Monday, January 2, 2012

Crackdown on Phumdi Dwellers: An Ugly Face of Developmental Terrorism

Barely 24 hours since serving quit notice, humble houses of impoverished lake (phumdi) dwellers were burnt down together with all their belongings by the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) at the command of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi. This tale of tyranny which perfectly fits a dictatorial regime does not end here. The homeless and hapless fishing families were not allowed to raise any voice of dissent. The brute force of commandos was unleashed without any restraint upon the helpless women and children. They were not even allowed to take shelter outside Bishnupur district. Left to defend themselves from the cold and long winter nights with only the clothes they were wearing, many of these displaced families including aged women and tiny tots were preparing humble meal out of donations made by some civil organizations and philanthropist somewhere at Kwakeithel one night when commandos wielding automatic rifles arrived there unannounced and kicked the rice pots right away from the open hearths in another act of bravado. Driven away from the night’s only shelter, the displaced families could only curse their fate, and take solace in their own bitter tears.

Simmering voices of resistance have emerged against the Loktak Protection Act 2006 months back before the humble huts were burnt down. The Act has been justified on the grounds of heritage, as a fulcrum of ecological balance in the state and most specifically as a biodiversity hot spot. The Act has been implemented within the larger framework of the “Save Loktak Campaign”. Consequent upon the implementation of the Act, livelihood of the people who have traditionally been dependent upon the water body have been affected. Government while denying the affected people a place for their voice, which they raised in response to the disturbances to their life, work and deportment (displacement), 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. Cleaning the Loktak is cleaning these elements off, not about saving a heritage.

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 canals 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.

The Loktak Protection Act 2006 and consequent deprivation of people of their livelihood means through eviction (displacement) and is one such practice, which undeniably is an emulation of a colonial act, and jeopardizes the people who have traditionally depended upon the lake.

However, the story of despoliation of Loktak begins with the construction of the Loktak project in 1971 under the control of Ministry of Irrigation and Power, as a central sector project. The project was handed over to the NHPC six years later and commissioned in 1983 at an estimated cost of Rs.115 crores, with a capacity of 105 MW (3x35 MW). This dam has ‘permanently’ raised the water level of this wetland and has blocked the natural flow of water to and/or from the wetland, severely altering the hydrologic cycle of a delicately balanced system. Before the construction of the Ithai barrage, the natural dredging process continuously cleared the silt brought down by the various streams and rivers from the valley and the hills. The roots of phumdi and other aquatic vegetation during the lean season touched the bottom. During the monsoon, the water level and the vegetation rose, bringing silt up with it. Much of this silt was drained out through the Manipur River with the current, together with some of the vegetation or phumdi.

In the post-barrage scenario, the water level is sought to be maintained at a particular level throughout the year, resulting in the silting up of the wetland at an unprecedented rate. Other changes to the floating phumdi have led to the endangering of native aquatic vegetation, the extinction of native fish species and the thinning and proliferation of the phumdi, which now covers more than half of the total area of the present water body. Remote sensing studies conducted jointly by the Manipur Remote Sensing Application Centre and the Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad (1999) shows that the area under phumdi has increased from 10,499 ha. in 1990 to 13,506 ha. in 1994. Consequently, the water mass has reduced from 15,441 ha. in 1990 to 7,875 ha. in 1995. According to the Survey of India, prior to the dam, in 1970, the water mass was 4,882 ha., with no indication of seasonal variations. The hydropower multipurpose project had already submersed around 83,000 hectors of cultivable land leaving thousands of farmers unemployed.

Water and Power Consultancy Services Ltd. (WAPCOS), Delhi, a consultant for the Loktak Development Authority (LDA), has pointed out that the rate of siltation has increased due to “jhumming, deforestation and unscientific land-use practices in the catchment areas”. The present siltation rate is approximately 336,325 tonnes annually. This, as in the case of most reservoirs, is greater than what was projected during the project’s conception. At this rate, the reservoir will reach Dead Storage Level much before the 160 years estimated in Loktak Lift Irrigation Project (Revised), Vol.1, May 1980.

Another problem caused by siltation, weed infestation and proliferation of the phumdi is the gradual reduction of water-holding capacity, which results in reduced power generation capacity. In addition to this, a recent study under the aegis of the government of Manipur found the water to be chemically ‘unpolluted’, but the levels of microbial pollution in the Keibul Lamjao area have increased beyond permissible limits for drinking water (Strategic Option Study, Government of Manipur, 1999). This has been caused in part due to the faecal discharge by phum-dwellers and the decay of phum, but primarily due to the daily draining of effluents by the rivers and streams and agricultural residue, which is not washed off. This has major health implications for the local people who depend on the water for their daily requirements.

In the face of the despoliation of the Loktak Lake, the Government of Manipur came out with the Loktak (Protection) Act 2006 subsequently amended in 2007, and again in December 2011 . One prominent feature of the Loktak Protection Act is division of Loktak Lake into two zones; core and buffer.

First point worth considering is the replication of the idea of “core” and “buffer” zone in the Act by virtue of which restriction is placed upon the people in terms of access to the Lake for livelihood purposes. “Core Zone” as highlighted in the Act is No-Development Zone or Totally Protected Zone. “Buffer Zone” means the remaining area of the lake excluding Core Zone area. However, the point is the buffer 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. The irony about the Act is that still there is room for commercial utilization of the lake from any sources of funding.

Using various provisions of the Act, Government of Manipur started forcefully evicting the fishermen from their habitats at the Lake in the name of environment protection of the Lake. Within five days starting from November 15, 2011, state forces burnt down around 500 floating huts as result of which more than 2000 fishermen including women and children became internally displaced people. More than 500 huts were reduced to ashes, fishermen claimed that property worth lakhs of rupees including implements used in fishing such as fishing gears, nets, domestic articles, cloths, and ornaments were lost. The victims were not even allowed to travel to Imphal or other places to voice their grievances. There was no public hearing, peaceful democratic process, nor any workable rehabilitative plan prior to the violent act of eviction. The State announced only a package of Rs 40,000 as compensation to each family. The fishermen denounced such notice and compensation. They submitted a memorandum to Shri O. Ibobi Singh, the State Chief Minister, requesting to review the order, which was turned down by the Chief Minister himself. Fishermen stated that the order was unacceptable since it could not ensure them any alternative livelihood. They demanded repeal or amendment of Loktak Lake (Protection) Act. 2006 in order to assure their right to fishing and dwelling on the phumdis, which were practiced by their ancestors since time immemorial. Frankly, we don’t understand to what purpose the same Act was amended for the second time this month when damages have been already done irreversibly.

This article was published in The Sangai Express on Sunday, January 1, 2012

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