Saving Manipur's Heritage

THE Sangai, a rare endangered species found only in Manipur’s Loktak Lake, is on the verge of extinction. According to Dr Syed Ainul Hussain of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, there are now less than 100 (2006-08 census) left. What has threatened their survival is the thinning of phumdi, a wet mass of vegetation that floats in the lake and serves as their natural habitat.

This species was believed to have been extinct until, in 1975, about 14 Sangais were spotted on the lake’s southern fringe. Since then the area is known as the Keibul Lamjao National Park.

Despite this, the Sangais’ existence is being threatened by the lake’s development projects. In 2009. the WII planned to create a separate habitat for the species and the executive summary report of the “recovery plan for Sangai (Rucervus eldii eldii)  proposed reducing mortality and strengthening of the habitat. The other plan was to relocate them and set up a breeding ground”. In collaboration with the state forest department, the WII identified forest reserves at Langol, Sambei, Heingang, Pumlenpat, Thongam Mondum hilllock, Thoubal Ikoppat, Kaihlam wildlife sanctuary and Yangouchaobo. But only five of these were surveyed.

The institute’s rapid assessment of the proposed reintroduction sites did not rule out that these sites were free from human encroachment, resource exploitation, forest degradation due to fishing, farming, hunting and tourism. Besides the cost (estimated at Rs 2.77 crore) the institute also underlined that the process would invite further socio-political conflicts in the already existing situation in the state. 

Dr Hussain says Kaihlam in the south hill district of Churachandpur, with its thinner population, will make an ideal home for Sangais but acquiring this will be a big problem vis-a-vis the land holding pattern in the tribal areas. Thousands of people live on floating phumdis at the lake. In  2011,  hundreds of them were evicted under the Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act, 2006, the basic objective being to ensure proper administration, control, protection, improvement, conservation and development of the lake’s natural environment.

A publication, “India: No place to go for forcibly evicted lake dwellers” on 25 November 2011 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a branch of the UN refugee agency, noted that “whatsoever was the aim of the authority for environmental protection, the reasons for eviction, including efforts to drive insurgents out of the area, the deterioration of the ecosystem of the Loktak Lake has mostly been the result not of human settlement, but of hydrological changes introduced by the Ithai Dam, commissioned in 1983. The lake has also been reported to be polluted by urban waste coming from the rivers that pass through Manipur. An estimated 4.9 million tonnes of solid waste and 2,121 cubic metres of sewage flow into the lake every year”.

India’s Wildlife Institute also has raised concern over the impact of development. Dr Hussain told this writer that following the construction of the Ithai Barrage the overflow of water into the Loktak Lake further aggravated the change in the water regime. Thus, the phumdis that settle in the lean season are today floating permanently, resulting in a decrease of thickness. Degradation of the natural resource of the Loktak Lake has, therefore, threatened the existence of not only Sangais but also several other species of birds, fish and most of all human inhabitants.  Relocation of animals or cleansing human settlements in the lake and its adjoining areas to improve its output is viable in the initial stages but in long run there arises the question of sustainability.

In this process of rebuilding lives and rehabilitating people (in terms of compensation) and relocating animal species that inhabit the ancestral Loktak lake and its surrounding areas, Manipur will need to rewrite its history and reconstruct or recreate a new “second” heritage -- perhaps devoid of originality and essence.

The statesman , July 22, 2012

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