A fisherman casts a net in Manipur’s Loktak lake. Photo: Nitin Sethi
- Claiming to promote and develop Loktak lake, the Manipur government broke the law while pushing for eco-tourism and inland waterways mega-projects.
- The eco-tourism project proposes to turn the lake into a “world-class tourist destination”, and involves resorts, a golf course, a recreation centre and a club.
- In its proposal for the inland waterways project, the state government claimed the floating islands of vegetation for which the lake is famous are a “growing menace”.
- Till date, the Manipur government’s plans for Loktak lake are either at odds with or have skipped over the legal protections the water-body enjoys.
To push for construction, tourism and inland waterway projects worth more than Rs 2,000 crore in and around Loktak – one of India’s largest natural freshwater lakes – the Manipur government under Chief Minister N. Biren Singh breached the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 and misled the Manipur high court, litigation records show.
The push for these projects, which experts say will damage the fragile ecosystem of the lake and threaten the livelihoods of more than three lakh people, mostly of indigenous communities, comes at a time when the northeastern state goes to polls on February 28 and March 5.
One of the projects, the Loktak Mega Eco-Tourism Project, finds special mention in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto, released on Thursday.
“Loktak Mega Eco-Tourism Project” will be undertaken to promote the tourism sector of Manipur. #BJPManifesto4Manipur
— N.Biren Singh (@NBirenSingh) February 17, 2022
Located about 48 km from Imphal, in Manipur’s Bishnupur district, Loktak lake spans over 468 sq. km and supports a unique biodiversity, including hundreds of species of plants, fishes and molluscs. For generations, the inhabitants of the lake have used these natural resources to build a thriving local economy.
The lake is recognised under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that provides a framework to conserve and sustainably use wetlands. A signatory to the convention since 1971, India has committed to protect Loktak against ecological erosion and unsustainable development.
The latest such onslaught comes in the form of the ‘Loktak Lake Mega Eco-Tourism Project’ and the ‘Inland Waterways Improvement Project’, both proposed by the BJP-led coalition government in Manipur.
The mega eco-tourism project proposes to turn the lake into a “world-class tourist destination”. The state’s Directorate of Tourism claims it will promote environmentally responsible travel, allow tourists to “enjoy cultural features that promote conservation,” and also provide socio-economic benefits to local communities.
The plan, however, involves the construction of resorts, a golf course, a recreation centre and a club.
“These projects are going to destroy small scale tourism operations, such as homestays, run by our community,” said Ram Wangkheirakpam, a homestay owner.
While the project proposes to involve local communities, as a model it is far from community-led tourism. “Till date, our communities have not been consulted by any authority for either of the development projects proposed on Loktak,” says Oinam Rajen, secretary of the All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union (ALLAFUM), Manipur.
In its proposal for the inland waterways project, the state government claims that phumdis, the floating islands of vegetation for which the lake is famous, are a “growing menace” and seeks to clear them using shredders and hydraulic and amphibious excavators, to make way to deepen the waterways.
The purpose of forcibly removing phumdis is touted to boost ecotourism, improve livelihoods and generate employment, according to the proposals.
But environmentalists disagree with the characterisation of phumdis and aquatic vegetation in the government’s proposal.
“Phumdis are an integral part of the ecology of the Loktak Lake and provide ecosystem services to local communities,” says Jagdish Krishnaswamy, an ecohydrologist and dean of the School of Environment and Sustainability at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru.
“These two projects are in complete contradiction to each other,” says Avli Verma, an environmental researcher with Manthan Adhyayan Kendra. “It is the unique phumdi ecosystem that attracts tourists to Loktak Lake, but the waterways project seeks to destroy that very ecosystem.”
Even as the Union government sanctioned Rs 97 crore Rs 97 crore for the lake’s conservation in January 2021, during Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav’s pre-poll visit to Manipur, it continues to push for commercial projects. The BJP’s agenda for the upcoming assembly elections hinges on development.
A month earlier, Union shipping and waterways minister Sarbananda Sonowal had called Loktak “the soul of Manipur” during his visit, and stressed on making it “one of the most important tourist destinations of the globe”.
A barrage of development
Within months of becoming the chief minister of the BJP-led state government in March 2017, N. Biren Singh had asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to review and decommission the Ithai barrage, a part of the hydroelectric project criticised for damaging Loktak, which he said caused floods in Manipur.
However, his government was composing its own “development” plans for Loktak.
In November 2019, reports emerged of the Union shipping ministry having approved an ‘Inland Waterways Improvement Project’ on the lake. The idea of the mega eco-tourism project with a golf course and resorts was also floated by the state Directorate of Tourism.
But both projects faced a hurdle when the Manipur high court said in July 2019 that no project or development programme on Loktak lake could be initiated by any authority without its permission.
The state’s dubious record of protecting Loktak, its biodiversity and people’s livelihoods goes back nearly four decades.
The first disruption to the lake’s ecology and the indigenous Manipuri population living off it occurred when the government built the Ithai barrage over the Manipur river to the south of Loktak in 1983. With part of the river’s basin being in Loktak, the barrage blocked the lake’s seasonal rise and fall in water levels.
The barrage’s overall impact was wide-ranging. Thousands of hectares of agricultural lands were submerged. The number of fish species plummeted and a variety of aquatic food plants were destroyed.
Four years later, in July 1987, the Manipur Department of Irrigation and Flood Control constituted the Loktak Development Authority (LDA). Soon after, in March 1990, Loktak was designated as a ‘Wetland of International Importance’ under the Ramsar Convention.
In 2006, the LDA came under the ambit of the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act (or ‘Loktak Act’), which made the LDA a statutory body to administer, conserve and develop Loktak Lake.
By then, the reservoir of the Ithai barrage had submerged agricultural land around the lake, forcing people to take up fishing for a living. A traditional form of fishing, called ataphum, was until then a monsoonal activity but then started to take place year-round thanks to the consistently high water levels. This in turn prompted a shift from traditional capture fisheries to permanent fish farms in the water body.
The Loktak Act banned ataphum fishing in areas it declared to be the “core zone”. It also banned people from building homes in this part of the lake.
“The Loktak Act does not do much to preserve the rights of fisherfolk. It adopts the same model as most legislations governing wildlife sanctuaries – the objective is to throw people out,” says Malvika Kaushik, an advocate and environmental researcher working with Environment Support Group, an NGO. “In the past, the LDA has been very brutal in the manner in which [it] conducts evictions.”
In November 2011, more than 500 floating huts were torched by the LDA and Manipur police because they allegedly fell within the “core zone” demarcated by the Loktak Act. More than 10,000 people were estimated to have been affected.
After the evictions from Loktak’s phumdis, the state offered the affected families Rs 40,000 as compensation. Most of those affected rejected this amount for being too meagre and because the state had made no other efforts to rehabilitate them.
Local fisherfolk still call the Loktak Act the “second AFSPA,” referring to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, a draconian legislation that has been responsible for grave human rights violations in the region. Every year, November 15 is commemorated as Loktak Arson Day by residents of the floating huts.
2017 brought some hope to Loktak’s inhabitants.
On August 24, 2017, following directions from the Supreme Court, the Manipur high court initiated proceedings to conserve Loktak lake. It impleaded the LDA and the Manipur State Wetlands Authority and obligated them to respond.
State misinforms the high court
The LDA and the Directorate of Tourism both went back to the high court demanding they be allowed to tender and solicit applications for work worth thousands of crores for the eco-tourism and the inland waterways improvement projects.
The state government, represented by India’s solicitor general Tushar Mehta, told the court that if the tender process did not go ahead immediately, the money that had been sanctioned for the project by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) would be withdrawn.
Following his submission, on October 12, 2020, the court granted permission to proceed with the tendering – as long as the LDA and the Directorate of Tourism obtained all statutory clearances. Soon after, the Directorate of Tourism floated a tender for the eco-tourism project.
However, it turned out that ADB hadn’t even examined the government’s proposal – let alone sanction a loan or disburse funds.
On February 25, 2021, ADB responded to an email from ALLAFUM enquiring about the funds, saying:
“The Department of Economic Affairs in the Government of India’s Ministry of Finance has proposed the project for ADB financing on 24 February 2021. ADB will examine the project proposal as per standard procedure. No details are available with ADB at this moment.”
Most recently, on January 25, 2022, the Director of Tourism, W. Ibohal Singh, acknowledged that funds from ADB were yet to be sanctioned – more than a year after the state government had claimed in court that they had been.
“It is strongly believed that the ADB will surely approve and sanction the amount,” Singh reportedly said. “Once it is approved, Manipur will witness the greatest development of Loktak lake with all the world class amenities to attract tourists.”
Land Conflict Watch double-checked with him. In a written response, Singh confirmed, “The Loktak Lake Eco-Tourism Project, which changed to Manipur Mega Eco-Tourism Project is at the preparatory stage. No sanction is made till date by the Asian Development Bank.”
So state government’s submission to the court was false – and it wasn’t the only irregularity in the state’s push to commercially develop the lake. The state in fact also breached the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) 1986 to steamroll the projects through.
A breach in law
To protect wetlands in India, the Union government notified the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017 under the EPA. The Wetlands Rules govern and protect two kinds of wetlands: those notified by the government under Rule 7 and those designated as ‘wetlands of international importance’ under the Ramsar Convention.
Notably, even Ramsar sites such as Loktak lake are required to be notified by the state government under Rule 7.
Once notified, the law requires the state wetland authority to draw up a management plan for “wise use” of the wetland, based on the principle of sustainable development, which heavily emphasises retaining the wetland’s original ecological character.
The Wetlands Rules also impose a number of restrictions on how wetland areas are used, treated and developed. One of these would have particularly jeopardised the state government’s plans to commercially develop the lake and its surroundings. Rule 4(2)(vi) categorically bars any permanent construction in and around the wetland.
Only the Union environment ministry can permit such construction – as an exception after a detailed scrutiny of its impact on the lake.
The notification process prescribed under Rule 7 is rigorous and necessary to ensure that the regulation of the wetland protects the rights of the population that depend on the lake’s resources, as well as the ecological values of the wetland.
The steps for notification include accurately demarcating the wetland, describing its ecological character, listing activities which are permitted and regulated, and taking an account of pre-existing rights and privileges. This includes irrevocable rights – such as property rights, the right to a clean environment, the right to sustain a livelihood – and privileges, such as fishing leases. Both rights and privileges could be customary and traditional in nature, and not necessarily exist under statutes, or written or legal records.
This information must be compiled into what is called a “brief document”.
The document’s official name belies its value and importance. It is the only legal document under environmental law that maps the ecological diversity of wetlands such as Loktak, as well as the rights of the people who live off the wetland.
Therefore, once the brief document is sent to the state government, it is required to be placed before the affected people – in this case, the 3-lakh odd people living off the Loktak – for their objections, before the wetland is notified. After a 60-day public consultation period, the state government is required to consider these objections before finally notifying the wetland.
Till date, more than four years after the passage of the Wetlands Rules, the Manipur state government has not notified Loktak lake as per the procedure under Rule 7.
It took the Manipur high court to point this out. Through its order dated May 24, 2018, the court strictly directed the State Wetlands Authority to prepare an integrated management plan and brief document under Rule 7, for the preservation of the lake.
But in March 2020, instead of submitting the brief document, the state government submitted a “Wise Use Management Plan” to the court. The court rejected it for being inadequate, and ordered the state government to prepare a detailed integrated management plan, and get it reviewed by the environment ministry to ensure compliance with the Wetlands Rules.
Five months later, the State Wetland Authority informed the court that it had prepared a more detailed plan and sent it on to the environment ministry for review. This plan was prepared by Wetlands International South Asia (WISA).
Interestingly, WISA has since issued a statement, clarifying categorically that they have not, at any stage, supported or endorsed either of the development projects. It also clarified that both projects, the eco-tourism and inland waterways project, have been independently developed by state authorities.
After sending the plan to the environment ministry, seeming to have complied with the court’s directions and its own obligations under the Wetlands Rules, the state government next approached the court to lift the ban on both projects. This is when Solicitor General Tushar Mehta representing the state misinformed the court that the ADB funds would lapse if the court did not grant permission.
The court did. On the face of it, the state had complied with the high court’s orders and followed the law. But a letter from the environment ministry shows otherwise.
On the same date that the Manipur government secured a green light from the high court to proceed with its commercial projects – October 12, 2020 – the environment ministry had responded to the State Wetlands Authority regarding the integrated management plan, informing them of its complete non-compliance with the Wetlands Rules.
The letter, obtained through the Right to Information Act 2005 by Avli Verma and accessed by Land Conflict Watch, shows that even the most crucial brief document was not submitted, aside from other gaping flaws.
Land Conflict Watch has sent questions to the Loktak Development Authority and Manipur State Wetlands Authority asking whether any brief document has since then been prepared or opened for public consultation. We will update this story if and when they respond.
Meanwhile, the Loktak community’s struggle against the development projects continues. A review petition has been filed in the Manipur high court by the All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union, against its order permitting the tenders for the projects.
The petition asks the court to consider the evidence of ADB funds having yet to be sanctioned, along with the violation of the Wetlands Rules.
“These projects are not at all in line with the Ramsar Convention, and we are against the way the government is forcibly taking up these projects without our consent,” says Oinam Rajen, secretary of the union, “We are hopeful for a positive response from the court.”
The review petition has been listed for hearing on February 25, three days before the first phase of voting starts in Manipur.
With Biren Singh’s campaign slogan of “Again and again BJP – more and more development” echoing across the state and scores of new projects inaugurated by the prime minister, BJP has firmly pitched its campaign on the development plank. But this rush for ‘more and more’ development might spell doom for the soul of Manipur.
Mukta Joshi is a lawyer with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.