Villagers of floating Champu Khangpok in Manipur’s Loktak Lake are hoping for government’s attention and support, as despite being untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic they are faced with existential problem as they are running out of essential items.
The villagers whose livelihood depend on fishing are now struggling to survive owing to the lockdown imposed by the government to contain the spread of coronavirus as the second wave hit the state.
Rajen Oinam, secretary, All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union, told the Imphal Free Press that “Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, villagers are facing hardship as we are not getting any help from the government”.
“In the city if one runs out of salt in their houses, they can manage to get it from somewhere even if the shops are closed. But in the lake area, we have to travel one or two hours by boat just to get salt even,” said Rajen.
Champu Khangpok village has a polling booth, but it has no ration shop, government school or pharmacy. Although COVID-19 is yet to reach them, its threat looms large, but the state government has abandoned them, said Rajen.
“Markets are closed and we can’t get even basic vegetables. We haven’t got any help from the government during the COVID crisis. The fishes we catch are drying up but due to lockdown we are unable to sell them. The villagers are surviving on vegetables available in the Loktak Lake areas, while other essential items are in shortage, Rajen added.
“Parents are sacrificing their share of food to ensure their children are well fed,” said a mother named Ekasini Oinam.
The pandemic lockdown has affected the villagers greatly since April.
“We are stuck inside the lake and could neither sell the fish we catch nor buy essential items as we used to do earlier as the nearby markets are closed,” said Ekasini.
The closing of shops and markets has made life difficult for the people of this floating village.
Amid the scarcity of essentials like rice, pulses, etc they have started depending on vegetables alone for their daily meals.
“We have exhausted several items of daily needs, but there is no place to buy,” said Ekasini.
It is very hard to survive in the lake with shortage of essential items. If anyone gets sick or requires immediate treatment, there is no pharmacy or hospital here and it takes one or two hours to reach the shore by boat on normal days.
As neighbouring villages are affected by the COVID-19 spread, the villagers of Champu Khangpok has banned the entry of outsiders. The villagers are also afraid to leave the village to buy essential items.
The people of Champu Khangpok are now faced with existential problem owing to lack of essential items.
One may have the means to buy necessary items but are unable to as restrictions are imposed everywhere, Rajen said.
However, two NGOs namely Prime Time New Delhi provided Covid-19 relief materials and the Environmental Support group has provided 40 rice bags, edible oil, salt, dal, soap for 140 households of Champu Khangpok, Rajen informed.
“We have to go to nearby villages to get vaccinated, but it is a challenge because they are far and some are containment zones. Some villagers are vaccinated but most of them are yet to be vaccinated,” he said.
As fishing remains the only source of livelihood, people are faced with dire situations without any earnings for long months. “The restrictions in neighbouring markets have put us in a miserable situation for selling fishes. We are facing big trouble, the government should pay heed to our woes,” Rajen lamented.
“Many villages in the valley get ration rice and support from the state government but there is no such support provided to us,” Rajen said, drawing the government’s attention to look into their problems and plight.
One Bir Mangol, a fisherman living for about 50 years in the lake, said the problems of the villagers have not been attended to by the local MLA or the state government.
Hit hard by the pandemic restrictions, school-going children are also suffering due to lack of smart phones to access the online classes. Buying a Smartphone for education would be the last thought on the mind of those who have been struggling to provide education to their children.
The return of the children from hostels and boarding schools amid the pandemic is posing another problem, due to lack of space in the floating village. They are unable to accommodate their children in the small huts, said Mangol.
Although fishing is primarily done by men, women are in charge of transporting the catch and selling it in the markets. A day in the life of the fisherfolk often begins from 4 in the morning till the sun sets and after returning from fishing, they would start smoking or drying the fish. It was 17-18 hours a day that yielded anywhere between Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000 a month before the pandemic. “The amount we earn from the lake is barely enough for our survival and for the children’s education,” said one Thasana.
Since the lockdown, selling fish has been difficult. Most of the catch is now either sun dried or smoked in order to sell them. “But from April last week we have stopped selling, we have been restricted from selling to the community and people in the valley,” she said.
“Sun-dried fish or fermented fish could not be stored for long as it gets covered by fungus, so we are suffering huge loss,” Thasana added.
Loktak Lake has contributed about 60 per cent of fish production in Manipur, which has dropped to 11 per cent in recent times. Among villages located inside the Loktak Lake, the Champu Khangpok is the one floating village with 140 households. The huts in the village are temporary and fragile as they do not rest on solid earth. The trouble of their precarious existence has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic from lack of ration through public distribution system and healthcare.
“We want the PDS ration items to be distributed here as it takes one and half or two hours to go by boat and get rice,” said Ekasini.
Champu Khangpok floating village was struck off the electoral records in the 1980s, years after its residents were declared encroachers. After 30 years of being struck off from the electoral records, on November 11, 2020, the authorities approved a new electoral list and a polling booth for the floating village. However, due to lack of ration cards, the villagers are deprived of rice supply from the government till date.