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These fishermen inherited a unique lifestyle and habitat, unseen and unheard of anywhere else in the world. Their unusual lives inspired authors and poets, and attracted tourists and researchers from across the world. But in one brutal sweep, they've been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Manipur's picturesque Loktak Lake, about 90 minutes drive from state capital Imphal, has been famous for its phumdis - heterogeneous agglomerations of weeds, water hyacinth and aquatic plants, soil and other organic matter in various stages of decomposition that form large floating islands on the lake. Many of these 'islands' used to be inhabited by fishermen who built small huts on them and the islands would drift from one part of the 236-square-kilometre lake to another.
The earliest records of these inhabited phumdis can be found in the 1886 Manipur Gazetteer. The largest single mass of phumdi, about 40 square kilometres in size and at the southeastern part of the lake, is the Keibul Lamjao National Park inhabited by the brown antlered deer known locally as sangai, which is the flagship species of this only one of its kind floating wildlife park in the world.
Loktak, the largest freshwater lake in eastern India, was a natural one that fed a river which is a tributary of Myanmar's Irrawady. In 1983, it was dammed as part of the Loktak Hydroelectric Power Project, and that was the fountainhead of the woes of the agriculturists and fishing folk around the lake. The project submerged 8, 300 hectares of fertile farmlands, thus displacing thousands of people who were never compensated or rehabilitated. "The people displaced by the submergence were primarily agriculturists, who then took to fishing. Many couldn't settle on land, since there was little flat land available around the lake for settlement, and thus started staying on the phumdis, " says Haobijam Kulla, the president of All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen's Union.
Before the barrage came up, the water level of the lake used to rise and fall with the seasons. "During the dry winter season, the water level of the lake would fall and the vegetation in the phumdis would be able to draw essential nutrients from the lake bed, thus rejuvenating them. Those days, the phumdis were 'living', after the barrage, what we have are dying phumdis. This is why the Keibul Lamjao park is also dying, " says Lt Col (retired) Rajendra Singh, who works with the marginalised communities around Loktak.
In the past, many phumdis would flow away from the lake to the Irrawady, but the Itahi barrage has blocked the natural flow of the river and stopped the phumdis from floating out of the lake. "This led to proliferation of phumdis over the years, thus choking the lake and affecting aquatic life in it, " says Singh.
In a bid to save the lake, declared a Ramsar (a treaty for the conservation of wetlands) site in 1990, the state government commissioned a study that recommended clearing of phumdis, among other measures. The Planning Commission sanctioned Rs 500 crore for this. The Manipur government enacted the Loktak Lake Protection Act in 2007 that paved the way for clearing of the phumdis from 2008. "We welcomed the clearing of the uninhabited phumdis, but were totally opposed to clearing the inhabited ones which had huts (khangpokshang in Manipuri) on them. We are also against the restrictions imposed on fishing by the Act, " says fishermen's union secretary Oinam Rajen. But their opposition, and that of social and human rights groups that voiced support for the beleaguered fishermen, was in vain as the state government, with the help of armed police and even commandos, carried out a fortnightlong operation from mid-November 2010 to clear all the 1, 147 inhabited phumdis.
"We were not even given time to remove our household goods before they set fire to our huts. We lost everything we had, including our fishing gear, " says Oinam Tomba Singh, 48, who has taken refuge at a relative's house. The state offered a compensation of only Rs 40, 000 to each displaced family, but this amount is clearly insufficient to buy even a 100 square metre plot of land in the periphery of the lake.
No wonder, then, that only 577 affected families have accepted this compensation. "A grave injustice has been done to these poor phumdi dwellers. First, they were displaced by the submergence of their lands in 1983 and were not paid any compensation. They were reduced to penury and rebuilt their lives somehow by taking to fishing. They were forced to settle on phumdis because they just couldn't afford land on the periphery of the lake. Now, they have been ruined again, " said Babloo Loitongbam, a prominent human rights activist of Manipur. "The Itahi barrage is to blame for this condition of the lake. The poor fishermen have been made into scapegoats, " says Rajendra Singh.
The union and many organisations, including some political parties, have demanded resettlement of the displaced phumdi dwellers on other such patches and sought the restoration of full fishing rights to fishermen. The government's action has also shifted the spotlight to the ecological damage caused by the hydroelectric project which, incidentally, does not benefit powerstarved Manipur much since most of the electricity generated is fed to the national grid. But the state government is not willing to budge. "The settlements in phumdis were illegal and we were magnanimous to give them compensation. The phumdis were choking the lake and so they are being removed, " says a government spokesperson.
Sadly, with this, has come to an end a way of life that had been written about and romanticised in prose and poetry. The gently floating and idyllic lives of the 4000-odd who used to dwell on phumdis have crashed, and terra firma is not a good enough substitute.
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