The conservation efforts by the local communities are spread over different localities of Loktak lake surface area. Legally most of the area under community conservation falls under the jurisdiction of the Revenue Department of Manipur, which includes settlements, agricultural lands and fish farms in the lake periphery. The areas where community conservation is active are:
• The Birahari Pat Migratory waterfowl habitat (approximately 400 ha waterbody). This area is located around 2-3 km offshore from the Khoijuman village on the western side of lake. The single largest population of waterfowl seen here is the Uren porom (Common Coot);
• Keibul Lamjao National Park (KLNP) (4050 ha on the southern end of lake);
• Lake shoreline fish farms (Migratory waterfowl habitat, approx. 4-5 hectare area, covering around 4 to 6 km area in length) and adjacent waterbody in Nongmaikhong and Khordak village areas (on the south-eastern side of lake and also south-east of KLNP). This area is outside the KLNP but in its immediate proximity. Around 14 species of waterfowl and avifauna have been sighted in this area. Some of the species are nganu thanggong (Ruddy Shelduck), nganu khara (Northern Shoveller), thanggong mal (Eurasian wigeon), iruppi (ferruginous pochard), tharoichabi (Asian openbill), meitunga (northern pintail), nganu pirel (spotbill duck), thoidingam (gadwall), utsai saingou (grey heron), tingi (lesser whistling teal), etc.
The distance between the Nongmaikhong-Khordak community initiative area and the proposed bird sanctuary at Pumlen Pat is less than half a kilometre, separated by the Manipur River. Pumlen Pat is similar in its features to Loktak lake. The migratory waterfowl feeding in the NongmaikhongKhordak area rest at Pumlen Pat at night.
The Loktak lake is associated with folk legends and cultural beliefs of the Manipuri people. The religious temperament of the people finds expression in the different religious worships and folk art performances, such as the projection of the Loktak Lake as the ‘mirror of Manipuri civilization‘.
The sangai is a legendary beast (as embodied in the form of Kangla Sha, which is the official emblem of the Manipur government) is best explained as the representative cultural and social identity of Manipur. The sangai is also the official state animal of Manipur. That is one of the reasons that the conservation of the sangai and its habitat has been stressed upon by the local people. Another reason is that it is today a precious asset of the state, found nowhere else in the world. The sangai population had reduced to about 14 in 1974 in the state. According to a survey in February 2003 there are now claimed to be 180 of them.1
The alarming results of the LHEP led to the initial stirrings of the need for conservation among some locals and environmental groups in the mid-1980s. They (mainly the meiteis) realized and decided to react to the undesired developments in the lake, which were detrimental to the health of humans, wildlife and the lake ecosystem.
In the years following the commissioning of the Ithai barrage of LHEP, the local people living in the lake area rose in agitation against the adverse impacts of the barrage, such as the artificial flooding of their settlement lands and loss of their paddy fields. This mass movement ultimately forced the Manipur government to set up the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) to address some of the problems. However, the government neither had a concrete plan for conservation of the lake ecosystem nor for the wildlife.
The vacuum created by the lack of a government policy on conservation of the wildlife was felt by the local people living in the immediate vicinity of the KLNP, where there were several cases of poaching and unnatural deaths of wildlife such as by drowning. This provided the impetus to the local people to do something positive for the deteriorating conditions of the lake and the wildlife.
Around 1991, some of the concerned individuals and non-governmental organisations met and decided to form a collective body for the cause of the lake and the wildlife dependent on the lake. They formed an association called Environmental Social Reformation and Sangai Protection Forum—known as ESRSPF, or sometimes simply as the Sangai Forum or just as the Forum—with an initial membership of around 30 local youth clubs and voluntary organizations based in the KLNP and Loktak lake areas.
The issue of protection and conservation of the much-revered sangai and the other wildlife living in KLNP including the migratory waterfowl, and the health of the lake, which is the source of life and reverence for the people, were the thrust of the campaign. The initiative progressed slowly yet steadily. It gradually picked up from a few individuals’ concern to a mass movement all along the lake shoreline by the mid-1990s.
Grassroots-level public meetings, nature camps, workshops, etc. were organized by ESRSPF to spread the message of the need to conserve the Loktak lake biodiversity. The locals received help from Imphal-based environmental organisations, like the Manipur Association for Science and Society (MASS), and experts from the Manipur University, Dhanamanjuri College of Science and others. Efforts to highlight the plight of Loktak lake were made through various means like loud protests, writings in newspapers and magazines, projection in films and video, ballads, lectures, etc. at local, regional, national and international levels.
An annual ‘Loktak Day’ celebration is organised each year in October in places like Thanga, Komlakhong and Nongmaikhong to highlight the conditions of the lake and the need to conserve it. As a part of the celebration, meetings, seminars and cultural programmes are organised. Although organised at the people’s level, this celebration has a political overtone in the sense that potential politicians based in the Loktak lake area take the leading part in the celebrations.
Important conservation sites were identified by the locals themselves and with support from the ESRSPF; these were subsequently decreed as ‘protected areas’ by a consensus of the local communities. Local youth clubs and voluntary organisations together decided to monitor the areas for possible violations, such as poaching, unauthorised entry into the national park, setting fire to dry vegetation, etc. ESRSPF also set up units in critical spots like Keibul Lamjao, Nongmaikhong, Thanga and Bishnupur. Since then, the entire locality, including youth, men and women, involve themselves in the conservation of the specified areas.
In this way, several of the villages located around the southern parts of the lake joined in a common effort to protect and conserve the KLNP and other adjoining areas that are important wildlife habitats. Likewise, villages like Khoijuman located in the upper portion of the lake, and Nongmaikhong-Khordak in the south-eastern part of the lake took up efforts to conserve the migratory waterfowl habitat in the Birahari Pat. Most of the conservation occurs on privately owned lands or water body area, not necessarily controlled by government agencies.
Local voluntary organisations under the banner of ESRSPF feel responsible for protection, conservation and preservation of the Loktak Lake and its biodiversity. Government agencies like the forest department and the Loktak Development Authority are much indebted to the services of the ESRSPF volunteers in the protection and conservation of the wildlife and their habitats in KLNP and surrounding areas.
In fact, where the forest department had failed to mobilise the locals for effectively controlling poaching in KLNP, it has been due to the untiring efforts of the ESRSPF volunteers that poaching in KLNP and in other parts of Loktak Lake has been greatly reduced in recent years.
On 19 January 2003, ESRSPF volunteers nabbed two poachers who had hunted sangai deer inside KLNP. They were apprehended with around 4 kg of chopped deer meat, which the poachers obviously intended to sell clandestinely. Both the poachers are from the Keibul Lamjao village. Both of them were later handed over to the Moirang police station and a criminal case was registered against them. Such activities serve to discourage potential hunters.
The conservation effort finds some amount of opposition from some of the primary stakeholders, such as the local women who gather edible roots, plants and fodder grass from within the KLNP, and fishermen whose fishing activities are restricted in those areas where the initiative is quite active, like in the Birahari Pat area.
Although the status of a national park restricts locals from freely entering the core zone area of KLNP, due to absence of proper demarcation of core, manipulation and buffer zones, some sort of compromise has been made with the locals who traditionally collect plants for food and fodder from the KLNP, and certain concessions are granted to the local people to enter and collect dry vegetation and edible plants and roots from within the enclosure of the Park and in the surrounding areas.
When the national park came into force in 1977, there was strong opposition from the local people when they were not allowed to enter the Park area and continue with their traditional practice of collecting food and fodder plants. The tendency is still there in the sense that though there has been some amount of understanding between PA managers and local people, the people here, particularly the women, feel a certain resentment at the manner in which they are stopped from continuing with their traditional practice, even while the forest department does not have any management policy to regulate entry or allow people to enter up to a certain point in the Park. The author has seen forest guards challenging women who had entered right up to the core area to collect edible roots in March-April (this is the time when poaching inside the Park is most active). This sort of act also causes tension between PA managers and the local people. However, intervention by ESRSPF volunteers by way of organising meetings and talking to the people has helped to reduce such tensions as and when they arise.
In the Birahari Pat conservation site, there is a certain amount of opposition from local fishermen when they are asked not to disturb the migratory waterfowl, particularly during their winter resting months. The opposition, though minimal, has arisen from the local fishermen’s need to cover a large part of the lake for their fishing activities. This has been because the fish catch seems to have gone down in the past few years. In fact, fishermen are resorting to the use of close-knitted nylon nets to catch small fish (even fingerlings) since they are unable to catch big/bigger fish in the lake.
There are also instances of conflict from adjacent communities who continue poaching/hunting avifauna and waterfowl. In some of the poaching cases, it was found that some of the poachers belonged to a different community from nearby Kwakta village, which is located about 4 km west of Moirang town. Poaching is carried out in connivance with a few local persons living in the KLNP area (e.g., the two poachers recently caught are both from the KLNP area). Poachers are known to hunt the birds (and animals) and sell them to vendors in places like Kwakta, Moirang Lamkhai and Imphal to supply restaurants, hotels, etc.
In the case of a poacher being caught red-handed by the locals in the KLNP area, he is immediately handed over to the range officer of the Keibul Lamjao Forest Office. Then a meeting of the locals from the village (Keibul Lamjao, and sometimes attended by villagers from neighbouring Chingmei village), including the gram panchayat members, ESRSPF, forest officers and other important persons in the village is held to discuss the situation. Normally the meeting is organised at the Forest Range Office in Keibul Lamjao immediately an offence takes place. In most instances, the cases are settled at the grassroots level itself without the intervention of the police or the district magistrate. The collective meeting of these representatives decides on the nature of the penalty to be awarded to the poachers.
The nature of penalty differs according to the extent of offence committed. The poacher is either given a good thrashing and let off after a stern warning not to repeat his crime again, or the poacher is made to pay a fine of Rs 10,000 (this amount was announced by the ESRSPF as penalty to any person caught hunting sangai). In some cases, depending on the seriousness of the crime, the poachers are handed over to the police for legal proceedings (but the locals are wary of such legal proceedings because they feel nothing comes out of it).
Sometimes the penalty is harsh. If the matter is taken up by an underground group2 (it may be noted that a certain underground group had earlier announced that it would award capital punishment without trial to anyone found/caught hunting sangai), the poachers are liable to be shot. The two poachers caught by ESRSPF volunteers on January 19 were punished by being shot on their right thighs by the underground Revolutionary People’s Front as a (last) warning to anyone daring to defy the group’s decree. (This incident happened on February 5, 2003 after both the poachers were given bail by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bishnupur district). In 2003, another valley-based Meitei insurgent group announced prohibition on hunting migratory waterfowl. They also announced a punishment if the orders were violated.
In an incidence in 1999, a Kabui, also the headmaster of a local junior high school in Toubul village, was apprehended with a gun and birds in his possession by volunteers of the Global Science Club (GSC), Khoijuman. A meeting was held in Toubul village attended by the village authority, GSC and ESRSPF members. In the meeting, the headmaster confessed his crime. Later, he was pardoned on the condition that from that day onwards he would stop hunting birds and would become a member of the GSC. He thus became a converted wildlife activist. This was an achievement for the local conservationists.
The existing institution at the village level is the gram panchayat headed by a pradhan (village head), assisted by the upa-pradhan (assistant to the village head) and members in the management and administration of the village affairs. It is an important instrument for garnering support of the local people and for dealing with matters concerning the activities of the local community as regards the conservation initiative.
As in Nongmaikhong area, the panchayat members (earlier headed by former pradhan Salam Budhi Singh) are quite active in the protection of the migratory waterfowl in the winter months and for securing the support of local farmers to conserve their habitat. In the process, the farmers are losing much of their source of income by letting the waterfowl feed in their fish farms while foregoing all activity of fishing themselves.
In fact, there is a perpetual question of who will compensate them for the loss they are suffering for the sake of the waterfowl. Farmers like Salam Budhi and a few others had voluntarily forsaken the use of around a hectare each of their fish farms so that the waterfowl are not disturbed. Currently they are losing fish yield from more than four hectares of fish farms in Nongmaikhong village area.
As so far observed, these farmers are sacrificing themselves purely for the sake of the birds, who, they say, are visitors from far-off places and who need their protection to feed and roost without fear and disturbance. So, for the best part of December, January, February and March, these farmers have to look for alternative sources of food and income while forgoing much of their fishing activities in this area.
The women usually make water-reed mats and smoke small fish for sale to earn a living, while the men engage themselves in farming activities or weaving bamboo baskets for sale, or go out deep into the lake to fish so that minimal disturbance is caused to the waterfowl habitat. However, during a visit in mid-January 2003, fishing activities were seen in the migratory waterfowl habitat. Although the activity was minimal, this is evidently a result of the pressure on the farmers for their livelihood needs.
For all the activities mentioned above, no formal rules have been laid down (barring the imposition of fine on killing sangai). The initiative is based on a mutual understanding of the different village communities and has been voluntarily taken up rather than through compulsion. Such a loose structure and informal understanding has its own drawbacks, as it creates confusion particularly when there is a conflict of interest and ideas among the different village communities regarding the handling of particular cases.
Disputes, offences and other matters are dealt with by the panchayat, and in the case of nonsettlement of the issue at the village level the matter is recommended to the district magistrate for due settlement. In most cases, petty matters are settled at the village level itself and the villagers are ‘urged’ to comply with the panchayat’s decision(s). However, in most cases, it is the collective decision of the villagers rather than the decision of the panchayat which is the final say.
This mechanism of governance at the grassroots is quite effective in the sense that the decisions are made by the people themselves for their own good. In case of disregard of that collective decision, the offender is likely to face pressure from the entire community.
There are also some Government interventions in the area. For example the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) was set up in 1987. LDA’s effort has been to work on improving the water quality of the lake, controlling the ever-expanding vegetation matter, weeds, etc., and to establish rapport with the local communities in working out a common strategy for the overall conservation of the lake ecosystem. Earlier, LDA’s activities primarily were mainly engineering related, like dredging of silt and clearing of vegetation matter from the lake. These activities initially attracted stiff opposition from the local people because there was no consultation with the local people. Ever since LDA has changed its strategy, it has received support from the local communities in conducting public awareness campaigns, nature camps, workshops, seminars, etc. towards the purpose of conservation of the lake ecosystem.
Although the forest department (FD) also has jurisdiction in the area, they do not have any concrete comprehensive plans for the area.