For Oinam Rajen, 56, a fisher who lives and earns his livelihood from Manipur’s Loktak Lake, the waterbody and its wetland are an integral part of life and have been so for generations. It is the same for all the fisherfolk of Loktak, located in Moirang town, some 45 km south of the State capital, Imphal: they live, breathe, and survive on the resources provided by the lake. Its fish and edible plants nourish them and supply them with the economic means to support themselves. In a symbiotic relationship, the fisherfolk also look after the ecosystem on which they thrive: their beliefs and lore make it imperative to worship the waters and to take from the lake only what is essential for survival. In recent times, under the banner of All Loktak Lake Area Fishers Union Manipur (ALLAFUM), the fisherfolk have taken an active role in restoring the ecosystem and conserving its biodiversity. But the state wants to evict them.
On July 18, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) announced that all homestays, huts, and athaphums (the famous green rings of Loktak, created by segregating sections of phumdis, or floating islands, and used for fishing) are to be removed so that the lake can be rejuvenated. This revived a decades-old struggle between the authorities and the people, including the fisherfolk and homestay owners, who allege that the clean-up is a cosmetic measure meant for the benefit of foreign tourists. The LDA was set up in 1987 by the Manipur government for the management and conservation of Loktak, which is spread over more than 287 sq km. However, over the past several years, it has been at loggerheads with local communities.
In 2006, the State government enacted the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act “to provide for administration, control, protection, improvement, conservation and development of the natural environment of the Loktak Lake”. It restricts certain activities in the lake, such as the free-ranging fishery as traditionally practised by the local people. The core zone as defined by the Act covers most parts of the waterbody used for fishing. Section 20 of the Act prohibits the building of huts on the phumdis, cultivation of athaphums, and athaphum fishing in the lake.