Lotak Project: Of ruthless plunder and exploitation
The NHPC seems to enjoy complete freedom to destroy Loktak Lake and all the traditions and culture associated with it.
Updated on 22 Nov 2021, 9:11 am
Famous for its floating islands (Phumdis) and picturesque landscape, the condition of the Loktak Lake in Manipur is sadly deteriorating. Researchers blame changes in the hydrology due to the constructing dams, blockage of migratory routes for fish, drying up of wetlands from siltation and exploitation for declining indigenous fish varieties in the lake. The 266 sq km, Loktak is Northeast India’s largest fresh water lake and Ramsar site of international importance. This ancient lake plays an important role in the socio-economy, climate and rich biodiversity of Manipur.
Ithai Barrage was constructed downstream of Manipur River as a part of the National Loktak Multipurpose Hydro-Electric Project to maintain sufficient water volume in the lake by making it a reservoir for maintenance of the project. The project was commissioned in 1983. With the construction of the Ithai Barrage; there have been certain changes in the climatic condition and socio-economic life of the people and environment of Manipur.
One major impact of the Ithai Barrage on the environment of Manipur is the flooding of several thousand hectares of agricultural land around the Loktak Lake. The maintenance of constant water level of Loktak Lake due to the Ithai Barrage has flooded the agricultural land around the Lake which was previously utilised for cultivation. Second, Phumdis have been disappearing. Phumdis float during the rains and sink during dry months, sucking nutrients from the lake bed to replenish their roots and float again when the next monsoon cycle begins. This has been their life cycle for centuries but it is now at grave risk. The Loktak Hydroelectric Project constantly keeps the water level in the lake high, unable to feed from the nutrients on the bed, the Phumdis are thinning out and even breaking away. Worst is, local residents themselves are breaking off pieces of the biomass to sell elsewhere as rich fish culture soil.
The third impact of Ithai Barrage is the high level of siltation in Loktak Lake. The blockade of water current in the outlet of Loktak Lake through Manipur River has affected the normal flow of river and helped in deposition of silts at Loktak Lake itself from different inlets of the catchment areas.
Fourth, the ecology of the peripheral areas of Loktak Lake , which were used as grazing ground of cattle in the past, have become inundated due to the maintenance of constant water level of Loktak Lake by Ithai Barrage. Even, existence of endangered Brow-antlered Deer of Keibul Lamjao National Park is at high risk. The environment around Loktak has been changed and the number of cattle and buffaloes has been reduced to a great extent in the last few years. It directly or indirectly affects the livelihood of the villagers. Most importantly, indigenous fish varieties of Loktak Lake have vanished in the last two to three decades following the construction of the Ithai barrage across the Manipur River. Fish prefer shallow areas for breeding but the constant high level of water in Loktak Lake for functioning of the barrage has destroyed their breeding habitats. In addition, the run-off from chemical fertilizers used in agriculture and untreated sewage from Imphal through Nambul River also directly affects the biodiversity of the Lake. Before construction of the barrage, minor carps such as Pengba used to migrate from Myanmar to Manipur and enter Loktak Lake upstream for breeding and spawning.
The deep-rooted and multifaceted adverse impacts of 105 MW Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project commissioned by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) continues to haunt Manipur for long, A simple interaction with denizens of Loktak Lake within and peripheral part of the wetland would unravel the alteration, a change more of nightmarish experiences to communities, of loss of land, of loss of fish species and seasonal plants, of change in culture that bring lamentations to memories of abundance, of freedom and glories in their bygone days prior to the dam.
Much has been discussed and written on the wide impact of Loktak project and the NHPC, a multinational company for altering Loktak Wetland’s ecology and endless suffering seems to be least concerned. Rather denying its role in the devastation of Loktak and refuting the call of communities and even the Government of Manipur to decommissioned Ithai barrage as emanating from sheer "Ignorance" simply constitute an utter disrespect and insult to the people of Manipur.
NHPC even boldly absolved and denied the responsibility for the sufferings unleashed in Loktak Lake in legal process with communities seeking compensation for crop damages by the project. This is clear evidence of how the NHPC functions with a clear impunity far away from any sort of monitoring and regulatory mechanism.
Unfortunately, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) in a scandalous manner facilitated the NHPC’s unaccountability and assertion of impunity by unleashing "merciless brutalities", adding to the woes and suffering of the fishing communities displaced by NHPC’s Loktak Project since 1983.
The NHPC’s Loktak Project is simply becoming a symbol of ruthless plunder and exploitation of Manipur. The Project is now also synonymous with the oppression of the people of Manipur and suppression of indigenous people’s legitimate exercise of their self-determination over land, lives and future. It seems the Loktak Project is designed perfectly to destroy and weaken Manipur by usurping its agricultural land and destroying its key primary economic base.
Manipur indeed has long been reduced to a food importing state, ever since the commissioning of Ithai Barrage for Loktak Project.
The NHPC continues to reap maximum profit at the cost of Manipuri’s land and suffering from its people. A continued operation of Loktak Project for next Ten to Twenty years will simply cause havoc and completely destroy Loktak. Given the fast rate of sedimentation of Loktak Lake from the rivers flowing into it due to denudation of forest in their catchment areas, Loktak Lake will simply disappear soon. Rivers like Khordak and Manipur River all silted up already. Notwithstanding the multiple impact and continued unaccountability of NHPC, the objectives and performance of the Loktak Project need to be clearly scrutinised as well.
The Loktak Lift irrigation Project which originally intends to provide irrigation and rejuvenate more than 30,000 hectares of agricultural lands now languish uselessly and non-functional while farmers also lament of the lands loss due to the construction of irrigation canals at Bishnupur, Moirang and Toronglaobi and many other areas vicinity of Loktak. Despite the worsening situation in Loktak Lake and non-functional nature of the key objectives of the Loktak Project, there is no mechanism to monitor the impacts and the performance of Loktak Project. NHPC seems to function above the people of Manipur and the Government of Manipur.
Now, the question is, how long such an ordeal and NHPC’s unaccountability will continue and how long will the people of Manipur suffer? There is no clarity on how long the Project will continue and with the recent confirmation of an absence of a clear agreement between NHPC and the Government of Manipur that defined the terms and conditions of the operation of Ithai Barrage, the end to such ordeal is nowhere in sight in the near future. The NHPC seems to enjoy complete freedom to destroy Loktak Lake and all the traditions and culture associated with it in its ultimate for an indefinite period of time. Manipur indeed is reeling and enduring a time, where corporate bodies are increasingly ruling the roost.
(The views expressed are personal)
Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh
Faculty, JCRE Global College, Imphal, Manipur. The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org