Kolkata: From the sky, the deep, blue waters of a large, shimmering lake dotted with green rings and islands is Manipur’s best-identifiable landmark. On the ground, it is Manipur’s main source of fish and its biggest tourist attraction, visited by locals and outsiders alike.
This is Loktak, the “mirror of Manipur”, the largest freshwater lake in northeastern India: a 287-sq-km body of water unique in this part of the world for its floating, spongy masses of vegetation and other organic matter. Some of this spongy matter, about 10-ft thick, with a third above water, is used to craft floating islands or phumdi, many of which have one to three homes on them, and some are shaped into rings or athaphum, used as fishing coves.
People have lived on Loktak for centuries, the earliest written description provided 101 years ago by British zoologist Nelson Annandale and Indian zoologist S L Hora. The indigenous athaphum is Loktak’s main fishing technique, floating masses of vegetation the shape and size of ponds to trap fish and harvest them one or twice a month using nets.
The homes on the phumdi are made of bamboo, cane and straw and are called phumsang. The practice of living in phumsang has dwindled since an eviction drive a decade ago, but about 200 fishing families still live on them, over half of them in a floating village called Champhu Khangpok, home to more than 300 people, and others in small, isolated phumdi.
For the past three-four years, about 40 phumsang have become homestays, popular with Indian and foreign tourists. They charge up to Rs 4,000 a day, and have, locals said, boosted incomes.
However, after 18 July 2022, anxiety gripped lake area’s traditional inhabitants, almost all fisherfolk, as the Loktak Development Authority (LDA), the designated institution for the conservation of Loktak, issued a notice, giving people concerned 15 days to remove all athaphum and homestays on phumdi.
Since the expiry of the deadline, police have intensified patrols in and around the lake and prohibited public gatherings in some places, even as apprehensive fisherfolk have started protests against the move to shut down homestays and stop their ancient tradition of floating fish ponds.
In its defence, the government cites a 16-year-old law that banned athaphum. Protesting fisherfolk—and environmental experts—said that law was passed without consultation and alleged the evictions were meant to benefit corporate tourism.
Experts pointed to the irony of the government action.
Ten years after the Manipur government passed the controversial law, the union government added Keibul Lamjao Conservation Area, comprising the floating Keibul Lamjao National Park and about half of the Loktak lake, in India’s tentative list for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world-heritage sites.
Adding a site to the tentative list is a mandatory procedure for seeking world heritage status. In support of that application, the government makes special mention of ancient Loktak traditions. Among those: athaphum and phumdi.
For Loktak’s Own Good: Govt
The crackdown on Loktak’s homestays and athapum is unfolding at a time when India is celebrating the recognition accorded to 15 wetlands nationwide by the Ramsar Convention between 26 July and 3 August 2022, taking the number of Ramsar sites in India to 64.
In 1990, Loktak was declared a Ramsar site, or wetland of global importance, and, three years later, added to the Montreux Record, which lists Ramsar sites where technological or human intervention and pollution resulted in ecological changes.
Loktak’s fishing community had been under duress before that happened. Locals cite the construction of the Ithai barrage 20 km upstream on the Manipur river in 1983 as the starting point of their troubles. The dam reduced fish catch and indigenous varieties went extinct.
In its 18 July notice, the LDA said it was focussed on having Loktak removed from the Montreux Record, but an “exponential rise in the number of athaphum, houses (homestays) and huts on phumdi have put the lake at risk, impacting natural environment adversely”.
All athaphum and homestays must be removed within 15 days “to bring improvement and restoration of its ecosystem”, said the notice. There was no word on compensation. Only Champu Khangpok, the village of over 100 families on a phumdi, was exempted.
The homestays of these floating islands had indeed been cited for safety and waste management issues: the boats that ferry tourists have no life jackets, and the homestays discharge waste directly into the lake.
Locals said they were in talks with LDA officials over safety regulations and improving waste management. The eviction notice, they added, was a shock to them.
The removal of athaphum has greater significance on the lives and livelihood of Loktak’s fisher folk. There are about 800-1,000 fishing ponds in what is called the “core area” of the lake (a 70-sq-km swathe most deserving of protection), providing livelihood to about 1,000 families. Some live in phumsang or huts on the phumdi, while some live in Karang, Thanga and Ithing, three hill islands, and some on the peripheries of the lake.
In the first half of the 20th century, athaphum fishing was mainly done in the winter months, but it spread to more areas of the lake and throughout the year because of the fall in catch after the coming of the Ithai barrage.
A 2002 document published jointly by the LDA and Wetlands International South Asia, an advocacy group, attributed the proliferation of athaphum to the “large scale inundation of agricultural fields'' after the construction of the Ithai barrage, leading to “an occupational shift largely towards fishing,” and “overall decrease in fish yield from the lake.”
The study used satellite images to show athaphum increasing from 217 in 1990 to 3,019 in February 1999. A 2010 document by the same organisations said surveys conducted during 2007-08 revealed more than 5,000 families based their livelihoods on this form of fishing.
Many ponds and homes on phumdi were cleared during a controversial LDA eviction drive in 2011.
Local residents launched street protests in the villages of Sendra and Ningthoukhong in Bishnupur district, about 50 km south of state capital Imphal, from 31 July after the new eviction notice.
In reaction, LDA authorities and police, from 1 August, increased motor-boat patrols on the lake. The district magistrate also imposed section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) 1973, prohibiting gathering of more than four persons, at Keibul Lamjao and Chingmei villages in the southern part of the lake.
On 29 July, the Apunba Loktak Ngami Shinmi Cooperative Society Limited, an organisation of local people, and Oinam Maipakchao Singh, owner of Manipur’s oldest homestay on Loktak, in operation since 2013, filed a petition before the Manipur High Court challenging the LDA notification.
On 3 August, the court fixed 9 September as the next date for hearing but did not pass any interim order.
Difficult Battle Ahead
Fisher folk we spoke to almost unanimously agreed that the legal battle is going to be difficult, as the LDA’s notice was issued using provisions of the Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act (MLLPA) 2006, which treats phumdi-dwellers as “occupier” and criminalises athaphum fishing.
The law, they alleged, was passed without local consultation.
Article 14 sought comment from LDA project director Bhagaton Longjam, but he did not answer repeated calls and did not respond to questions sent over text messages and WhatsApp. LDA chairman Moirangthem Asnikumar could not be contacted over phone and has not responded to questions sent over Signal app, Facebook messenger and Twitter.
Section 20 of the MLLPA says that “no person or occupier shall plant or cultivate athaphum”, “engage in athaphum-fishing in the lake,” and “deposit or fix any stones, bamboo, log, net etc., into the lake for the purpose of rearing fish”. The Act makes no provisions for compensation, rehabilitation, or resettlement of displaced fishermen. The term “occupier” was defined as “a person who dwells in huts or houses on the phumdis or uses the phumdis”.
This is largely why, said experts, past legal battles did not end with orders that favoured the fisher folk.
In November 2011, protests against the Act and eviction were dispersed using the police and paramilitary: officials burnt 777 homes on phumdi and their owners were not allowed to return. Even though the Act had no provision for compensating anyone for displacement, the LDA authorities offered Rs 40,000 per family as a ‘livelihood package.’
The secretary of the All Loktak Lake Area Fishermen’s Union Manipur (ALLAFUM) Oinam Rajen Singh had filed a petition before the then Manipur bench of the Guwahati high court in 2011, seeking court intervention against the LDA’s move to evict people living on phumdi. Another case was filed by a fisherman called Salam Kiran Singh, who alleged eviction without “adequate compensation”, a reference to the Rs 40,000 sanctioned by the government.
In the first case, the court temporarily ordered on 25 January 2012 a status quo: those evicted would not reoccupy their phumdi and those not evicted would continue staying until “further orders”.
In 2018, the Manipur high court directed the LDA in both cases “to hold an on the spot enquiry with these petitioners by issuing public notice and deciding their claims on merits”.
That verification has not been done.
The Village Favoured By The BJP
Ram Wangkheirakpam, who heads the Imphal-based nonprofit Indigenous Perspectives, recalled that in 2011, local human rights activists tried to challenge the law in the high court, but the court said it did not want to interfere with the legislative domain.
In the recent case in the high court, the petitioners challenged the LDA’s 18 July notification to exempt Champu Khangpok, alleging that differential treatment for localities violated Article 14 of the Indian constitution that guarantees equality before law. The government counsel argued that Champu Khangpok was exempted in compliance with the Guwahati high court’s 25 January 2012 order to maintain status quo.
Fisher folk told Article 14 that they suspected Champu Khangpok was exempted because the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in its 2022 election manifesto, had pledged “to conserve and promote the heritage of the Champu Khangpok floating village”.
Article 14 sent an email to the BJP’s Manipur unit, seeking the party’s response to these allegations. We will update this story if they respond.
“Their plan is to use the village as a tourist attraction and remove rest of the phumdi dwellers and athaphum structures to facilitate smooth plying of tourist boats,” said a Thanga island resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He was initially part of the protest but reluctantly removed his athaphum because he did not want the trouble.
Even though the village is illegal under the 2006 Act, on 21 June, the LDA chairman led an International Yoga Day celebration at Champu Khangpok, where he said that the government was “planning to convert the Champu Khangpok Floating Village into a floating heritage village, to honour, preserve and promote the traditions and unique lifestyle of the community”.
With no relief from the court, the memory of 2011 has now returned to haunt the Loktak fishing community, with the LDA being armed with 2006 legislation.
The LDA started removing athaphum and homestays from 3 August, before the court had passed its order fixing the next date of hearing. That day, BJP chief minister N Biren Singh shared photos on Facebook of athaphum and homestays being removed.
“It is encouraging to see many dedicated folks from the fishing community coming forward and voluntarily assisting in the ongoing removal process of athaphum in Loktak lake,” said Singh. “The voluntary dismantling and removal of floating homestays (by owners) in the lake has also commenced.”
“These actions are clear indication (sic) that the dwellers of the lake genuinely understand and empathise with the initiatives of the state government’s conservation mission to save our treasured Loktak Lake,” said Singh.
He appealed to “all concerned to remove all of such unwanted structures and athaphum voluntarily as early as possible”.
Criminalising Features For Which India Seeks Heritage Status
The LDA was established in 1987 and reconstituted 19 years later with new powers after the enactment of the MLLPA. It divided the 287 sq km lake into 70 sq km of “core” and the rest a “buffer zone”.
The Keibul Lamjao National Park, a part of Loktak, located on a large phumdi and is the only natural habitat for the endangered sangai, a brow-antlered deer, is kept out of the LDA and the jurisdiction of the Loktak law.
Even though the 2006 Act had made living on phumdi and athaphum fishing illegal, India’s 2016 submission before the UNESCO seeking “‘world heritage site” recognition for the Keibul Lamjao Conservation Area, mentioned athaphum under the sub-head “Justification of Outstanding Universal Value.”
“Athaphum is a fishing technique using enclosures of strips of Phumdi arranged in a circular formation,” reads India’s submission, now part of what is called the tentative list. “This fishing technique has evolved over ages, where thin Phumdi and other plants… are put within the enclosure to attract fish.”
The accompanying photo in the submission was captioned, “Fishermen crossing Loktak lake, known for its inhabited floating islands called ‘Phumdis.’”
Since the 2006 Act criminalised the lake’s human traditions, environmentalists, local people and activists have long demanded the repeal of this Act, pointing out how it contradicts some of the basic principles of Ramsar convention.
According to the Ramsar Convention, the ‘wise use’ policy for wetlands means “the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and all the services they provide, for the benefit of people and nature”.
“The Loktak Protection Act completely excludes people from the lake conservation process, which is contrary to the Ramsar convention’s wise use policy for wetlands,” said Wangkheirakpam of Indegenous Perspectives, the nonprofit previously mentioned.
He described the 2006 Act as “a deadly combination of the national park conservation model and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)”. The AFSPA, promulgated in 1958, is a much-criticised law (here and here) that allows immunity from prosecution to armed forces in specified areas, one of them being Manipur, where it has been in force in different areas since 1958, covering most of the state between 2004 and March 2022.
The 2006 Act extended the national park model of core and buffer zone to conservation of Loktak.
A Law That Provides Military Powers To Officials
“The core zone rules for national parks are quite harsh on forest-dwelling people with regard to access to resources. Here, the same is applied to lake resources,” said Wangkheirakpam. “The Loktak Act, in addition, also contains elements of the AFSPA, allowing local authorities to enter and search one’s premises without a warrant if the government thinks someone is violating the law.”
Section 4 of the AFSPA allows “Any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces may, in a disturbed area” to enter and search any premises or make arrest of any person without a warrant.
The MLLPA’s section 21 says that “any persons empowered by the state government or the Authority in this behalf shall have right to enter, at all reasonable times with such assistance as he considers necessary, any place” to inquire into alleged illegalities.
In 2011, the Manipur-based Centre for Organisation Research & Education (CORE), a research and policy-related organisation active since the late 1980s, published a booklet titled ‘A Critique of The Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act Of 2006: A Ramsar Convention Viewpoint.’ It pointed out that even though the Act was promulgated 16 years after the site got Ramsar status, the Act does not mention the Ramsar convention.
While the Ramsar convention described wetland residents as “stakeholders”, the MPLA described phumdi residents as “occupiers.”
The current LDA chairperson, a BJP leader, took charge in February 2022 and the chain of events leading to the current situation occurred between 2006 and 2011, when the Congress party governed Manipur.
Article 14 sought comment from Okram Ibobi Singh, then chief minister and LDA chairperson during the years in question, on why the locals were described as “occupiers” but email, text and WhatsApp messages to his phone were not answered. A person who took calls to his number twice said he was busy.
From ‘Friend’ To ‘Authoritarian Agency’
“The Act has transformed the LDA from an institutional friend and guide of the local people of the Loktak into a monstrous authoritarian state agency, which views the indigenous people on the Loktak as encroachers illegally occupying state lands and enemies of the state,” said the CORE critique, adding that there were no consultations or public hearings regarding the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act 2006.
“No free and prior informed consent (was) taken from the indigenous peoples who are the conservators, developers, the competent authority to conserve and save the Lake and wetland its resources given by nature,” said the CORE critique. “The Act ignores Resolutions VII.8 and VIII.9 of the Conference of Parties to the Ramsar Convention.”
While resolution VII.8 deals with ‘guidelines for establishing and strengthening local communities and indigenous people’s participation in the management of wetlands,’ resolution VIII.9 is headlined: ‘Guidelines for incorporating biodiversity-related issues into environmental impact assessment legislation and/or processes and in strategic environmental assessment.’
Speaking to Article 14 about the recent LDA notice, Debabrata Roy Laifungbam, one of the co-authors of the critique, said that the latest notification was just an eyewash for moving out the small enterprises to make way for what he called “corporatisation of tourism”.
“I am neither in favour or against the homestays on phumdi. There are positive and negative sides,” said Laifungbam. “But when they are talking of removing biomass, they are doing it without any understanding of the biomass and their ecological interactions with the lake. The lake is being reclaimed for human and industrial needs. It’s difficult for the local people to resist this heavy financial infrastructure and industrial complex.”
According to him, athaphum fishing was more widespread earlier, but it reduced after many fisher folk were violently evicted in 2011.
“Athaphum would naturally exist if the lake or the wetland is managed, inhabited and utilised by the local fishing community,” said Laifungbam. “They are the ones who brought in the concept of athaphum. If you throw one out, the other goes automatically.”
Article 14 emailed Manipur’s state’s chief secretary, principal secretary to the chief minister and secretary to the chief minister, seeking the government’s response. We will update this story if they do.
What Is The Grand Plan For Loktak? Govt Won’t Say
Environmentalist and journalist Salam Rajesh, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP), told Article 14 that that the recent notice needed to be seen in the perspective of the Manipur state government’s twin development projects on Loktak: the Loktak Eco Tourism Project and the Loktak Inland Waterways project.
The Manipur high court is yet to clear the projects and there is a stay order on any development activity without the court’s clearance.
“The Manipur Government wants to clear the biomass from the lake and maintain a clear waterbody to enable plying of motor boats for tourists when their projects get approval,” said Rajesh. “The government is pushing for the projects without the least concern for the future for the hundreds of fishing families. The government needs to reconsider their move and involve the local people as primary stakeholders towards conservation of the lake.”
Laifungbam and Wangkheirakpam agreed with Rajesh’s views. Rajesh also wrote a letter to the principal secretary at the prime minister’s office on July 28, requesting intervention.
Article 14 sent a series of emails to the chief secretary, principal secretary to the chief minister and secretary to the chief minister, seeking the government’s comment on their allegations. There was no response.
As legal protection remains uncertain, local residents are also preparing to offer physical resistance to eviction.
“We will not allow anyone from the LDA and the state tourism department to enter the lake area,” said a member of the All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“If they destroy the athaphum and houses on phumdi by use of force,” said another fisherman, “We swear we will not allow any development activity, any corporate-backed tourism project to ever take place here.”
(Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an author and independent journalist based in Kolkata, writing on politics, human rights, environment, climate change and culture.)