Oinam Rajen appears to have suddenly grown old in the past one year. Sitting in his wooden canoe, his eyes wander over the vast expanse of Loktak lake that surrounds his village, in search of the end. But the lake appears to be as endless as the struggle of his community to stay afloat- both literally and metaphorically. Rajen’s village, Champu Khangpok, is located in the largest freshwater lake of the Northeast, in the Imphal valley of Manipur, surrounded by a chain of hills. Houses here are nothing but single-room thatched huts perched on phumdis– thick mats of aquatic and terrestrial vegetation in different stages of life and decay that keep floating with the wind. Over the centuries, his community has mastered the art of maintaining the buoyancy of these floating islets through regular pruning and clearing of dead clumps. The phumdis are then tied together in the desired order to serve different purposes. On some, bamboo poles are placed neatly to build dwellings called khangpok shangs (shelter huts). Women use the others to wade through the soggy biomass to collect wild edibles and herbs for household consumption and to sell.
An impressive use of the biomass is to harvest fish using a traditional practice, athaphum-namba. Every now and then some eight to 12 people come together to arrange patches of the biomass in a circle to form an open “water pond”. It is lined with a fish net and feed is provided at the centre. When the feed draws adequate fish into the circle, the net is slowly hauled from one end to the other. The fish are then collected in traditional traps called taijep, which are kept half immersed in the water so that the fish stay alive until they are taken to be sold. The women of Champu Khangpok, however, prefer to smoke-dry some of the catch on a hearth. Smoked fish is not just a delicacy in Manipur, but it can also be stored for a long time until the women have enough to head to the lakeshore villages like Thanga, Ningthoukhong and Mayang Imphal. There they hand over the smoked fish and the fresh catch to the unja—the middle-woman who then sells the produce in markets. Paddling the canoe for more than an hour to reach the lakeshore, navigating through the maze of floating biomass- often hampered by strong winds- is not easy. But this is the only way of sustenance for the 165 households of Champu Khangpok.
The village has no shops or basic facilities other than a floating elementary school and a floating meeting hall. Fish is the only available resource for everything, from buying clothes, fishing gear, firewood and essential food items like salt and rice to paying education fees of children, most of whom study in boarding schools. An assessment by Imphal-based non-profit Indigenous Perspectives shows that a fisherman of Champu Khangpok spends over `1 lakh a year on fishing nets and gear and up to `18,000 on firewood. For this, he invariably borrows money from the unja at high rates of interest with an agreement to continue selling the catch to her until the debt is settled. “Our condition was never so pitiable. There was a time when we used to grow paddy in this lake,” recalls Rajen, who is in his late 60s. Other residents join the conversation. They say some four decades ago, Loktak lake was not a single waterbody. It was a wetland system fed by at least nine rivers and 20 rivulets which then drained into the Manipur river- part of the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system that straddles India’s border with Myanmar. Each wetland had distinctive water bodies, a defined boundary, a distinct identity and a name. During the dry season from October to April, communities from Champu Khangpok and other villages on the shore used to grow different varieties of rice on the exposed lake bed and dried up wetlands. Crops were harvested before the onset of pre-monsoon showers. With the arrival of the rainy season, the level of water would rise with the khangpok shangs floating up. The fields would be submerged, the water bodies would merge, and the farmers would become fisherfolk. With water spreading over 240 sq km, the lake used to support over 100,000 people living both inside as well as outside its waters.
All this changed in 1983, when the National Hydro Power Corporation (nhpc) Ltd set up a barrage at the confluence of the Manipur river with the Tuitha (Khuga) river near Ithai Khunou village. The Ithai barrage, constructed to feed a 105 MW hydropower plant, obstructed the only outlet for the wetland system and created an artificial reservoir; all the wetlands have since become one waterbody known as Loktak lake, which no longer exhibits any seasonal variation. “This has altered the lake ecosystem,” says Ningthoujam Thasana,a resident of Champu Khangpok. Phumdis that used to sink to the lakebed during the dry season, allowing its terrestrial vegetation to absorb nutrition from the soil before floating up with added biomass in the rainy season, now solely depend on aquatic vegetation and are thinning down. Wild edibles on them, too, have become sparse. Before 1983, a variety of fish used to migrate upstream from the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system. The barrage has blocked their route. All that is available in the lake are Indian major carps introduced by the fisheries department. Migratory birds visiting the lake have also declined by one-third. The residents’ struggle has compounded as the lake has become a receptacle of untreated sewage and silt flowing down from surrounding areas. In 1993, just three years after being recognised as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, the lake was listed under the Montreux Record because of its degraded ecology. Now, covid-19 appears to have dealt a death blow to the village community. None of the residents were infected by the virus till early May this year. Yet they are among the worst-hit by the pandemic. Soon after the first nationwide lockdown was declared to curb the spread of infection in late March 2020, children studying in Imphal and other urban areas returned home. The khangpok shangs, usually sized 0.5 sq m, had little space to accommodate them as well as the smoked fish that remained stacked up as markets remained shut. People ran out of basic food items, firewood and other essential commodities. Groups such as the All Manipur Students Union did try to provide emergency food supplies, but these did not last long. The residents had to request their relatives and unjas to supply food as additional loan, but completing the exchange was not easy as the lakeshore villages had restricted entry of outsiders. But living an integrated life with nature for generations has made the people of Champu Khangpok resilient. During the initial lockdown weeks, some ace canoe rowers braved the dark to reach the lakeshore before daybreak or after dusk to collect the supplies. Fishing continued as usual. To ensure that the catch remains preserved till the markets reopened, the people altered the curing method. Instead of smoke-drying, they sun-dried the fish and then pressed them with weights. This preparation also reduced their dependency on firewood, a precious commodity on the islet.
Life limped back to normal as the government eased lockdown restrictions after a few months, but by then every household was neck-deep in debt. Amid the hardship, on November 11, 2020, the Election Commission of India re-recognised the existence of the village (it was removed from electoral records in 1980s) and set up a polling booth there. This came as a huge relief to the residents who had been living under constant fear since 2011, when the Loktak Development Authority (lda) set fire to 777 khangpok shangs across the lake, declaring the fisherfolk as illegal occupiers. “The recognition will now help the residents benefit from the government’s welfare programmes and relief assistance like insurance schemes and fishing loans,” says Thasana. The pandemic, repeated lockdowns and exodus of workers from urban to rural areas has once again underscored the importance of Loktak lake in ensuring livelihoods. More and more people from lakeshore villages are now engaged in fishing in the lake. Boat makers say they have delivered more than double the canoes they usually build in a year. “There is an urgent need for the government to provide us financial assistance and other welfare benefits, particularly during the lean season when catch dwindles. Provision should be made for basic amenities like solar lighting, safe drinking water, potable toilets, primary healthcare and education, and Champu Khangpok should be developed as a model fishing village in line with concepts of a green village,” says Rajen, who leads All Loktak Lake Area Fishermen’s Union, set up in 2011 after the LDA incident. “Else, the government must decommission the Ithai barrage and restore the lake. That’s the only way to end our miseries.”
This article first appeared in Down to Earth.
Picture courtesy: Donald Takhell