Champu-Khangpok : Womenfolk pledge to protect Loktak's ecology

Mamta Lukram *

Folklores and legend narrate stories about how the Meitei evolutionary myth is laden with values of wetlands and water bodies. Stories signifying fishing as a life routine depicts how a self-sustained economy was supported by ecology. Disturbances in equilibrium of ecology are a threat to food sovereignty. Loktak is the food bowl of many thousand fishers and villagers around the periphery of the lake. This lake forms the domain of the food supply chain in the State.

Since times immemorial, floating huts and traditional fishing have engrained the lake's description. However the fishing community has frequently been understood as a defying community responsible for polluting the lake's ecology. They are considered as people who degenerate environment. Nevertheless, these floating hut dwellers in water across many generations are people equipped with traditional knowledge of maintenance. The survival skills grounded them with practical knowledge of preserving their territorial water.

Due recognition of indigenous knowledge system's significance in environment conservation is the current advocacy by the working groups on environment. The original settlers have been the protectors of the eco-system. However, in the history of resistance in Loktak Lake, floating hut dwellers have always been depicted as a community responsible for degeneration of ecology. In the name of so called 'development projects' and 'conservation initiatives,' several forceful attempts were made to wipe out the dwellers from the surface of the lake water.

Addressing the issue, the womenfolk of Champu Khangpok Floating village are of the view that they have been inhabiting the middle of the lake in their small floating huts cutting across generations. Every corner of the lake they are acquainted with, every bit changes they can acknowledge through their life experiences.

They honour Loktak Lake as their Revered Mother Goddess, whose blessings made possible to sustain and propagate generations floating in its heart. And they questioned how and why should they be, destroying the lake's ecology, the destruction of will in return harm themselves. Their world view of Loktak is not just a water body with mesmerising scenic view, to them the lake is their home, and its surrounding is their world.

According to the womenfolk, everyone knows the reason for drastic degradation of Loktak's ecology. The installation of 105 MW Ithai Barrage is the root cause. It totally obstructs the natural drainage system, killing it rapidly. The adverse impact could be felt in multiple ways.

Extinction of indigenous fish varieties, wild wetland based indigenous vegetables, water plants, drastic decrease in number and varieties of wild birds, perpetuated degradation of water quality and many more. They assert that during past decades where natural replenishment was functional, the lake was clean and pure, draining the unwanted surface away through the natural drains of 'Khordak' and 'Ungamen' during rainy seasons.

Once the Ithai Dam has been installed, it blocked the outlets, leading to stagnation and decay of water. The lake has become like a pond after the installation of the Ithai Barrage. They pointed out that National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) is the major stakeholder in plundering Loktak's ecology. However, they are of the view that concerned authority has failed to hold back the major responsible stakeholders of destruction.

Instead, the marginalised fishing community is constantly being kept tagged as 'unfriendly/unwise' community. This according to them is a very unfortunate and biased treatment. Ithai Barrage, the phenomenal causal factor of misery is appreciated while marginalised fishers are induced into displacement and loss of livelihood.

The womenfolk throw a challenge to improve the condition of the lake, the failure outcome of which they are ready to submit themselves as culprits of destroying the lake. They demand a test-check parameter of uninstalling Ithai Barrage and enquire into the condition of the lake for a few months, in case if provided promising results are not provided, they are willing to immediately eliminate their existence from the waters thereby retreating from all resistance.

Womenfolk from Champu Khangpok floating village shared their accounts on their traumatic experience in defending their right to life. Oinam Akashini, 53 yrs, shared her narratives of climbing 'water master' machine (heavy machine used to dismantle the floating huts), not bothering of getting devoured, during protest against Loktak Development Authority's (LDA) attempt to dismantle the floating huts back in 2015.

The womenfolk are of the view that since time immemorial, fishing communities have been surviving in the lake with the resources supported by it. There are numerous oral histories regarding hard working fisherfolk validating as testimonies that Loktak is their domain.

Their grandparents narrated that during phases of famines and droughts they were being narrated the stories of people collecting 'heikak' (water chestnut) to supplement demand for staple food. Following the footsteps of the ancestors, the present fisherfolk is inheriting the means of livelihood handed down to them through generations.

They questioned the intention of the responsible authority why should they be termed as 'occupiers,' 'encroachers' or 'illegal encroachers?' They questioned how a community which has been occupying the lake for centuries could suddenly become illegal occupants in these few decades ?

According to them, they are always unaware of the many so called proposed 'development projects,' which are antagonistic to their existence in the lake. Information gathered is only through dedicated working groups. This insensitivity on the planner's part to inform and consult the original settlers is the issue. Names of the numerous 'development projects' weigh mountains on their heads, as mentioned by them.

They stressed, incidents of burning down floating huts under Loktak Protection Act 2006, in 2015 and the challenge it has ignited has fostered a pledge in their heart to die in protecting their homes. Heishnam Chaoba 55 yrs reminisces how she stood upright to fight back the LDA officials that come down to evict them while her husband was away for responding urgent matters.

When she saw the reckless officials coming down to destroy their small huts, she said that she was fully prepared to fight back, whatever it took. They are the so called well educated, well-fed Government employees, with politico-economic power. To them the huts bear no value. However to fisher's family their meagre earnings are the support system, including education expenses of the kids.

She emphasised that, according to their perspectives, sending their children to private schools and colleges at Imphal is nothing less than sending them to major cities like Delhi or Calcutta. Revisiting the traumatised experiences, she shared, "During many hard times, sending 3-4 kg rice and dried fish for our children is the only support we could render, every rice bowl paying the price of sweat.

Once the floating hut is dismantled, everything will be shattered, our hopes and aspirations. Living for generations in floating huts, we are less educated, so easily marginalised. But why should we allow others to destroy our homes, and this thought made me sit unmoved in front of my hut, ready to challenge whomsoever to protect my hut from being burnt down."

The women community express apprehension of constant insecurity regarding possible uprooting of the fishing community from the surface in the name of interest for larger good. The numerous development projects targeting their existence which are always in the pipeline are the point of resistance for the community.

To them, despite the voice raised by the community, attempts have been made either to subdue or side-line their voice. However, the spirit of resilience fostered them to stand upright to protect Loktak Lake for their Right to Life.

The lake merely is not a scenic recreational spot for tourism, but is a living civilisation and a page of history. They expressed their collective pledge to protect Loktak's ecology including their floating settlement sites.

To them is it is the shared responsibility of villagers to protect the lake that claims survivorship of the community and no bargain should be made to compromise their centuries old settlements.

* Mamta Lukram wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on November 06 2020.

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