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People’s Struggles in India

Caught between War, Development and Conservation: the Case of Loktak Lake in Northeast India

, by Intercultural Resources , AMADOR J. Monica

Introduction

At midnight on March 10, 1999, two thousand soldiers from the Indian Army cordoned off the islets of Thanga, Karang and Ithing in Loktak Lake and detained the local population. The lake is located in the northeastern state of Manipur, which has faced decades of military occupation and is home to several separatist movements. The people living on the lake’s islets, actually floating islands called phumdis, are mostly fishermen and peasants. During the six days of the 1999 military action, these people were accused of being part of the insurgent group UNLF (United National Liberation Front) and were told to reveal information about the insurgents. They were tortured and subjected to other forms of degrading and inhuman treatment. Local women leaders like Meira Paibis, Yumnam Subashini, Ningthoujam Ongi Shanti and Ningthoujam Momon were interrogated and tortured for hours. Fishermen were hit and humiliated in front of their families, and the entire population, including children and the elderly, was confined to what could be described as internment camps. In short, under the guise of anti-insurgency, the people became victims of brutal physical and psychological abuses, all perpetrated by members of one of the world’s most powerful armies.

This incident is only the most dramatic attempt by the Indian government to exert control over the Loktak Lake communities. Other attempts, less brutal but perhaps even more threatening, have come in the form of so-called “development” and “conservation” projects. Throughout, the lake communities have fought to defend their land and their way of life from projects initiated by the government, as well as private actors.

Protesting “Development” in the Loktak Lake

The encounter with the Indian Army was not the first time Loktak Lake communities had confronted a powerful Indian institution. This had happened much earlier, when the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) of India was completing the Loktak Hydropower Station on the Manipur River, around 35 kilometers away from the Loktak islands. The NHPC had promised the surrounding communities free electricity, irrigation water, schools, roads and the opportunity to work building a dam that would bring development to this “isolated” part of India. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India at that time and the dream of her father Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister) was fresh in her mind: to build the temples of modern India, namely hydropower dams.

The Loktak Hydropower Multipurpose Project was originally devised in the 1950s (the time of Nehru) to sell electricity to a large part of the Northeast. Finally, in 1977, the project was commissioned to NHCP. The Loktak Hydropower Station was built with a capacity of 105 mega-watts. While the station was completed as planned, the promises made to the communities along the Loktak Lake and the Manipur River were never kept. Instead their paddy fields and homes were submerged, the communities were forced to move and they never received any compensation. When the emptiness of the state’s promises finally became clear, a strong social movement formed in resistance to the project.

Between 1994 and 2001, the Association Loktak Project Affected Areas Action Committee (hereafter “the Association”) and 10 indigenous leaders representing the towns on the periphery of Loktak Lake and the Manipur River1 initiated a legal case against the Loktak Hydro Multipurpose Scheme for not taking appropriate mitigation measures before construction and for not implementing a proper consultation process with the communities. In their many legal petitions, rallies and meetings, the Association claimed that NHCP did not take into account factors that reduce the storage capacity of the lake and the adverse effects that artificial intervention in the river’s flow would produce in the lake. NHCP also failed to take into account possible adverse consequences for tribal practices of agriculture, such as jhuming (shifting cultivation). As a consequence of interfering with the river, the water running through the valley is now causing grave erosion downstream. The sediments accumulating in the lake result in a profuse growth of weeds and water hyacinths, which generates water stagnation and negatively affects fishing and other livelihood activities. The petitioners demanded compensation and the establishment of a committee of experts to evaluate the damages and explore sustainable solutions.

The movement was, however, weakened by a long legal process, during which an army of experts, engineers, environmentalists, lawyers, and bureaucrats submerged the people in an endless discussion that only stopped when NHCP refused to pay compensation. Nonetheless, the movement against the Loktak Hydropower Project had drawn the attention of many human rights and anti-dam activists that during the 80s and 90s campaigned furiously against mega-hydropower projects all over India.

The New Movement: Against Exclusive Environmentalism

The movement was revived in 2006. This year saw the establishment of the Loktak Development Authority (LDA), an institution that was created as a result of the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act 2006 and was promoted by the Manipur Government, led by its Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Sing2. The purpose of the LDA was “to provide for administration, control, protection, improvement, conservation and development of the natural environment of the Loktak Lake.” The disastrous effects of the Loktak Hydropower Project were now impossible to hide, and environmental policies were urgently needed in order to preserve the lake as well as the ancestral communities that for centuries had maintained a sustainable relationship with the wildlife and natural resources of the lake3.

However, instead of recognizing the important role of the local communities in protecting the lake, government officials did not consult or even consider these communities when they drafted the Act of 2006 and established the LDA. The Act was, on the contrary, detrimental to the communities as it prohibited fishing, cultivating land or even living in a designated ‘core area’ (70.30 square kilometers) and surrounding ‘buffer area.’ The modus vivendi of the local communities was completely ignored. In addition to the restrictions mentioned above, the Act of 2006 emphasizes the government’s ownership of Loktak Lake, ignoring the historical presence of the lake communities. Adding to the tyranny of the exclusions presented in the Act, the Government of Manipur designated the National Hydropower Corporation (NHCP) as a prominent member of the Steering Committee of LDA, completely disregarding the NHCP’s major role in the contamination of the lake, the forced displacement of many people and the destruction of the traditional way of life in Loktak.

The LDA must be seen in the bigger picture of Indian environmental politics. Since the time of Indira Gandhi’s rule, an exclusionary conservationist discourse has been influencing government policy and language. Influential bureaucrats and political parties tied to the National Government want to protect forests, tigers and other endangered species and habitats without considering the rights of the adivasis (indigenous people) and communities living in these areas. These exclusionary efforts have been helped by the ambiguities of classification; in the Loktak case, the Meithei tribal groups living around the lake are not technically classified as Scheduled Tribes (indigenous people recognized by the Indian Constitution). Because of this regulatory loophole, the Government could introduce the above-mentioned Act of 2006 and effectively take control of the lake.

Local communities have realized the implications of the Act, and protests against it have gained momentum. Support organizations, local NGOs, independent activists and local environmentalists have collaborated to create a network for advocacy, activism and struggle in order to avoid the mistakes of the past and mobilize the community against NHCP and the present conservation policies. One of the recent activities of the movement has been to translate important documents into local languages (Meiteilon and Rongmei) to ensure better participation in future public hearings, an obligation that the authorities did not respect during the consultation process. The local communities have also set up a common platform called the Loktak People’s Forum, where the demands of the villagers are compiled and organized. A women’s group from Loktak has also criticized the Act of 2006. “The Act,” one of the local women said, “is a direct and immediate threat to my right to daily livelihood and so I shall fight till death.” The struggle has also helped bring together various tribal communities of northeast India who are fighting against dams and developmental projects like the Doyang Hydro Electric Project (DHED) in the state of Nagaland.

On the June 7, 2011, a public hearing on the expansion of the Loktak Hydropower Multipurpose Scheme took place. The discussion was primarily about the “Loktak Downstream Project,” a subsidiary part of the Scheme that would use the discharge from the main Loktak Hydropower Station to create another 66 mega-watts of power. Despite the irregularities in the notification of the public hearings, such as lack of translation of the notification into local languages, the remoteness of location of the hearings and the unsuitable time chosen to conduct the public hearing (when rice field were being prepared), many organizations voiced their discontent with the project. The media in Manipur, however, argued that the public hearing had been a success and that the attendance of the villagers signaled a “thumbs up” for the Downstream Project. Some days after the public hearing, new meetings were coordinated by CCDD (Citizen’s Concerned for Dams and Development) to mobilize people against the project. The multi-stakeholder resistance movement is convinced that the Loktak Downstream Project is part of an historical process of deceit orchestrated by the NCHP and the Government of Manipur. The struggle against the Downstream Project is thus a new chapter of resistance against the manner in which national and local authorities treat ‘peripheral’ communities outside of the mainstream of development.

Conclusion

For decades, local communities in Loktak Lake have witnessed the application of various policies, projects and interventions (developmental, military and conservationist) that superficially seem to protect life in and along the lake. But most of these interventions have only led to an erosion of the traditional life of local fishermen, women, peasants and villagers.

The Loktak case is an illustrative example of the way multiple competing discourses and practices shape a territory. This case also unveils the contradictions of initiatives that, during the last seven decades, have been presented as promoting development and protecting the environment in the so-called “Third World,” including projects and policies that deal with issues such as global warming, forest protection and endangered species. In many cases, such initiatives negatively affect traditional communities.

The Loktak Lake has become a disputed territory in which many strategies have been used to control and exploit local resources. And in spite of the fact that these strategies used different discourses inspired by often contradictory ideological convictions, they are all interwoven with each other. Struggling against these exploitative discourses, local communities have fought to maintain their agency and control over their lands and livelihoods. Their efforts are crucial to the effort to rethink existing global development models and environmental protection schemes.

1Ningthoujam Yaima Sing from Thanga Khunyshem, Oinam Jila Singh of Thanga Chingkha, Salam Manibabu Sing From Thanga Heisnam, Oinam Ibomcha Sing from Chingmei all of them in the District of Bishnupur, Ashok Kamei from Shamusing , N. Kunjo Sing resident of Hyangthang, Salam Manichouba Sing resident of Arong Khunou, Thoudam Yaima Meithei resident of Wangoo Mamag Sabal in the Dictric of Thoubal and Thiyam Manglem Sing from Haobam Marak Keisham Leikai in the Dictrict of Imphal.

2Okram Ibobi Sing, member of the powerful Congress Party, has been Chief Minister of Manipur from 2002 to the present. He was recently accused of corruption in connection with the contract given to his son’s company to de-silt the Loktak Lake.

3Another important example of such sustainable relations with the natural environment is the case of the Uru tribe in the Titicaca Lake (Bolivia-Peru). As I observed while visiting in the lake in 2003, the tribal communities use aquatic plants and reed to build islets. By doing this they keep the growth of reed in equilibrium and contribute to keeping the lake clean.

This article is available in French: Entre guerre, développement et conservation : le cas du lac Loktak dans le nord-est de l’Inde

Further readings:

  • Humans Right Report: Operation Loktak, A case study of Human Rights Violations, prepared by Committee on Human Rights (COHR), Joint Fact Finding Team, Manipur, Imphal, 1999.
  • Archives of CORE. Petitions in the case: The Loktak Project affected areas action committee and other versus The National Hydro Electric Power Corporation Ltd, In the Gauhati High Court, Imphal Bench, 1994 to 2000.
  • Petition, Civil Rule No.32 of 1994, in the Guhati High Court, Imphal Bench.
  • The Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, in the Manipur Gazete Published in Imphal the 5th April 2006.
  • Press Release Against Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act 2006, Dated 6 April 2011 in Ningthoukhong Released by: All Loktak Lake Floating Hut Dwellers Hut Dwellers & Fishermen Progressive Committee (Apunba Lup), All Loktak Fishing Workers Assn, The All Manipur Thanga People Welfare Assn, The Loktak Peoples Forum and All Loktak Lake Floating Hut Dwellers & Fishermen Progressive Committee (Nupi Apunba Lup).
  • “Public Hearing On Loktak Downstream Project, Thangal Villagers Gives The Thumbs Up Signal”, in Manipur Online, 9 June 2011.

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