In his younger days, all that Longjam Sanajaoba of Ishok in Bishnupur district dreamt of was to become a Manipuri Nat-Sankirtana singer–the kind of singer who would ensure the listeners’ eyes are moist at any religious ritual. At home, his wife Memcha divided her time between looking after their four children and measuring paddy from their overflowing granary to sell to the women rice traders, the money they made from it was used for their children’s education and other needs of the house.
A day in 1983 changed their idyllic life, ironically as a consequence of a developmental project that promised to light up the lives of people in the whole State, including their village Ishok. Sanajaoba became one of the thousands of farmers who lost their land to the Loktak Multipurpose Hydro Electric Project. The 105-megawatt-capacity project takes its water from the largest freshwater lake in Northeast India, the Loktak Lake. Since the project required that water levels be maintained at a level of 768.9 m throughout the year to provide adequate water for the scheme, the Ithai Dam or barrage was constructed downstream of the Manipur River (Imphal River).
‘The construction of the Ithai Barrage had submerged about 30,000 hectares of cultivable and inhabited land in Ishok area alone. Many villages were displaced without any compensation. They are borrowing money at huge interest rates from local moneylenders just to survive and sustain their remaining paddy fields or fish ponds,’ says L Suranjoy, secretary of Peoples Resource and Development Association (PRDA). Formed in 1988, PRDA now works in 24 affected villages around Loktak Lake on issues such as fishermen rights, sustainable livelihood and proper settlement. A case filed by the Loktak Lake Affected Areas Peoples’ Action Committee, in the Guwahati High Court, Imphal Bench, states that an estimated 80,000 hectares of arable land have been destroyed in the frequent flash floods that occur throughout the year and subsequent inundation.
Ishok village falls in the northern zone of Loktak Lake. ‘Earlier we would need bullock carts and trucks to haul out the harvest from our paddy fields. You won’t be able to eat one year’s harvest even in two years. We were not rolling in money, but we were self-sufficient,’ Sanajaoba, now 75-years-old, recalls. ‘But after the project came, our fields were inundated. Our crops died. We kept planting but they kept dying until we realised that it was of no use. Most able bodied men left the village, some went to the jungle, some went up the hills, some even went out of the State, they had to feed their families, after all. I had to leave my singing,’ he adds.
The memory of the sudden shift in their life’s fortunes still haunts Sanajaoba’s 70-year-old wife Memcha. She says, ‘After the paddy fields were submerged, we had to buy rice from the market to feed ourselves. We could only afford the nasty smelling rice, not the rich and nutritious moirangphou rice variety that we ate before. I told my husband to take hold of a fish-trap and a boat to feed our children. It took us six or seven years to be somewhat stable, but it felt like a lifetime.’ A 64-year-old Huidrom Menjor, another farmer from Ishok recalls, ‘They said they will provide electricity and we will all have a better life. But we became poorer.’ With no knowledge of filing for compensation, both Sanajaoba and Menjor converted their paddy fields into fish farms. ‘I persuaded my brother-in-law to break his chit-fund savings and I ran around to get a loan from the DIC to construct high embankments around my fields,’ said Sanajaoba.
A Ray of Hope
The people of Manipur have been rallying against the Loktak Hydro Electric Project on issues of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement of people affected by it. However, the thrust of State polices remained confined to only the lake’s tourism potential while interventions came in the form of cleaning of phumdis and eviction of people living in the peripheral areas and on floating huts on the lake. In August this year, Manipur’s CM N Biren Singh, however, gave renewed strength to the issue by calling for review and decommissioning of the project, and removal of the Ithai barrage during a meeting with PM Narendra Modi in Guwahati. The move perhaps was catalysed by the recurrent floods in the State during the past years. This year alone has seen at least five major floods.
Reply to a recent RTI filed by a farmer named Joy Haobijam, whose land was submerged due to the project, stated that there is no Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the NHPC and State government on the operation of the Loktak project. ‘How could the State government give the NHPC a free hand without any monitoring mechanism?’ Jiten asks.
Ishok village, located around 30 kilometres from Imphal, with a population of around 3,055 as per Population Census 2011, is silent testimony to how proponents of the Loktak Hydropower Project failed to take into account the project’s adverse effect. Men and women burnt from long hours in the sun balanced themselves precariously in dugouts (small wooden boats) to harvest the prickly foxnuts locally known as thangjing from the glistening fish ponds. Much of the fish had escaped or died during this year’s recurrent floods. But hope seems to take root with the State government’s recent stand. ‘If the Ithai barrage is opened, and the project is taken off, then we will have a future’. All these lands lying wasted will become paddy fields again,’ says Sanajaoba as he watches his grandchildren playing in his courtyard.
Thingnam Anjulika Samom