Riverine civilization, that is Manipur, evolved through the art of dredging the waterbeds, from time to time, periodically in a more emphatic sense, since ancient times. Apart from dredging, the demanding job also included digging of new water channels and joining of streams and rivers for human consumption and irrigation, and finally, changing the course of streams and rivers away from human habitats so as to avoid disasters during the rainy seasons. Such feats are unimaginable today, if one looks from the perspective of modern science and technology, given that earth movers, technological marvel of modern science, were absent in Manipur of the yore. Onus of the taxing work was on the people (citizens, prisoners and slaves included), whipped and dragged by the task masters under the command of the king. Apart from the diktats of kings, primary association of the nature as a part of human consciousness, thus informing its culture and spirituality, call it animism, also greatly contributed in preserving its surrounding with a kind human touch. Thus, riverbeds had to be dredged so as to allow their normal course of flow, new channels had to be dug so as to feed the plants and human beings, and at times, river courses had to be changed so that there is harmony of life. Water ultimately was/is an inseparable part of the Manipuri world view not only as a source of life but one that also sustains life.
Ikou khatpa or Lai loukhatpa (welcoming a deity to its abode, the temple) is the first ritual of Laiharaoba, in which the particular deity, thus far roaming in its spirit form in the water, is “pleased” and taken to its man-made abode, so that its holy presence brings prosperity to mankind and stave off-disasters. Significance of water in our cosmology lies here. Spirits of the deities are not taken down from the heaven or sky, neither are they plucked from the air or wind, nor, for that matter, dug up from the earth or sand. Centrality of water in our world view is further enacted by the spiritual attendants, including the myth of creation of universe as well as life created out of water/fluid, in the unfolding days of Lai Haraoba.
Colonialism & Disruption of Harmony
Varied aquatic food, in addition to water creatures such as fish, mollusk and others, consumed in Manipur have been a matter of amazement to outsiders, who regard Manipur as a jungle-mountain state. Legends talk of how various water bodies have supported livelihood of the general populace of Manipur. For example, the destitute Khamba and Khamnu survived on water plants of Loktak Lake. Moreover, people living in the vicinity of such water bodies, developed skills, which later on became traditional occupation of the area, passed down from generation to generation as forms of knowledge.Access to water bodies for livelihood purposes, except sacred ponds, was an unrestricted affair until the arrival of the British in Manipur. Monetization of economy from 1891 had a tolling effect on the colony. Colonial administration demanded revenue from any available source, and thus, imposed upon the people taxes such as water tax, fishery tax and so on. People’s survival rights were neutered. Over and above, the kind of devotion paid to the water bodies, at least in the domain of maintenance such as dredging and channeling, in the erstwhile era of free Manipur came to an end.
Harmonious relationship between man and nature, environmental consciousness as modern-day understanding put it, came under severe attack during the colonial period. On one hand was the non-intervention of the colonial state, in terms of maintenance and preservation of natural surrounding, as mentioned above, along with denial of the general population a free access and involvement. With the abolition of Lallup system, (clamed as an emancipatory act informed by humanity and liberal ethos), which colonial British termed as “forced labour” or “corvee”, without understanding the socio-cultural and economic context of Manipur, the erstwhile practice of an individual’s involvement in creating a harmonious relationship with nature came to an end. On the other hand, as a continuous part of the colonization project, there was the parallel phenomenon of overt commercialization and exploitation (unmindful) of the natural resources. Holistic understanding of the universe, where every being and innate object has a role to play came to an end during the era of British colonialism.
However, it would be wrong to assume that there were no resistances against such form of alien rule and practices. Chronicled incidences such as the Thoubal Resistance against water tax and denial of fishery rights is an indication of the hardship faced by the people during those days. Unrecorded but popular stories of resistance, passed down from this repressive and exploitative era, are stuffs of legends, which can even draw the attention of scholars like James Scott who theorises on “weapon of the weak”. Our grandfather fondly remembers Amuchoubi of Yaiskul and her antics.
During the times when Maxwell flexed his muscles not only as the Political Agent of Manipur but also as one who made sure that colonial subjects paid their taxes (water, kapok, chilly, etc.) on time, Amuchoubi of Yaiskul was a major challenge. When the wave of water tax struck hard upon the people, Amuchoubi of Yaiskul was also one among the victims. Grandfather says:
She cleaned her Sanabul until it glittered. After the morning bath, daily, she fetched a Sanabul of water from the Imphal River and leave it at Maxwell’s gate. Mind you, the Goras are polluted, neither did we allow them to enter our homestead nor did we enter theirs! At the end of each month, when Maxwell is on the errand to collect water taxes, Amuchoubi used to demand money as charges of fetching water for (from) Maxwell. Although, Maxwell forbade her, she continued and never paid water taxes.
Dawn of a New Age
Modern state is pervasive in its action. Its power lies not only in its ability to exercise violence at will in the Weberian sense of the term but also in its ability to “enthuse” hope to its citizens. This dawn of the new age, associated with the idea of freedom and justice, attempts a break from colonial state, in the sense that it promises (through periodic elections) responsibility and accountability. Welfare is the catchword, wherein, it promises that arenas presumably unlooked or exploited or even uncared would be paid attention. Every available means would be used in the name of development for welfare and justice, yes, in the name of the people. However, it never bothers to pay attention to the structural violence unleashed in the process of undertaking development or preservation and protection project. As Ashish Nandy puts it, however, the modern state in terms of practices in formerly colonised societies, only ends up emulating the erstwhile colonial state. The Loktak Protection Act 2006 is one such practice, which undeniably is an emulation of a colonial act, and jeopardizes the people of Manipur.
First point worth considering is the restriction placed upon the people in terms of access to the Lake for livelihood purposes. The notified areas are too small to accommodate the people who have been traditionally dependent on the Lake. In this denial mode, what is being suppressed is use of one’s knowledge and skills, which ultimately form the core of one’s occupation and source of livelihood, passed down from generations, and the related issue of transformation of one’s identity, for example from a fisherman to an agricultural labourer. Encroachers need to be punished but one also has to distinguish between an encroacher and a dependent on the Lake.
Finally, can a Loktak centric approach save Loktak? Definitely no. In beginning sections of this article, we have identified the holistic approach to environmental concerns followed by our ancestors. To reemphasize, a topical treatment cannot solve the problem of Loktak. Rivers that drain into Loktak need to be identified and dredged on a regular basis. This also demands, identifying the sources of the rivers and routes, so as to undertake aforestation. Prevent erosions; forestation is the only way out not only to control flood but also to prevent siltation. Equally important are the issues of Hydro Project and other multipurpose dams, which have restricted the normal flow of rivers and streams. Participation of people is also denied in the Act, for example, one has to get permission even to undertake research in the Lake. Yenning is sorry to say that an expensive “Water Master” can never do miracles and save Loktak.
Simmering voices of resistance have emerged against the Loktak Protection Act. The Government while denying the affected people a place for their voice, which they raised in response to disturbances to their life, work and deportment, has also horrendously misrecognised these voices. They are now framed within the volt of state’s own language and categorized as anti-development, anti-government and anti-state. In this habitual framing, the victims are now identified as a security threat, not as ones demanding their rightful places. Within this order, also developing is a body of legalities and illegalities. Loktak is now more than a lake. It has already transgressed the nature that it was once lovingly understood with. It has been now metamorphosed into something that closely looks like an economy of “illegality” built around to check anti-government and anti-state elements. Seemingly, cleaning the loktak is cleansing these elements off, not about saving a heritage and ecology. We fear, the campaign remains to be an illogical song with palpable notes of tyranny.
(The Sangai Express, Imphal, May 1, 2011)