Thousands have lived without love, not one without water - W.H. Auden
One has often been bemused by the elusive ethno-philosophy that guides the conception of the landscape covering the panoramic Loktak Lake. Of late, contesting knowledge systems seem to have saddled on a site considered simultaneously sacred as well as profane by myths and history. The vociferous argument for the protection of the Loktak Lake has emerged with two simultaneous campaigns. First is the ‘Save Loktak Our Life’, supported by the Loktak Development Authority. This group comprising of (not without irony), “environmentalist, social workers, politicians and police officers” in the words of the Project director of Tamna who informed the media in a briefing organised at the Classic Hotel on the 6th of April 2011. Second, a campaign launched by people living in and around the lake against the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act 2006 (MLLPA). Incidentally, as part of the second campaign, various organisations from the Loktak area held a public discussion on the MLLPA on the same day at Ningthoukhong Keithel. The sites of these two campaigns and the people comprising the campaigns are too stark to go unnoticed. The first one conducted in a three star hotel speaks the language of exclusivity. The second was held in a market place where women vendors’ earn their livelihood. In solidarity with the campaign, these women bread earners had given their space for the women and men who had congregated to participate in the public discussion.
Indeed both the campaigns fall back upon the idea of the lake, the meaning of the lake as derived from folk songs and poems and tutelary deities. The Save Loktak campaign in one of the music videos produced for the same juxtaposes a modern narrative with that of the folk and expresses fears for the life of the lake. The second campaign by the inhabitants of the Lake area seems to follow the same narrative. While both the campaigns state the same objective – Save Loktak Lake and use the same narratives of the sacredness of the space and also lament for the weeping mother (Loktak), the arguments put forth seem to be fractured beyond reconciliation. One starkly representing the state looks at fisherfolk as encroachers who are set to deplete and destroy the lake and its resources. Indeed the idea of saving Loktak to them seems to mean saving them from the people who source their lives and livelihood from the lake. The second campaigners see themselves as the rightful claimants and protector/guardian to the fishes and vegetation of the lake. However, the term lake itself now seems to be an anachronism of earlier usage as the lake is now not a lake but a water reservoir. The drastic shift from the conception of a lake with legends surrounding it to a modern day water reservoir began with the construction of Ithai Barrage in 1979 as a part of the Loktak Hydro-Electric Project.
The idea of the lake is not limited to its natural resources like waters and gradually disappearing indigenous fauna and flora. It is now saddled by the juxtaposition of competing knowledge systems – indigenous and modern. The modern being far removed from the context while the indigenous speaks in the language of people of the lake and follows the lake not just through the lives of people but also through cycle of seasons, through breeding of fishes and vegetation and sees the lake as inclusive of its Phumdis, Athaphum, the Khangpoksang build on the phumdis and the people who live in them.
The unfolding narratives could be clearly seen on the 6th of April 2011 wherein three events connected to Loktak Lake were held. First, is the one day Discussion Programme against the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act. 2006 which was organised by All Loktak Lake Floating Hut Dwellers & Fishermen Progressive Committee (Apunba Lup); All Loktak Fishing Workers Association; The All Manipur Thanga People Welfare Association; The Loktak Peoples Forum and All Loktak Lake Floating Hut Dwellers & Fishermen Progressive Committee (Nupi Apunba Lup). The event discussed the Act and highlighted fundamental problems not only in the Act but also the knowledge as well as intentions behind the conceptualisation itself. The predominant language used during this discussion was the language of rights – cultural as well as socio economic. The mass discussion took place at Ningthoukhong ( Keithel), a fishing town by the lake and forms a part of Bishnupur district. The venue was well chosen so that there could be as many participants from Loktak lake areas hinting to an endorsement of inclusiveness as opposed to the meetings that took place simultaneously (on the same day) at the other two sites –Mantripukhri and The Classic Hotel.
The market of Ningthoukhong is a concrete structure dilapidated in some parts. Women who earn their livelihood selling produce from the hills, valley and the lake in the market also supported the event by closing their stalls and giving space to women who had come to participate in the discussion programme. Most women were dressed in the traditional mourning attire (of the Meiteis) and also of the more than seven hundred people who had congregated, ninety percent were women. Though one also noticed that in a space marked by exclusivity such as the simultaneous meeting that took place in Mantripukhri one would find the same percentage being reversed, giving the picture than more and more women will be sieved out as one goes up in the chain where one knowledge system and its corresponding language become more dominant than the other.
The men and women who spoke at the discussion at Ningthoukhong began with salutation to the Mother goddess of the market – Keithel Lairembi, to Mother goddess Loktak – Ema Loktak Lairembi and also to directional tutelary deities. Women and men who spoke described the lake as intimately as their lives explaining the life of the Athaphum, the breeding of fishes and well as the waxing and waning of the lake according to seasons which is now disrupted by the Ithai barrage. Ironically, the discussion was interrupted when armed personnel in military uniform climbed up the dais to ask the reason for such a congregation (this in spite of the banner being put up). Two more soldiers in military fatigues could be seen behind the market complex which disturbed the peaceful ambience of the crowd. A woman from the crowd came up the dais and through the microphone requested the audience to remain calm. Some women and men had in fact gone to the uniformed armed personnel to speak and explain the content of the gathering. The same woman encouraged the rest of the women audience to face the state whether it is in the form of fighting the visible oppressive state that come dressed in military fatigues or meeting the representatives they had chosen and even suggested boycotting of the forthcoming general elections. The three uniformed personnel stood at the venue for about ten minutes facing the gathering.
While the mass discussion was on there was also the flagging off of a training programme supported by Bombay Natural Historical Society and the Wildlife Wing, Forest Department. The training programme which began on the very day for Forest Department officials and volunteers of Loktak Lake on water bird conservation and management was held at Central Forest Division, Mantripukhri. In the few minutes shot of the meeting which could be viewed only through the local cable television network ISTV, one could hear the often repeated particular concern for the conservation of endangered and dwindling flora and fauna of the Loktak lake areas.
Not much different from the above both in terms of narrative content and knowledge system, the meeting with media persons was held on the very day at Classic Hotel, an upmarket three star hotel (the only one in the state). The meeting was called by Tamna Sanggai, an organisation with the stated aim of saving Loktak. The campaign of Tamna entitled “Safe Loktak Our Life” had also produced music videos as a part of their campaign and the media briefing announced a musical tour to New Delhi and Bangalore on the theme of the campaign. It was also stated that “the campaign was undertaken to contribute its might in saving Loktak from possible extinction”. Interestingly the project was supported by Loktak Development Authority, the authority re-constituted under the MLLPA which also pitched the campaign against the people of Loktak. Article 20 (Prohibition of certain activities in Core Zone) prohibits discharge or emission of sewage/domestic waste (assuming the lake to be polluted by the inhabitants of the lake conveniently forgetting that all major river system that drains the Imphal valley falls into the lake). The other clauses of the Article 20 prohibits deposition or fixing of stones, bamboo, log, net into the lake, while this clause renders fishing impossible the state continue to state that the act does not prohibit fishing per se.
One could only record as unfortunate that the various debates around the Lake do not inform each other. It is people that give values and judgement on landscape and classify them as either sacred or profane in the sense of the lake either being a sacred mother with plentiful provision or a hiding place for insurgents. Indeed the difference with the people’s campaign would be the desire to learn and discuss the Act and the various arguments – whether ecological or socio-political whereas the other campaign, being directly supported by a state body, does not have the space for critiquing the Act.
One could in fact map the varying interests in the lake, not to state the people as being a collective, far from it there are differences between the fisherfolks, between those who are unable to resist the state, think it safe to accept the resettlement amount, between those with large fishing tracts and the fisherfolk with just a net and a boat. Those supporting the Act also are fractured with varying interests –one, being purely a sentimental pursuit of iconifying the lake as a symbol of the state (having made their decisions and affiliation without having thrown as much as a glance at the Act), another being the state’s policy of cleansing the lake and yet another being the much cited security concerns of flushing out insurgent cadres from the lake, for which hovercrafts were purchased from USA. Undeniably, the state also takes pride in the arrival of the hovercraft with it being looked at not only for insurgency operation but also, as stated by the Chief Minister “the machine would not only be helpful in saving the Loktak from encroachers, it would also complete the task of flushing out militants”. This once again highlights the highly problematic lens of the state that more often than not looks at the people of the lake as encroachers as well as ‘insurgents’.
This article was published in The Imphal Free Press on the 17th of April 2011