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For Those Dependent on Loktak Lake, Sustainable Development is an Elusive Goal

Loktak Lake is at the base of the identity of the fisherfolk community that has resided for years in the lake and preserved its existence. Attempts of the government to commercialise the fragile ecosystem under the purported goal of development threatens the loss of livelihood and identities.
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What is the controversy?

LOKTAK Lake in Manipur is the largest freshwater lake in all of North-East India, known for its distinctive floating islands, popularly known as “phumdis” by the local people. The lake spans an area of 286 square kilometres. It is also home to the world’s only floating national park housing the endangered Sangai deer. About 12 lakh people in the state are estimated to be indirectly or directly dependent for their livelihoods on the lake.

The Loktak Development Authority (‘LDA’) is a statutory body which has been entrusted with the responsibility of administering the lake. On August 3, 2016, the LDA forcibly evicted fishermen families by claiming that their houses were government property. Acquisition of their land was a consequence of the state government’s plan to open a parking lot for tourists.

This wasn’t a singular incident of contestation between the fisherfolk community and the government. Conflict has long marred the history of the lake. The construction of the Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project in 1971 led to the submergence of agricultural land and large-scale socio-economic displacement, which threatened the survival of the valley. The government has failed to rehabilitate the indigenous population ever since the completion of the project in 1984. Huge profits earned have not generated any accountability towards the safeguarding of traditional ownership, enjoyment and possession of property.

Following directions from the Supreme Court in 2017, the Manipur High Court started proceedings to conserve the Loktak ecosystem and sought suggestions from LDA. The LDA responded, seeking approval to solicit tenders for eco-tourism projects in the lake. The state’s Director of Tourism stated that once approved, Manipur will witness the greatest development of the Loktak Lake with world class amenities to attract tourism.

The survival of Loktak today rests on political grandeur and the fragile power play of political parties within the state. At the centre of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s political campaign in the recent elections was the proposal for a plan named ‘Loktak Manipur: An integrated Plan use (2020-2025) by Westland International South Asia and the LDA’. Activists and fisherfolk of the Loktak community have staged protests against the proposal, which could prove to be ecologically and socially disruptive for the lake. The eco-tourism project seeks to generate revenue at the cost of the sustainable livelihood of the lake and its people.

Also read: Villagers of Jagatsinghpur struggle for 15 years against projects that threaten livelihood and land

In 2020, the High Court of Manipur granted permission to the Manipur government to proceed with the implementation of the plan. Pursuant to this, the Chief Minister N. Biren Singhsought an intervention from the central government to secure funding for the project from the World Bank. On February 25 this year, the high court directed the authorities of LDA to ensure that no construction or developmental activity could take place without prior permission of the court.

The current predicament stems from the government’s position of viewing the rights of the fisherfolk of Manipur and their presence within the lake’s eco-system as a “growing menace” for the state’s plan to commercialise the historic status of Loktak to benefit its exchequer. 

In July, the government has ordered the removal of all allegedly unauthorised activities within 15 days for the purported ecological conservation of the lake. Traditional fisheries, huts, houses and homestays have all received notices demanding eviction. The current predicament stems from the government’s position of viewing the rights of the fisherfolk of Manipur and their presence within the lake’s eco-system as a “growing menace” for the state’s plan to commercialise the historic status of Loktak to benefit its exchequer. 

The status quo at the moment concerns the challenge indigenous fishermen community of Loktak have levelled to the government’s developmental projects, which directly threatens the livelihood of 140 families living in the Champu Khangpok floating village. Oinam Rajen, the secretary of All Loktak Lake Area Fishermen Union Manipur, has asked an important question: “[H]ow long will the state continue to violate our fundamental right to access the territory of our life?”

Also read: Forcible Land Acquisition and Denial of Fair Compensation in J&K

What are the implications of the conflation of public purpose with commercialisation?

The Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006 governs the administration of the lake and reposits such powers with the state government. The LDA constituted under the Act has been granted powers under Section 17 to grant approval for “commercial utilization” of any lake resources and permitting any activity which may be conducive to efficient administration of the lake. The wide-ranging power granted to the state government to acquire land to facilitate commercialization of the lake is similar to the powers granted to the Union Government under the LARR Act, which mandates compulsory sale of land to the government when justified under the “public purpose” enumerated under its Section 2(1)(b). The central legislation has also additionally defined “public purpose” to include land acquired for PPPs and industrial corridors, among others.

The Supreme Court, in Sooraram Pratap Reddy & Ors. versus District Collector, Ranga Reddy District & Ors. (2008), noted that “any purpose wherein even a fraction of the community may be interested or by which it is benefitted” could justify the land acquisition powers of the State. The excessively wide nature of judicial understanding of public purpose has led to unchecked commercialisation of natural resources. Section 17 of the 2006 Act is a reflection of the same trend.

Commodification of nature is clearly visible in the presence of extractive tourism industries. The acquisition of land by the Andhra Pradesh government to make Hyderabad a “Business-cum-Tourism Centre for the state” has been held to be a public purpose in Sooraram Pratap Reddy. In Fomento Resorts & Hotels & Anr. versus Miguel Martins & Ors. (2009), the Supreme Court held that since tourism is an important industrial activity, it generates ancillary benefits to the state and hence, qualifies as public purpose.

But the development of the tourism sector today has seen a marked shift towards greater adoption of PPPs and benefits of the SEZ policy. Tourism is seen as a coherent whole where there is no classification made between different kinds of tourism projects; ones which are open to access of public and ones which are cloistered by the privileged. While there is a case to be made that access to roads and sanitation facilities are covered under the ambit of tourism, there is no reason for land to be acquired for luxury resorts in the name of “public purpose”.

The judiciary’s token response to most of the challenges to such commercialisation has been simply not to engage with determining whether the State’s claim to further ‘public interest’ is bona fide or not. The Supreme Court’s observation in Bajirao T. Kote (Dead) By LRs. & Anr. versus State of Maharashtra & Ors. (1994) is noteworthy here: “it is primarily for the State Government to decide whether there exists public purpose or not, and it is not for this court or the high courts to evaluate the evidence and come to its own conclusion whether or not there is public purpose.” Similar kind of reasoning has resonated in a number of other court judgements.

The judiciary’s token response to most of the challenges to such commercialisation has been simply not to engage with determining whether the State’s claim to further ‘public interest’ is bona fide or not.

The lack of judicial scrutiny due to the “hands-off” approach by courts has culminated in judicial sanction to any act of land acquisition of the government which could be justified in the name of ‘public welfare’, even though it lacks genuine ‘public utility’. In Indrajit C. Parekh of Ahmedabad versus State of Gujarat & Ors. (1975), compulsory land acquisition by the State, which had only resulted in the addition of a single rupee towards the state exchequer, was held to be sufficient to grant it the status of “public purpose”.

Also read: Unauthorised Constructions in Full Swing in Sukhna Catchment Area Violating SC and HC Orders

In light of such judicial trends, it is imperative for courts to:

Firstly, adopt a conscious attempt to limit the sphere of what constitutes ‘public purpose’ by according due importance to the cost which is to be incurred by local communities and persons in lieu of the purported ‘public purpose’ to be fulfilled. The Supreme Court recognized the importance of such an analysis in Dev Sharan versus State of Uttar Pradesh (2011) by pointing out that the State’s desire to acquire land for promoting a public purpose benefitting a particular section of the society at the cost of the interest of the larger part of the society, especially indigenous populations, defeats the very purpose of public purpose.

Secondly, ‘public purpose’ should be recognized to be limited to only State-sponsored projects. The provisions for acquisition of land for private companies and PPPs must be deleted instead of being diluted as the government has sought to do in the LARR Amendment Act, 2015. As the Supreme Court has observed in Sulochana Chandrakant Galande versus Pune Municipal Transport & Ors. (2010), once the land is acquired, a person becomes non-persona grata to the extent that they are restrained from claiming restoration of land and only have a vested right to compensation. Thereby, the government must be restrained to claim only the bare minimum required for any State-sponsored project to prevent its potential misuse.

How to ensure the safeguarding of the voice of the marginalised in this process?

Under the LAAR Act, once a property or land has been decided to be acquired; an invitation is sent out to record objections. The assessment of objections is facilitated by the conduct of the Social Impact Assessment (‘SIA’), which decides whether or not a particular area of land can be permitted to be acquired. The assessment is carried out “in consultation” with the gram sabha or any other equivalent body in the area. The nature and significance of public interest, along with the socio-economic impact on local communities, is studied as well as the possibility of better alternatives. An “expert group” further constituted by the Union Government examines the findings of the SIA and decides whether there is a bona fide public purpose which could potentially justify the acquisition of the land.

The houses, home stays and land owned by people of Loktak are not just private property, but markers of ethnicity and identity. Camouflaging its destruction under the veneer of development and protection of ecology does not hide the violence displayed by the State in its land acquisition plans.

Similarly, Section 34 of the 2006 Act provides absolute power to the state-constituted LDA to undertake schemes for the development of the lake. The composition of the LDA fails to provide for the participation of the indigenous community in this crucial decision-making process, which is vital to the future of the lake and its ecosystem. (See Section 7). This is a clear disregard of the principles in the Ramsar Convention on the Conservation of Wetlands, which mandate participation, consultation and consent of local communities. Even the procedure under the LARR Act is not democratised as there is no statutory requirement for the expert committee constituted by the state to include representation from indigenous population being displaced. (Again, see Section 7) The government is additionally not legally bound by the decision of the committee, as it can reject the same by recording its reasons in writing. (See Section 7(4)(b)).

Also read: India has reason to celebrate the increase in its Ramsar sites, but it is not enough to conserve its existing wetlands

Amnesty International published a report in 2016 titled ‘When Land is lost, do we eat coal?’. It detailed the enormous burden borne by indigenous communities for India to script its economic growth story. Despite these hardships, the bare minimum statutory requirements under the LARR Act are routinely flouted by the government, and communities are seldom meaningfully informed, let alone consulted, when their land is forcefully acquired and their livelihoods painfully disrupted. The development paradigm pursued by the government has disproportionately cornered the marginalised sections of the society.

The Supreme Court, while adjudicating on the challenge to a mining project in Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd. versus Ministry of Environment and Forests & Ors. (2013), emphasised on the need to preserve the social, political and cultural rights of the indigenous populations. It invoked the component of cultural rights within the International Labour Organization Convention No. 107 along with the United Nations Convention for Bio-diversity to recognise that local communities should be necessarily involved in the conservation of ecosystems and their claims on the land should be respected.

Similarly, the Supreme Court, in Samatha versus State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors. (1997), has acknowledged that land lies at the heart and soul of tribal identity. Indiscriminate acquisition of the same could wipe out the basis of their identity. Likewise, Loktak Lake is at the base of the identity of the fisherfolk community that has resided for years in the lake and preserved its existence. Attempts by the government to commercialise the fragile ecosystem under the purported goal of development, as it has sought to do with its indiscriminate use of the LARR Act, threatens the loss of livelihood and identities.

For decades now, the fisherfolk community in Manipur’s Loktak have sustained their living by using rings known as “athaphums” to gather fish and give them extra feed. The fishing community cannot sustain itself without such age-old traditional practices. On July 18, the LDA ordered the removal of all athaphums, along with huts and houses built on the lake. The only exemption allowed was that of Champu Khangpok, a revenue village. The government justified its arbitrary actions to be under its broad goal of protecting the ecology of the lake.

State power has to be channelised, through the voice of the indigenous communities, so as to contribute to the sustainable advancement of Loktak. This advancement should not be conflated with a political agenda of development driven by political rhetoric, but should be the amplification of a shared future envisioned by those communities for whom Loktak is not just a lake but instead a ‘territory of their very own commons.’

Local communities have time and again asserted that the government’s actions are solely in furtherance of clearing the ground for the massive eco-tourism project. The community issued a poignant statement which referred to Loktak is “our Ema (mother)”, that she cannot be saved without her people, and that “[n]obody who loved the lake would pollute the lake”. The houses, home stays and land owned by people of Loktak are not just private property, but markers of ethnicity and identity. Camouflaging its destruction under the veneer of development and protection of ecology does not hide the violence displayed by the State in its land acquisition plans.

What is the way forward?

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines indigenous communities as those persons who have a “historical continuity or association with a given region and harbour strong linkage to its territories and natural resources within distinct social, economic and political systems”. Land owned and managed in a traditional way by these communities carries the repository of centuries-old observations and interactions with nature. The mystical and almost spiritual connection communities experience with land and its resources are essential and integral to maintain sustainable developments of these fragile ecosystems.

The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme suggests engaging and working with the community to safeguard traditional knowledge and facilitate the protection of the environment. Loktak Lake has the distinction of being one of the 37 Ramsar Sites in India. The Ramsar Convention has strengthened a long-standing commitment to foster and recognize the active participation of indigenous persons in the conservation and management of wetlands.

Also read: Kashmir’s prominent wetland turned into a cesspool

There is an urgent need for the State to abandon its resolve to deliberate “public purpose” as a disconnected goal seeking to maximise revenue to the state exchequer by commercialising the unique ecosystem offered by Loktak. State power has to be channelized, through the voice of the indigenous communities, so as to contribute to the sustainable advancement of Loktak. This advancement should not be conflated with a political agenda of development driven by political rhetoric, but should be the amplification of a shared future envisioned by those communities for whom Loktak is not just a lake but instead a ‘territory of their very own commons.’

Courtesy: The Leaflet

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