Moirang (Manipur): Underneath the vast open sky the morning sun played with the huge expanse of water of the Loktak Lake, creating a mesmerising sight.
The largest freshwater lake in Northeast India is well known for the floating islands of biomass on it that are called phumdi by the locals.
Beginning in Manipur’s Imphal West district, the lake – encompassing an area of about 286 sq km – spreads to the neighbouring valley districts of Bishnupur and Thoubal.
This expanse makes Loktak – a Ramsar site – a prized natural possession of the state. The largest phumdi, Keibul Lamjao, also houses the world’s only floating national park, which is also home to the endangered sangai deer.
For generations the lake has been inhabited by fishermen who live in traditional huts that precariously stand on bamboo stilts placed on the phumdis. But a lot of that has changed since the Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, was introduced by the state government to conserve the lake and develop the area for tourism.
Most of the fishermen have since been removed from the lake by the Loktak Development Authority (LDA), after a report by Wetlands International claimed that detrimental fishing practices and proliferation of phumdis had led to the degradation of the lake.
Since then the fishermen are no longer allowed to fish in the core area of the lake and many have turned into boatmen for tourists or into hawkers selling sundry items by the lake side.
On the morning of September 3, a bunch of such fishermen-turned-boatmen expectantly waited with their colourful vessels for the arrival of tourists along with some fishermen-turned-hawkers, who waited with cold drinks, biscuits, betel nuts, chips, dried fish and watercress plucked from the lake waters.
As the clock struck 9:30, they suddenly saw a row of cars passing by on the concrete four-lane approach road. Hoping that visitors had arrived at the Sendra Park and Resort – the sole accommodation for tourists in the lake’s core area, which for the past three years has been operated by a top private player of Manipur’s nascent hospitality industry as per the public private partnership model – their eyes lit up.
Instead, the entourage was led by one of the most prominent faces of the state, Irom Chanu Sharmila, who was accompanied by a few civil society activists and journalists. The vehicles went past the resort and stopped at the community shed of Ithing Sendra village, which is situated along the lake.
Since August 3 the community shed has been a temporary shelter for 17 families of the village that were evicted by the state government from a piece of land adjacent to the lake called the Sendra public ground.
According to a village elder and a member of the state’s Thanka part two gram panchayat, Jiten Singh, these families have been residing on one part of the public ground for past three years since they were evicted from another area of the village for its development. “Though the government then made an informal promise to arrange alternate land for them, nothing came their way,” he told The Wire.
A fellow elder and also a gram panchayat member, M. Ibosna added, “A part of the public grounds, measuring 2.08 acres, was also being used by the village youth as a club for the last 30 years. With the number of tourists visiting the lake growing in the last few years, the local youth constructed a waiting shed and a toilet next to the club for visitors. Even though it was a registered society and possesses a dagshita [a legal document], the club house, along with the shed and the toilet, were also razed to the ground on August 3.”
Exactly a month later on September 3, as soon as Sharmila arrived at the community shed, the displaced families and the club members surrounded her.
The sight under the shed, covered by GI sheets, was dismal. A long worn out cloth was tied around the shed in order to give privacy to the occupants, many of whom were women. While two sides of the shed were lined with beddings, the other two were being used for cooking and storing whatever little they could save from their razed huts.
Recently, there was an outbreak of Japanese encephalitis in the area, which is why all the beddings were placed under mosquito nets, a young man from the crowd told this correspondent. A seven-year-old boy with high fever was lying underneath one such net. His mother was worried that he may have encephalitis.
A banner inside the hall read “Stop forced eviction in Loktak wetlands; Uphold indigenous peoples’ rights; Repeal Manipur Loktak (Protection) Act, 2006; Decommission 105 MW Loktak project,” indicating the effort of civil society to mobilise the affected families to fight for their rights.
Men and women who held young children in their arms soon sat next to Sharmila on the mud floor to relate what they had undergone on August 3.
“We were born in this village, lived all our life here, our families have lived here for generations; fishing in the lake has been our livelihood, now we are being removed from our own homes in the name of development. If we are removed from this area, how can we fish in the lake? Nobody listens to us just because we are poor. Where will we go now?” a middle-aged woman tearfully asked Sharmila.
Another woman said with loud cries, “I sent my son to school that day. When he returned, the house was gone. He cried seeing his things scattered all over. He was also hungry, but I couldn’t give him food.”
A man joined in, saying, “In the melee, we tried to save whatever we could. We couldn’t save my son’s uniform; from where will I get him another pair? So we not only lost our home, but it looks like my son will lose his education too.” Soon most of the people surrounding her began to cry.
While speaking to them Sharmila broke down as well. “I can’t believe what I am hearing. Is there any civil society alive in this state? Why are no human rights organisations taking it up?” she wondered aloud amidst sobs in her feeble voice.
In the 16 years that she was confined to a room in Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal, a lot changed in and around Sendra. What unfolded in the community shed on September 3 had its roots in 2011.
According to one of the evicted men, Ibosna Singh, “Hundreds of families were evicted from the phumdis in 2011. While some moved to the side of the lake to continue fishing, some others left for other areas of the district looking for a fresh livelihood with some compensation given by the state. Since we were staying on the lake side, we thought we were safe from eviction.”
“With our families growing in size, we moved some years ago to a new area in the village alongside the lake with the permission of the gram panchayat. In 2013, we were evicted from that area by the government. The local MLA said it needs to be cleaned and beautified for tourists. He told us, it will benefit us only, so we should cooperate with the government. He also said an alternate arrangement will soon be made for us. So we agreed to move to the public ground till it was done. On August 3, the government removed us from there too, without making any alternate arrangement to stay.”
A look at the file of communications between the government and the Sendra Youth Club suggests that trouble began after the club wrote to the local administration in December 2014 to grant it permission to run a parking lot for tourists. In January 2015, as per the direction of the sub divisional officer of Moirang, the office of the assistant survey and settlement officer conducted a survey of the club land. After the field survey, it informed the office that the land had been “recorded under Dag No. 4” in the name of the club.
“Even then, we were given an eviction notice by the SDO’s office saying the land was shown on the records as a government property. On receiving the eviction notice, we approached the Manipur high court against it. Though the high court issued a stay on the matter on August 3 till August 29, the huts, the club and the facilities built for the tourists were rased by the state government two hours before we could get a copy of the order. Prohibitory orders were clamped so that we couldn’t assemble and protest it. Since the prohibitory orders were issued till further notice, people also couldn’t move back to the grounds before August 29.”
On September 3, villagers took Sharmila to another area of Sendra where the lone resort was “constructing a swimming pool and some other tourist facilities” by the lake. A wall had also been built along the lake to turn it into a private zone.
“We have no idea how much more area of the village land had been given out to rich private players for tourism by the government. The local community had not been consulted at all. Suddenly, people get an eviction notice,” said Jiten.
While she was speaking to the villagers, the LDA director P.D. Bhagaton approached Sharmila. On being asked about the eviction of the families, he surprised her by saying, “We are here only for the protection of the lake; we have nothing to do with the eviction nor have we got anything to do with these tourism projects.”
“Fishermen are allowed in the lake except in the core areas. We are not against the local people. We don’t charge them anything for fishing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ram Wangkheirakpam of Imphal-based civil society organisation Indigenous Perspectives, who had accompanied Sharmila to Sendra, told The Wire, “Nobody knows what is happening in Loktak in the name of development and augmenting tourism. From what happened in August 3 here, the tourism policy of the state government seemed not to have any space for the involvement of the local community. We have filed an RTI with LDA this past August 17 to get more details in this regard.”