River & River Based Communities

Jajo Themson *

  leimatak River - to be submerged by proposed 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydro project in Manipur
leimatak River - to be submerged by proposed 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydro project in Manipur :: Pix - Jiten Yumnam

Dictionary defines river as a large natural stream of water flowing in a channel to the sea, lake or other river. They are also termed as the large quantity of substance called water. Generally human view the river as a flowing water associated with siltation of sand, pebbles, stones, encompasses living beings like fishes, grabs, primps and innumerable organisms.

Environmentalists defined river as the conveyer belts that collect and transport excess precipitation and denudation products from the continent to the oceans. It is also defined as an entertainer for bio-diversity within its ecosystem. Still human rights activists define river as a live sustainers for human race and innumerable living creatures.

Furthermore, it is so true the world terms river as the arteries and veins of the earth planet which nourishes organisms. Among the invaluable free gifts of nature, rivers constitute the most essential being for people's sustenance, development and best host for living things. For the billions of river based indigenous communities across the globe, rivers are precious boon defining them as life and inseparable being.

Its significance ranges from daily utility to source of food, livelihood and survival, fishing, social recreation, cultivation, navigation, hydropower generation etc. Rivers are symbol of gods' presence on earth for the nature based communities. Human concentrate at river valley areas as river acts as the biggest agent to town or city cleaning and constitutes raw material for multiple purposes.

That is the reason why the oldest Civilisations of the world such as Egyptian Civilisation and Indus Valley Civilisation were flourished in the river valleys. But the most anguishing thing is rivers of the earth are viewed by sections of human race as a commercial point and profiteering commodity. Moreover, rivers are carelessly made trash bin contamination of which literally kills the live of rivers and its ecosystem all over the world today.

Mostly the indigenous river based communities have unbreakable chain of historical and cultural relationship, social attachment and cardinal factor for their sustenance over generations. Rivers have been their part of folk songs and folklores. They are source of religious belief for the indigenous communities.

Besides this, rivers are considered as sacred place for some people, forefathers for some indigenous communities, mother for some others and still God for so many communities. As such, distortion of river means downfall of culture, ruin of history, sabotage of their survival right, paralyse their sustenance, collapse of civilisation for them and that's why protection and conservation of river all over the world is a necessity and indispensable principle.

Indigenous communities and Rivers

Mohammad Abdul Matin, General Secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon says rivers are considered as mother in Bangladesh. Chris Finlayson, a lawyer described the "River Whanganui as ancestor for the Moari tribe', an indigenous people of New Zealand. Lumbee people, the largest tribe of North Carolina, the largest tribe in the east of the Mississippi River take their name from the Lumbee River.

The indigenous Lumbee people honour the river, and they spend time in and around its waters for work, recreation and worship. The indigenous Tonga people of Zambezi region of Zimbabwe named their river god called Nyami Nyami to which they believed to protect the Tonga people and it gives them sustenance in difficult times.

The River Jordan flows in between Syria and Lebanon from the Bible times has been a significant river. It is considered as the river of all rivers in the Bible - mythological in standing, magnificent in spiritual analogy. For the Native Americans "A river is more than a person, it is a sacred place".

Indian considered Ganga and Yamuna as sacred rivers. Some other major rivers of India such as Brahmaputra, Godavari, Indus, Hooghly, Kaveri, Kosi, Mahanadi and Teesta are noteworthy rivers which bear unbreakable chain of socio-cultural and religious beliefs for millions of river based communities.

Likewise, the Yangwui Kong/Thoubal River in Manipur is a part of history, customary source, social ethos as well as economic backbone for the people living in the Mapithel valley. In the same way, different important rivers of Manipur such as Maklang, Tuyungbi, Taretlok, Leimatak, Irang, Barak, Imphal, Tuitha, Iril, Tuivai, Chakpi etc. nourished the indigenous community people who depend their sustainable living on them since their forefathers with inseparable chain of socio-cultural, economical, historical relationship and emotional attachment.

Important rivers of Manipur

It is quite interesting to know something about rivers of Manipur. Manipur is blessed with about 23 elegant flowing major rivers that act as life givers to lakhs of indigenous populace in the state. Mostly, Manipur Rivers System consists of the Barak River system which has its major tributaries like Irang, Makru, Tuivai and Jiri River flowing through the northern and western hills.

The Leimatak River falls into the Irang River. Second aspect of the Manipur River system consist of rivers flowing in the Manipur valley which are transverse by the major rivers like Imphal, Iril, Thoubal, Sekmai, Wangjing, Khuga/Tuitha, Chakpi and Nambul rivers.

 Irang river as seen from Tongjei Maril also known as Old Cachar Road :: 8th September 2021
Irang river as seen from Tongjei Maril on 8th September 2021 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

Third, the Chindwin River System comprises of Akonglok, Chamu and Chingai, Yu and its tributaries like Maklang, Tuyungbi, Taretlok, Lokchao, Limlok and Tuiyang. The Chingai and Chatrick kong are the two rivers which drain parts of Ukhrul district and they flow out in the east to join the Chindwin. The Maklang drains the Kamjong district and Lokchao drains Tengnoupal district and they flow out to join the Yu River which finally joins Chindwin River in Myanmar.

Indigenous people's rights over rivers

The indigenous river based communities have inherent rights over rivers. A clear precedent was set in this regard in the case of Mapithel dam project over Yangwui Kong (Thoubal River). State of Manipur denied claim of compensation for river area at Nongdam Tangkhul village with a stand that rivers are national property.

But the court of Vice President, Manipur State Durbar, Fishery Case No. 33 of 1913-1914 in the Case of Nongdam Naga Village V/S State of Manipur, passed an Order stated that, the river portion of Nongdam Tangkhul falls under the Naga tribal areas which has right over river within its jurisdiction.

Accordingly, compensation was paid to Nongdam village @ INR 3,00,000 for its river area on 27/05/1998. As such, it is clearly confirmed that all indigenous river based communities have legal rights over river within their domain and are justifiable before the court of law.

Legal stand for rivers

Among the different big initiatives to protect and conserve rivers, one remarkable chapter of world's effort is legalisation of river as a personhood. Of late, the world received a great relief when some nations passed laws in the parliament legalizing rivers as human entity, which consequently paved way for historic pronouncement of Universal Declaration of Rivers Rights (UDRR) on 29th of September 2017 by the New York based Earth Law Centre (ELC).

It declares that - all rivers are entitled to the fundamental rights set forth in this declaration, which arise from their very existence on our shared planet. It further declares that all rivers are living entities that possess legal standing in a court of law.

The declaration established five fundamental rights that all rivers shall possess, at minimum, the Right to flow freely, Right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem, Right to be free from pollution, Right to native biodiversity and Right to restoration. Thus just like human being, rivers have their own rights today implicating that any infringement on rivers are serious violations.

Remarkably, River Whanganui in New Zealand, River Ganga and Yamuna in India, River Atrato in Columbia, all rivers in Bangladesh, River Magpie at Quebec in Canada and glaciers of Gangotri & Yamunotri in India have attained legal entity as human personhood.

Scrapping of dam projects

Being protection of river and its ecosystem are so crucial to save nature and corresponding human social life globally, those countries especially where large dams are built like China, USA, Brazil, South Korea, Canada, South Africa and Spain, are in the stage of decommissioning mega dam projects on realizing the relative low contribution and multiple negative impacts they had created.

In the United States of America, more than 900 dams have been torn down since 1980. France has decommissioned some dams too. In the rest of Europe also, thousands of dams are put under review. Among Asian nations, Japan is currently in the middle of bringing down its Arase Dam located upstream on the Kuma River.

In another remarkable historic event, the Federal Court of Brazil halted the construction of the 90 meter height Belo Monte Dam on 14th August, 2012. The proposed 240 MW Silent valley Project in Kerala was halted due to possible negative environmental impacts and the Irrawady dam in the Kachin state of Myanmar was also stopped in 2011.

In case of Manipur, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Wild Life wrote to the Union Ministry of Environment asking for an Expert Committee to carry out environment assessment of the Ithai Barrage of Loktak Hydro-electric project on dated 12th June, 2017. Manipur Joint Secretary for Forest and Environment sent a second letter to central Ministry on 24 June 2017.

His Excellency, Governor of Manipur and the Chief Minister of Manipur Shri N. Biren Singh wrote to Central Ministry seeking review and removal of the Ithai Barrage in August 2017. Such is a history of systematic approach of dam decommissioning in Manipur on ecological concern and other negative impacts. General public look towards committed action of the state Govt.

Contradicting reality

In a very contrasting and saddening way, out of 23 major rivers in the state, Govt. of Manipur identified 32 potential dam sites in its Potential Mapping with 8 most feasible locations to fulfil its plan to generate over 2,000 MW of power under the Manipur Hydro Power Policy (HPP), 2012.

It is worth mentioning that the new Manipur HPP, 2012 was framed when some of the most important rivers of Manipur such as Khoupum River, Khuga/Tuitha River, Singda River, River Imphal and Yangwuikong/Thoubal River are severely damaged due to dam projects. Still the remaining important rivers of the state are placed on the sacrificial altar at the hands of dam building giants.

  leimatak River - to be submerged by proposed 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydro project in Manipur
International Rivers Day celebration at Nungleiband Village, Noney on 14th March 2022 :: Pix - Centre For Research And Advocacy, Manipur

Notably, the National Hydro-Power Corporation (NHPC) has signed an agreement with Manipur Govt. on 28 April 2010 reaffirmed on 22 October 2011 to construct the 1500 MW Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project over Barak River, 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project over Leimatak River, 190 MW Pabram Hydroelectric Project over Barak River, 60 MW Irang (Taobam) Hydroelectric Project over Irang River, 51 MW Tuivai Hydroelectric Project over Tuivai River, 70 MW Nungleiband Hydroelectric Project over Leimatak River, 54 MW Irang dam over Irang River and 67 MW Khongnem Chakha Hydrolectric Project over Barak River.

The North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) also signed series of such pacts. The Maklang and Taretlok Rivers are also targeted for building dam projects which was pronounced in 2021.


In the light of the above discussion, it is clear that damages of rivers are caused mainly by dam projects. They usually incite disruptive sustainable living of the indigenous river based communities. If ever India constructs multiple hydropower dams in the South East Asian Himalayan countries including North East India under its focal view as Water Tower and hot spot for dam building, it will entail series of violation of rivers rights and will be ruin of culture, close of history, strangulation of survival right, paralyses sustenance and collapse of civilisation for the indigenous river based communities in the region.

Thus, plan of constructing several hydropower projects in the North Eastern state like Manipur is a bad news and a herald of double annihilation of state's important rivers and sustainable living of river based communities. In-stead of attempt to build new dams, it is high time state Govt. learns lesson from the failed dam projects which had severely maimed many important rivers of the state and victimized thousands of river based populace distorting their social well being.

It is also necessary to acknowledge the main reasons for closing down of dam projects across the globe. Apart from breaching environmental integrity, dams are key factor for forced compromise of communities' rights over rivers and indescribable significance of rivers in the name of development is quite irrational and unjust which will be irreversible catastrophe in the end.

Like mentioned in the above paras, just as rivers have significant contributions and inseparable chain of relationship with the river based communities in other parts of the world, each river of Manipur has significant roles in the life of the indigenous communities and possess their own rights.

If hydropower dam projects are meant for development, it is compelling that state Govt. recognises the basic rights of the river based communities first and uphold the legal status of rivers for the end of justice.

As such, human socio-economic life and natural environment are not shattered and rivers infinitely perform their basic ecosystem which will be ultimately substantiating the Global Mission of Climate Action and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG).

* Jajo Themson wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at thmsontezonge(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on May 15 2022.

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