Friday, August 28, 2009

Loktak Lake: A RAMSAR Site In Trouble

By Namaram Kishalaya (Dodo)

With natural habitats of wildlife shrinking, a big question arises: Is it really possible to prevent wildlife from extinction? If it is, then we ought to ask ourselves whether the threat to wildlife could be given a higher priority and find out ways and means to check it.

Perhaps, extinction is the ultimate end of wildlife considering the ever-growing need for food and fuel forcing men to depend on the animals and forests. Besides poaching of wildlife, deforestation and lack of maintenance of forest, all contribute to its extinction.

Biologists around the world predicted that by the year 2100 AD, of the 23,000 species of four-limbed animals, we are going to lose more than 6000 species or a fourth of the total. In India alone, the number of officially declared endangered species has risen from 13 in 1952 to 140 in 1992.

In the early seventies, a number of international organizations felt the need to conserve the vulnerable Wetlands around the world. A resolution was adopted in 1971 at Ramsar, a city in Iran, to this effect. However, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially on waterfowl habitats, or simply known as Ramsar Convention came into force in 1975. India joined the Convention in 1982 after which six Ramsar sites have been identified.

Among the six Ramsar sites, Loktak Lake in Manipur has been identified and listed in 1990 and in 1993, the Montreux record categorized it as "where ecological changes have occurred, are occurring or likely to occur". The other five Ramsar sites includes Chilka Lake (Orissa), Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur in Rajasthan, Sambhar Lake (Rajasthan), Wular Lake in Kashmir and Harike in Punjab.

Loktak Lake area is a home to a wide range of wildlife. It provides refuge to at least 116 species of birds, both migratory and resident (Prof. H Tombi, HOD, Life Science, Manipur University) besides being the only natural habitats of the most endangered mammal, the Brow-antlered deer (Cervus eldi eldi) or locally known as "Sangai".

The population of Sangai has risen from 14 in 1974 to 106 in 1991. This sub species of deer are especially adapted to their characteristic floating habitat locally known as "Phumdi". This particular area of 40 sq km called Keibul Lamjao, at the southern part of Loktak Lake, is the only floating wildlife reserve in the world. It was only in 1977, the Government of India declared as a National Park, since then it is known throughout the world as Keibul Lamjao National Park.

In a bid to preserve the native species, a "Mid winter water fowl census" was
conducted at Loktak Lake. The pilot survey, the first of its kind, which was proposed and conducted by Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury, chief executive, Rhino Foundation for nature in the North East India, Assam and coordinated by Manipur Association for Science and Society (MASS), Center for Research Education (CORE), all three from Manipur.

The aim of the survey, according to Dr Anwaruddin, is to make a quantitative
assessment of the migratory aquatic birds besides identifying the rare species, which has been dwindling rapidly. Documentation of the deteriorating changes and to formulate a comprehensive conservative strategy to maintain the Loktak Lake, "the extremely hospitable winter quarters of the inter-continental avian visitors" was the broader mandate of the survey.

The census operation was participated by nine members from different organizations (NGOs), covering an area of 100 sq km or one-third of the Lake and conducted entirely on three dug-out (from a single log) local canoes, locally known as "He" hired from the fisher folks of Khoijuman village from where the team including this writer started. A total of 1975 water fowls were sighted of which 23 different species were identified by Dr Anwaruddin. The team also discovered that the eastern guard tower and the quarter of the National Park to be in a dilapidated state. For how long the post has not been manned is anybody's guess.

Dr Shyamananda RK, senior scientific officer, who was also in the team noted the weevil species still controlling the growth of the water-hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) biologically. The weevils were first introduced in 1988 by Mr Nambiar, chief engineer, Loktak Hydroelectrical Project to control the growth of waterhyacinth.

A total of 12,500 weevils were introduced within four months period in two
batches - 2,500 on April 22, 1988 and 10,000 on August 25 also during 1988 which were procured from the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research, Bangalore.

An investigation conducted by Prof H Tombi confirmed absence of impacts on nontarget species. Within two years, no more than five per cent of water hyacinth remains today. However the existing problems in and around the Lake remain unsolved. Clearing of underwater weeds, dredging activities to de-silt the bed and changes in hydrological regime have been a significant reason for water fowl population decline in the Lake.

Floating hutments in the Lake have increased from 100 to 1,500 in the lat few years. Even, unregistered "floating restaurants" or "Phumdi restaurant" has come into existence, where the team had their lunch. Farmers spread rice grain soaked in chemicals, such as Dieldrin, DDT etc, near their fields, which detract or kill the animals and jeopardize the environment.

The ever-increasing human population increases pressures on the natural resource in and around the Lake. It may be recalled, years back, more than 600 villagers raised objection against reserving the Park area for a "few heads of Sangai". The villagers even burnt down two-thirds of the Park area besides beating up the Forest officials. The vie for space is still going on till date.

Is the idea of preserving wildlife with a higher priority an illusion? Top officials and lawmakers understand the environmentalists' concern and are doing their best to shift those priorities. But it is an uphill struggle and if things go the way as it is now; the future of Ramsar site in Manipur is more in doubt than ever. At least for the foreseeable future, the enthusiasm of its success has yet to show itself.

Farmers Fight For Farmland

By Namaram Kishalaya (Dodo)

Over the past 50 years, the people of the North-East Region of India are being coerced on an unprecedented scale, into surrendering their only real resource --- their land, to the State.The proposed Indian Forest Bill (1995) is one such legislation under consideration, which will only heighten this sort of exploitation. More and more people are being displaced in the last one and a half years.

Even worse, Kamal Nath, the former Minister of Environment and Forest (MEF) had put forth a proposal to accord permission to the corporate sector to exploit "degraded forest land" under the garb of developing them. This means, displacing more poor people, tribals and other sections of the rural community" who depend on these lands for their basic needs of fuel, fodder, and other bio-mass materials.

In response, displaced persons and representatives of NGOs (Non-Governmental
Organizations) from all over India had gone through a yearlong debate, which was eventually presented to then minister Kamal Nath. The Bill seeks to
concretize directives of the National Policy of 1986, which recognizes forest
dwellings and the preservers of the forest and thus those who have some
indisputable rights to livelihood and support.

When land is acquired for a project not only those who possess land and have
dwelling homes, etc. are displaced, but its consequences extend equally to the codependants of the system i.e. tenants, sharecroppers and landless laborers. All such persons are deprived of their livelihood. Thus, the extent of displacement is much wider than the loss of land reflected in the process of acquisition.

Moreover, in its present form, the National Policy for Resettlement and Rehabilitation has its origin from a premise in which displacements appear only as a subjugated appendix to development. The developmental projects raise questions of equity and equality before law in the matter of distribution, of benefits and burdens. It may be recalled that landlords and tenants vehemently objected to the order issued by the Revenue Department, Secretariat, Govt. of Manipur on which it was stated to the effect that a housing complex will be constructed in the paddy fields (still being cultivated) in the name of development - National Games Village.

The people residing around the proposed site-Shangakpham area (107 acres of agricultural land) could not forget the fate of the people of Thanga area, where in exchange for a water sports complex, the local fisher folks' rights of habitation and income generation on the lake, which have been held by the fisher-folks for ages on a kinship or community basis, have vanished.

Earlier, Dr. W Thoiba, the then MLA from Heingang Kendra brought out
the issue at the Assembly where the then Revenue Minister, Md. Helaluddin
informed the House that the Government could acquire any land anywhere with due compensations. Though there is a provision under the Land Acquisition Act for grant of land in lieu of monetary compensation, it has seldom been used, even to the patta holders.

Cash compensation is unacceptable to a majority of displaced persons especially the tribals and the poor rural population since the compensation paid is inadequately worked out. The process of getting compensation is torturous and sometimes result in conflicts among the descendants of title holder. Besides market value and not replacement value is the criterion for calculating compensation.

Past experiences have proved that development projects benefit primarily a few, while lakhs make sacrifices. So there is no question how these proposed developmental projects in certain fertile area can contribute in promoting an even and holistic development of society, but from the way things are it will only widen the gap between the haves and have-nots and thus promote widespread extensive socio-environmental crisis.

In the North East of India, the inhabitants have an intimate relationship with land, as common to all tribal people. A wide spectrum of social and political institutions have developed with however a common basis; to ensure the survival of the community and the preservation of its natural resources.

There has always been an effective check on monopolization of resources in the
form of a complex system of moral values, social practice counterbalancing
institutions and appropriate life-styles, all enforceable by the community in different ways. It's a fact that there is little or no familiarity with North-Eastern cultures, terrain or situation in mainstream India, even among the NGOs and activists, let alone the lawmakers. The physical distance, poor transportation, communication and racialcultural differences all contribute to this ignorance.

The introduction of the systems without understanding the region has eroded the indigenous norms and institutions of this region. In the valleys, for instance, private pattas have been issued giving individuals "ownership" rights over aggregately smaller areas and claiming the rest of community owned lands as public or government property.

Then in the hills, indirect pressure in the form of refusal of loans, IRDP funds, forcible 'pattaisation' of cultivatable lands and outright force by the military in the guise of "security" or "development" and incited or even fabricated ethnic clashes are used in many areas, open or covert, for settlement of refugees from non-tribal areas/ groups, such as in Meghalaya and Tripura. These are being used to erode tribal community land rights.

Of late, there is a growing protest movement and the creation of a national
awareness of the problem. The Press, NGOs and the Judiciary have combined
together, not only to educate the masses but also to build up a national
consciousness. An important reason for the protest is that displacement is taken for granted and the displaced persons are not involved in decisions concerning their lives. Rehabilitation is negligible and even many existing provisions have been diluted.

There is an immediate need for a debate on the necessity and appropriateness of any proposed projects; so that, it should be scrutinized amongst others by potential displaced persons to be affected by the project. It should be made public so that an alternative that displaces none or the least number is chosen. It should however be remembered that the moral and constitutional responsibility of rehabilitating the displaced persons who have already sacrificed for the nation's development must form the raison d'etre for a national policy.

This will achieve dual objectives of rural development as well as agro-industrial growth of the 35 million hectares of uncultivated land but farmer owned land. Given the right incentives and viable technology, farmers will surely grow whatever the corporate world needs.