The WISA and LDA noted that the hydro project ‘had led to inundation of agricultural and settlement lands, and displacement of a large population of humans from frequently impacted areas in both the upstream and the downstream areas’ while influencing ‘proliferation of weeds, invasive aquatic plants and grass, and floating biomass population in the wetland complex’.
By Salam Rajesh
The 105-megawatt capacity Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project in Manipur has long been the nemesis of socio-economic-environmental crises in the State. Since its inception, this single hydro project has been at the center of controversies over ecological disasters, and displacements of humans and wildlife, and has been accused as the main reason for the rapid aging of the freshwater Loktak Lake, a Ramsar site of international importance.
The latest issue to hit this fairly controversial hydro project is the crucial debate on whether the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Limited (NHPC) would be given the mandate to lease new life to the hydro project whose official productivity period came to an end in 2018, but was extended for five years up to 2023.
Voices of dissent are flaring up all around the precinct of the freshwater lake as the local community raises their voice of concern on NHPC’s move without taking the people and the State into confidence over the matter, spearheaded by a newly formed people’s conclave – the People’s Committee on Restoration of Loktak and its Associated Wetlands, Manipur.
The issue was raised with the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change by the chairman of the Loktak Development Authority (LDA), Moirangthem Asnikumar Singh in August earlier this year.
Apprising RK Singh, Union Minister for Power, New and Renewable Energy over the issue, the LDA chairman questioned the unilateral decision of NHPC to extend the productivity timeline of the hydro project without taking into confidence the Government of Manipur, LDA which has mandate of management and administration over the lake, and importantly the local fisher and farmer populations whose lives are integral to the lake.
Asnikumar’s appraisal to the ministry is based on the critical issue of whether the Loktak hydro project should be given a fresh lease of life without a proper discussion, as its intended lifespan is over, considering the numerous issues on ecological, environmental, economic and social impacts of the hydro project that had raised several objections, protests, agitations and condemnations from different sections of the people, in particular those thousands of displaced families impacted by the project since its implementation by the year 1983.
Contending that NHPC had approached the Ministry with a request to clear its revised Detailed Project Report (DPR) for a fresh term of the hydro project, Asnikumar had urged upon the Union Minister to ‘take into account the altered hydrological patterns that had developed over the past 39 years’.
The LDA chairman had further urged upon the Union Minister to give due attention to the fact that ‘The revised DPR should include a comprehensive plan to address the environmental concerns’, owing to the fact that the lake is suffering extensively from siltation, pollution, nutrient enrichment and ecosystem degradation induced by the obstruction in environmental flow of the rivers associated with the lake and the conversion of the lake into an artificial reservoir by the man-made structure Ithai Barrage, which is a major component of the Loktak hydro project.
LDA’s superintending engineer in charge of wetlands, Ng Sanajaoba Meitei had on the 23rd of October earlier this year written to the executive director in charge of NHPC’s Siliguri office requesting the copy of the revised Detailed Project Report on the ‘modernization’ of Loktak Project and further cautioned NHPC not to initiate any work on the matter until mutual understanding is reached between NHPC and the various stakeholders in the State.
Sanjeev Sanyal, member in the economic advisory council to the Prime Minister, had referred the matter to Rajeev Kumar Vishnoi, chairman and managing director of NHPC to consider the issues raised by the LDA chairman. On a similar note, Rajasekhar Ratti, Scientist D, a panel member of the Ministry of Environment had also written to the NHPC chairman to take action on the LDA chairman’s concerns.
The 5-sluice gate operating Ithai Barrage is constructed at the confluence of the Manipur River and Khuga River near Ithai Khunou village in Bishnupur District, down south of Loktak Lake, and the barrage had turned Loktak and several adjoining wetlands into a single vast spread of water, maintained at a constant level of 768.5 metre above mean sea for availing water for the hydro project.
The measure upset the hydrological regime of the lake entirely. Its annual cycle of fluctuation in water level was stopped, inducing stagnation of the water and influencing siltation, pollution and eutrophication which eventually led to sharp changes in the ecology of the lake and in the decline of the biodiversity that the lake nourishes. It also led to the proliferation of invasive aquatic plant species and dominating over the native vegetation.
It may be recalled that in 1994 the Loktak Project Affected Areas Action Committee had filed a petition with the Gauhati High Court (Civil Rule No.32 of 1994) which noted that, ‘As the damages caused to the paddy fields of the petitioners and villagers in the periphery of the Loktak lake remained uncontrollable, some members of the Manipur Legislative Assembly questioned about the extent of the submersion of the paddy fields and other villages, the Government of Manipur informed the House that more than 50,000 hectares of paddy fields have been seriously affected by prolonged inundation arising out of the construction of Barrage at Ithai for maintaining a continuous level of water for the purpose of generation of electric energy by the Respondent No.1 [NHPC] and thus the said paddy fields became unfit for cultivation of crops’.
The petition further noted that, ‘The Respondents are fully aware of the damages caused to the petitioners and their paddy fields and other general public who are residing in the periphery of Loktak Lake and inspite of such colossal damages done to the petitioners, the Respondents did not take any action for preventing such a damage or rehabilitating the petitioners and villages who have been seriously affected by the project since the commissioning of the Project in the year 1983’.
On this very note, the Wetlands International-South Asia (WISA) and the Loktak Development Authority as Loktak Lake managers in a 2004 publication noted that, ‘The serious implications of the construction of Ithai Barrage across Manipur River by NHPC has led to changes in hydrological regimes of Loktak Lake and the interrelated river systems, thereby affecting ecological processes and functions of the wetland’.
The WISA and LDA further noted that the hydro project ‘had led to inundation of agricultural and settlement lands, and displacement of a large population of humans from frequently impacted areas in both the upstream and the downstream areas’ while influencing ‘proliferation of weeds, invasive aquatic plants and grass, and floating biomass population in the wetland complex’.
The Loktak Lake managers also noted that the hydro project had influenced ‘decline in fish population and diversity, and substantial decrease in wildlife population’ significantly influencing ‘decrease in the thickness of the floating biomass Phumdi in the Keibul Lamjao National Park, thereby threatening the survival of the endangered Sangai (Manipur Brow-antlered Deer) and the other wildlife thriving in the national park’.
WISA-LDA further noted that, ‘The onslaught of unsustainable developmental activities without understanding the nature of the wetland ecosystem has led to the degradation and loss of benefits accrued from them through their natural functioning’ while also noting that, ‘the annual fish yield in Loktak Lake had declined at an annual rate of 2.74 percent during the assessment years 1991 to 2001’.
A significant negative impact of the Loktak hydro project on the Loktak wetland system includes cutting off the traditional passage of migratory fish population coming upstream from the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system in Myanmar, causing a sharp decline in the fish population and reducing the earning capability of the local fishers, which led to economic deprivation and social burdens for the marginalized fishing community.
It is understood that people in Manipur had been protesting against the hydro project since its inception in the 1980s and had repeatedly called for decommissioning of Ithai Barrage citing its negative impacts upon both humans and the natural environment. The resurgence of the people’s protest under the lead of the People’s Committee on Restoration of Loktak is a manifestation of years of hardships and anger over the hydro project.