Loktak Lake: Snapshot of a Lifestyle on the Verge of Vanishing

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“Why don’t you come with us to Loktak Lake for World Environment Day?”

We received the invitation from Ram Wangkheirakpam and the others at Indigenous Perspectives, the Imphal-based NGO that coordinates the Manipur Cycle Club, the members of which became our friends and hosts for most of our second week in the Northeast.   They were just the sort of people I wanted to meet:  politically and environmentally aware, dedicated to making change, not afraid to buck trends…oh, and also they spoke flawless English.  And had enough spare seats to take us along.

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Up until then, Loktak had just been a name on the map for me.  My Fellow Fauxbos and I had seen it, so blue and circular and inviting at only 100km past the border, and planned on a nice, relaxing week there, chilling out in bungalows and recovering from the heat and strain of our month-long mad dash across Myanmar.  We didn’t know for a fact whether said (/imagined) bungalows existed.  It turns out, they don’t.  Loktak, at the moment, is still fully “undeveloped.”

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That’s not to say that it’s uninhabited.  Indigineous Meitei people live on the lake.  On it.  Not “on” as in “next to,” but “on” as in “floating directly on top of.”  The Phum Khangpok, as the Meitei call their homes, have as their foundation clumps of grass and vegetation a few meters deep and a few meters across.  These clumps, and the houses that rest on them, rise with the water in the rainy season and drop with it when things dry up.  They also move horizontally, such that a fisherman, when returning home after a long day, may well have to ask his (former) neighbor: “hey, did you see which direction my house floated off in?”

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The citizens of Loktak get around in these little canoes.  Aside from swimming (not recommended), these vessels carved from single logs are the only form of transportation used on Loktak.  The water is too shallow, silty,  and full of vegetation for motorboats to be practical.

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RIding in these boats is one part sheer exaltation, one part pure terror.  They barely skim the surface of the lake, tilting to and fro with every paddle, threatening to take water and dump you into the muck at any moment.  On the other hand, the only sounds you’ll hear (if you can keep yourself from cursing out loud) are those of the single oar striking the water, of the birds flying and squawking overhead, and of fishermen singing to themselves as they go about their day’s work.

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Since time immemorial, fishing has been the occupation of the residents of Loktak.  They’ve been doing it for generations upon generations – some say up to 10,000 years.  They’ve managed to feed themselves for all this time without depleting the lake’s resources or compromising the water quality.  How’s that for sustainable?

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The fisherman often rise in the early hours of the morning, well before dawn, to go out and catch fish while they’re still sluggish and vulnerable.  Now that modernity is approaching and there’s a city of millions (Imphal) just 50 kilometers away, the fisherman will take their haul, hop on a 6AM bus, and reach the big city just in time for the market.  They can sell their day’s catch there, making enough money to buy rice, vegetables, radios, solar panels, and other necessities and luxuries.

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The ground sponged beneath my feet – it felt like a defunct trampoline, dropping two or three inches under my weight but lacking the elasticity to help me back up – as we made the walk from the nearest village to the “port” where we would catch a boat to the festivities.

The great gash to our right here is a canal being built so that the people of Loktak can row all the way to the village.  I imagine that a fisherman with a full day’s haul on his back probably sinks knee-deep with every step if he has to walk it.

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As for us, it was a 20 minute walk and then a 45 minute grimace-filled gondola ride until our destination came into view.

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While the UNEP was celebrating World Environment Day in Nairobi, the Meiteis set up a partay in their own neighborhood. A tent (how’d that get there?) erected (far too strong a word) on what I assume was among the largest, most stable patches of uninhabited vegetation in the area.  You could walk a loop around it in under a minute.  It did feel surprisingly solid in the center, though.

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The free parking lot!  Those who show up late have to boat-hop their way in.

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The makeshift kitchen, with enough capacity to feed about a hundred guests.

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The meal included rice and lentils, steamed squash, mango pickles, fish curry, and fish jerky.  All tasty, but it did give diarrhoea to five of the six Fauxbos as well as to most of the Indigenous Perspectives staff.

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After everyone’s appetites had been satiated and all of the lotus-leaf plates had been tossed back into the lake whence they had come, the villagers listened to speeches from community elders, political organizers, and…rebel leaders.  For the record, nobody told me who was who.

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Sad to say, but the political situation that the residents of Loktak find them in fails to reflect the tranquillity of the lake itself.  As is the case in many other parts of India that we would later pass through, the government (national and to some extent even local) has plans to modernize the area to bring in tourist revenue.  Roads, restaurants, hotels, perhaps even the very bungalows that my friends and I had imagined chillaxing in.

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Many at Loktak are searching for ways to resist such change.

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The state of the environment was also under discussion (in Meitei, the main language of the Manipuri people).  From what I could glean from later summaries, both climate change and the construction of dams and reservoirs along the rivers that feed Loktak are disrupting cycles that the villagers used to be able to take for granted.  In particular, dropping water levels at certain times of the year used to allow the roots of the vegetation flotillas to reach down into the humus at the bottom of the lake and dig into all the decomposed animal and vegetable matter, accessing nutrients and rebuilding mass.  Now, lake levels depend less on natural cycles and more on the flow demands of hydroelectric facilities and drinking water needs of metropolized areas.  If this continues long enough, the Phum Khangpoks’ vegetable foundations may thin out and wither away.

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As in many other parts of rural India that we would later pass through, the government has also passed laws restricting the sort of livelihoods available to locals.  Hunting, small-scale logging, and even fishing are often illegal, even if the laws are still only selectively enforced.  From the point of wildlife and nature “conservation” this would seem to be a good move…but on the other hand, the Meitei have managed to keep the lake liveable for millennia, and any regulations that force them to change their lifestyle may also force them to abandon it in exchange for “conventional” modern work, itself not likely to be a blessing for the environment.

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Even peaceful resistance to such policy is risky due to the fact that the AFSPA is still on the books in Manipur.  Somewhat like the Patriot Act back home, it gives the military extended leeway in their dealings with people that they define as terrorists or accomplices (or sympathizers?) thereof.  In specific, it often leads to a policy of “shoot before ask.”

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Manipur, along with most of the other states in the Northeast, was populated mostly by dispersed indigenous peoples and had no centralized government up until the British came and colonized India (which itself wasn’t even a unified country then) and Myanmar (same).  When India gained independence in 1947, the northeastern states weren’t yet incorporated into the union; that happened later, of the course of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, often under dubious political circumstances…depending on who you ask.  Many still deny the legitimacy of the treaties and fight for independence any way they can.  This often means peaceful protests, but when the army can simply decide that “opposition” means “terrorism” and shoot at will, insurgents have little to lose by taking up violent means.

There was a bomb blast on our second day in Imphal; the army blames insurgents, whereas others more sympathetic to the insurgents insist that the army must have planted the bomb to make the insurgents look like they are willing to target civilians.  I have no evidence or stake in the matter, but I will say that many of the soldiers posted in the region are from other states in India, and generally seem to be from populations with low or no separatist tendencies.  This makes sense (what separatist would join the army?), but it means that the soldiers themselves have very little idea what motivates the insurgents; one that I talked to suggested that the insurgents were just bad guys who set up road blocks, extorted money from locals, and used the proceeds to attack military instillations.  Presumably just for the fun of it?  I’m guessing the soldiers are trained not to ask too many questions about such things.

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As it stands, the situation in Manipur is pretty nasty.  We passed multiple army bases every day and often crossed convoys including trucks full of armed soldiers and jeeps with machine guns mounted on top.  In the capital, soldiers with machine guns patrol major intersections.

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A local grandma who gave an impassioned speech – but what is she to do in the face of all that power?

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And then it was time to push off.

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Over the river and through the reeds

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Back home we went.

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One more half hour to soak up the beauty of a place isolated, but far from unique.

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Indeed, Loktak is just one example of something happening everywhere: modern society encroaching on traditional ones.  Or traditional societies attempting to emulate and evolve into modern ones.  How it should be framed doubtless differs from place to place, perhaps even from moment to moment.  In Loktak, despite some villagers’ opposition to the government, parents still send their children to public school (yes, the canoes double as school buses), preparing them for the realities of life on the outside.  If what I’ve heard elsewhere is any indication, most kids probably aren’t that keen on coming back and living the way their parents, and their parents before them, did.  Maybe most parents don’t want that for their kids, either.

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But should it at least stay an option?  Can it?

Thanks to our friends at Indigineous Perspectives for a thought-provoking day.

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2 Responses to Loktak Lake: Snapshot of a Lifestyle on the Verge of Vanishing

  1. Shaky says:

    Best post yet! You should try to publish this or a rewrite of it somewhere. Like NY Times travel section or something.