developed for generations well enough, but to resist other powers, that seek to uproot them from the lake is a far more testing task. In this paper, I will briefly describe one of the most important tools of living on the lake-the Hee. The wooden canoe is the only way to connect with each other, to make a living, to relate with the world, to exchange their fish with other living needs, thereby sustaining a continuous discourse vis-à-vis their survival. But, since the Ithai dam, life on the lake has never been easy. The Hee is now a tool for resistance.
To me, the best technology adopted at Loktak is the dugout or wooden canoe, which no person or authority who lives on land can easily use it. For a Patmee, it is like a cycle that has no wheels, but with it, with a little energy, you can reach anywhere you like within the lake or even sail up the Nambul river. NHPC, Government officials, Loktak Development Authority (LDA), commando police or other urban dwellers who are otherwise helpless beings and even if offered they cannot even sit on a Hee without fear of drowning.
In earlier days, big trees were fell to make dug-out canoes, but now to get a tree big enough to make a canoe is hardly available due to several reasons. People have shifted to those which are made by planks which are cheaper and there are five boat makers around Loktak. There has been even debates among the Patmees whether to shift to Plastic Boats as it might save the big trees. Based on the width, the price differs but with about Rupees fifteen thousand you can own one. Demands are always high and I’m informed by a boat craft master that due to COVID19 many people have been driven to the lake and hence there is an increase in demand for more boats.
Apart from fishing, Hee carries the living and the death. I have seen groups of children going to school by their canoe, and a lone woman coming back in the evening from Ningthoukhong with firewood and rice bag. Each family will at least have two canoes, one for the husband and the other for the wife and maybe an additional one for the son. These boats are best suited in this lake condition as the depth of water ranges from 1 to 4 ft in most cases except in the deeper areas. Motor-boats cannot be used easily in shallow areas.
When in 2011 the LDA with police came to burn their huts down, it is the women and men that came in their boats, surrounded and ran after the motor-boats that carried the LDA officials and police. A must watch docu-film ‘Phumshang’ by Haobam Pawan Kumar clearly shows the use of canoes in their fight against the police. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZefRw2Dll4
Since that spiteful event, ALLAFUM had developed laws of the lake. The law is simple – you cannot use motor-boats on the lake. They know that motor-boats can be driven by anyone but the canoe as a tool cannot be easily used by outsiders. ALLAFUM also argues that introducing motor-boats will mean contaminating the water with drops of oil and hence destroy the lake environment. This has political meaning of allowing only tools that the fishing community can control. Beyond the idea of oil-spill and destroying the water ecosystem, the fishers know that once they allow motor-boats there will be ‘outsiders’ who can dominate them in the water either for fishing or for tourism and for evicting them finally. In December 2017, to economically strengthen themselves, they have formed a fishing cooperative known as Loktak Fishers Multipurpose Cooperative Society with the key objective of doing away with middle-men and money lenders that have kept them in poverty so far. It’s again a new experiment in resistance and reclaiming what is rightfully theirs.
Many people ask why not adopt new technologies like the motor-boats? The reasons are stated in their critique response of the Loktak Development Authority’s Loktak Inland Waterways submitted to the Manipur High Court with regard to a PIL 24 of 2018? “If the newly proposed motorised waterways become a reality, it is likely that they will be owned and operated by people other than the local communities. Further, the running of the motorised boats may prevent local canoes from navigating or fishing due to safety reasons. Thus, it is likely that with advent of motorised boats, the transport in the Lake would slowly become dominated by the motor-boats, and by those who own and operate the motorised boats”. Which boats win will be the future of Loktak.
(Ram Wangkheirakpam is Director of Indigenous Perspectives and Convenor of Ngamee Lup)