Floating Huts of Loktak
 Champu Khangpok 
This is perhaps the only floating village in a freshwater lake in India. The Loktak lake of Manipur, located in the heart of the Imphal valley, is an internationally recognised wetland under the aegis of the Ramsar Convention. Its inhabitants live on floating huts – khangpoks – built on what is locally known as phumdis – which are essentially a thick mass of aquatic vegetation in the lake, formed over a period of time. Phumdis generally grow about two metres high. An approximate 150 square metres mass can support a hut for five-six people easily. These free-floating phumdis are used not just for building huts but also for fishing purposes. A unique traditional fishing method is known as athaphum, a large ring of phumdis is erected adjacent to floating hut, inside which they cast their fishing nets. Champu Khangpok, or CK in short, is the only officially recognised floating village; there are also scattered floating huts on the Loktak lake, but they are not part of CK village.
 History of Champu Khangpok 
The origin and history of this floating village is somewhat obscure. However, locals claim that long ago, a person named Mr. Champu from Mayang Imphal came to fish in Loktak and had set up a makeshift hut. Later, his family joined him and began to stay there permanently to expand their fishing activities. There seems to be no other record that suggests how the settlement began there. Many individuals and families were often seen making huts and staying there for some extended period to catch fish. Over a period of time, families from surrounding villages and the islands of Karang, Thanga, Ithing-Sendra, or even further away came to stay more permanently, and this appears to be the possible theory of how CK floating village was established.

The Gazetteer of Manipur of 1886, compiled during the British period, noted that the lake was dotted with floating islands used by the inhabitants for fishing, but there was no mention of huts. A century later, in 1986, Singh, K.H. observed 207 khangpok or floating huts. In the 1991 Census, the Government of Manipur listed 131 huts with 363 persons occupying them, while two years later, a DRDA report found 688 huts. In 1999, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) enlisted around 800 khangpoks, including other floating huts that are not part of CK village. The 2011 Census registers all together 311 huts with a population of 832 people.

Currently, CK comprises some 166 floating huts with a population of about 500 persons that are connected, or should one say, separated by the sprawling waterscape. The majority of the fishing households living there are mostly from the islands that dot the lake.

Till the early 1980s, this vast water body was a natural, freshwater wetland system formed as a continuum of land and water. There is a network of small water bodies, which forms a part of the main Loktak wetlands. When water drains out during the lean season, many areas emerge as ‘land’ amidst smaller water bodies that dot this area. When the monsoon arrives, and water from the surrounding catchment areas begins to fill in, the whole area gets transformed into one vast water body. During the lean season, the floating vegetations or phumdis touch the ground and grow taller as they come in contact with the nutrient-rich soil. When the monsoon rain begins, water level rises along with the vegetation. The rivers that run through this lake find their way to join the Manipur river, thus acting as a cleansing system of the vegetation, waste, and silts. So, it is this cyclical system which locals call, Eka-Ekum that marks the seasonal ‘death’ and ‘rejuvenation’ of this wetlands system.


 Khangpok- an Indigenous Fishing hut 
A khangpok, an indigenous fishing hut, can be built on a plot of thick phumdi; it can also be moved to any location of choice. This periodic shifting is necessary because after a certain time, the vegetation, that is, the phumdi base under the hut tends to deteriorate and degenerate. So, the occupants either repair it every three to four years or abandon it and shift it to another location in the lake. Usually, the dimension of a one-room hut is about 20 feet by 15 feet and 10 feet high, which is used for all household activities – cooking, eating, sleeping and storing, etc. Huts are built with aquatic materials, including reeds, which are found in abundance in the lake. The floor is made of bamboo or wood, while the walls are made of reeds and straw, and the kumbong mana (Zizania latifolia) leaves are used for roofing. Of late, some khangpok dwellers are using light tin sheets for durable roofing. Two or more bamboo poles are fixed on the bed of the lake for stabilising the hut. Nowadays, heavy stones are also tied to the hut as anchors to withstand strong winds or cyclones.

Like all Meitei traditional houses, almost all the huts face the east.  The only inlet to the hut is a low single door, and windows are conspicuously absent. Cooking and drying of fish are done at a corner of the hut, and the rest of the space is used for sleeping, and storing the fishing equipment and the day’s catch. All the family members share this small enclosed place. Those who also have houses on the shore, their children usually stay there for their education. But those permanently based on the khangpok find it quite risky for their children to commute to school.

 Fishing & Gender role 
Men and women play an equal role in fishing and managing the fishing business. Collection and distribution of fish are generally done through the unjas or local traders/middlemen and women. The unjas come to the floating huts in the morning and buy fish at its source. The khangpok families also sell their fish in the nearby markets at Ningthoukhong, Moirang, and Bishnupur or farther away in Imphal. Usually, the women take the fish by a boat and anchor it close to the nearest bus stop, and from there, the fish is taken to the local or the city market at Imphal.

Gender-based division of labour is quite pronounced. Typically, men tend to confine themselves to do the ‘harder’ work with higher productivity. During the afternoon and till the evening, all the fishing gears are laid, and early in the morning, the gears are checked for fish. Women use lift-net, locally known as the nupi ill (ladies net), contributing to the production. It is usually the work of the housewives to look after the household needs and dispose of the day’s catch. One may possibly say that in fishing, gender categories could contribute toward long-term resource conservation by moderating the total amount of harvest.

Loktak has been the main source of indigenous species of fish for the people in the valley. In 1992, it was estimated that almost 60 per cent of the fish catch of Manipur came from the Loktak lake alone, and more than 75 per cent of the state’s population consume fish, which is their main source of protein. But the scenario has changed as the indigenous varieties are almost wiped out by a human-designed ecosystem. Moreover, the Government of Manipur has introduced Indian major and exotic carp varieties like Rohu. With the loss of the indigenous varieties of fish species, one also finds the degradation of the original varieties of aquatic vegetation, which is also replaced by alien varieties, much to the disappointment of local people who depend on this edible aquatic flora for livelihood.


 ‘Nature-based’ Local economy 
The economy of the Loktak-Khangpok people may be described as nature-based, in so far as they draw their resources directly from nature. But at the same time, one may not term it purely nature-based, as the inhabitants also get their other household items from the local market and larger markets in the city.

Loktak is the source of abundant aquatic edible flora – Yenna, Heikak, Loklei, Pullei, Komprek, Yellang, Thangjing, Ishing Kambong, Tharo, Thariktha, Thamchet, Peruk and Kengoi are some of the most used. Some of them seem to have disappeared, but now efforts are being made to re-grow them, especially, Heikak, a rice supplement, during difficult times. All these are consumed as well as sold in the market.

For khangpok families, fish is like currency – cash for fish; the hut dwellers sell their fish, earn cash, and then buy other essential stuff for the households from the market. So, living in the lake and fishing is quintessential. When the Ithai barrage was built, experts say, the pathway of freshwater fish was blocked; the barrage also disrupted the natural passage of fishes that came all the way from the Burmese water to lay eggs upstream in different parts of the river and wetlands in Manipur. Some of the fish species, which had been sacrificed were: Pengba-Tharak (Osteobrama belangeri), Ngara (tor tor gray), Mgatin (L. pangusia), Ngachik (Heteropneustus fossilis), Ngaton/Khabak (C. reba), Ngawa (Barilius barna), Sareng (Wallago attu), Ngahei (Eutropiichtys vacha), Ngatup (Neomacheilus), etc. People in the Manipur valley who are primarily fish eaters still swear by the traditional varieties of fishes that used to be available earlier. Now, Indian carp varieties have replaced indigenous freshwater fish.


 Loktak Lake: Governing the commons 
The Loktak-Khangpok people and those who live around the wetlands have a history of maintaining their social relations and production system, resisting the forces that tried to change it.  In the late 1950s, the government introduced a cooperative fishing society at Thanga, one of the islands of the Loktak lake. Before that, the modern panchayati system was also introduced. The Thanga Cooperative Fishing Society (TCFS) was registered in 1957-58 with 140 members. According to Ch. Buddhi Singh (1978), introducing both the panchayati system and the cooperative system did not find much participation from the fishing communities.  He found that most fishers couldn’t and did not like to pay the due share of cash installments to be realised to the government as the auction price of the part of the lake that the cooperative society used on lease from the government. During that time (1967-68), a person could get loans from the local middlemen and women without interest. Depending on the government, they imposed a regular tax for using the government areas. Over and above this, it was observed that following the cooperative rules was tantamount to leaving the traditional cooperative fishing practices.

Like all other nature-killing ingenious master craft of humankind known by its generic name dams, the Ithai barrage was built on the Manipur river that blocked the water of Loktak from flowing out. Nature was killed in 1983. Since then, the water level of Loktak has been maintained or sought to be maintained at a certain height to feed the three turbines of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) run-Loktak Hydroelectric Project. It was “a multi-purpose storage scheme” that sought to harness the hydropower potential of the Loktak lake fed by the Khuga and Imphal rivers and provide lift irrigation for over 23,000 hectares of land in the valley.

Promises were also made to the communities that they would be adequately compensated, and the project would take appropriate measures for their socio-economic uplift. The promises were not kept, but the communities were also forced to move out of their home and hearth as all of their farmlands and homesteads went under the water of the reservoir. Subsequently, with the formation of LDA and the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act 2006, the entire wetlands – the traditional water commons – came under the complete control of the government, ignoring the historical claims and rights of the lake communities.


 The Ithai Barrage, LDA & local conflict 
The modern system of governance imposed upon the people need not necessarily work for all peoples. For the intervention of any kind, it is important to understand the local people’s perceptions. There was hardly any environmental or social impact study done when the Ithai barrage was built. So, when the barrage came up, an area of about 60,000 hectares of farmlands and fishing grounds went underwater. No compensation was paid to the affected people. The immediate impact of the changed biophysical setting on people also triggered a change in the social-economic situation; a sizeable number of farmers had to shift to full-time fishing activities as they lost their farmlands to the barrage. Many families were also forced to move to several islands of the lake.

The Loktak-khangpok people, and others, who depend on the lake generally, are under threat from two main exogenous forces.  One is from those who want to harness the lake’s waters for industrial development, and the other is from the conservation model.

After converting the natural lake into an artificial reservoir for hydropower generation – supposedly for transforming Manipur from an agricultural state into an industrial one – a series of ecological changes occurred. In the process, it marginalised those who have always been the guardian of the lake. With the water level kept at a constant level and with the proliferation of new and exotic aquatic vegetation, the traditional tools and fishing method has undergone some modifications and innovations. For example, the traditional fishing nets were small and made of simple cotton threads, but people now use larger nylon nets. The pressure to use bigger nets may have also arisen from the increase in population of the fishing families and rising demand for fish from the state population. This has led to overexploitation of fish, causing depletion in the fish population and disruption in the natural aquatic ecosystem. On top of this, many of the displaced families from the inundated agricultural lands had to take up fishing, and some decided to live on floating huts now permanently.

The pressure of the conservationist group can be observed from the local population’s resistance and protest against the demarcation of a large portion of the lake as the Keibul Lamjao National Park to protect the endangered Sangai, a brow-antlered deer found only in Manipur. An undated official leaflet reported that about 600 villagers from Thanga island attacked wildlife patrolling officers and burnt down the Khangadong-Khuningthek wildlife check post for treating them as encroachers. Local people were also not allowed to collect reeds and other materials used by them from the demarcated areas of the park, which used to be the traditional foraging grounds of the community. Loss of access to the community commons resulted in periodic conflicts.


 Right to live on Loktak lake 
As mentioned earlier, people have built floating huts on the lake and either temporarily or permanently lived there for a very long time. CK village was recognised as a floating village in 1991. Over the decades, numerous enumerations of khangpoks were carried out by various government departments and NGOs, which reported a wide variation in the number of floating huts in their respective reports. The highest number of khangpoks recorded in a WWF report was 1,500 floating huts. The WWF might have listed all the floating huts of the wetland, besides CK village, including those families who had moved to the floating huts after being displaced by the barrage.

Unfortunately, in November 2011, the state government burnt down 777 floating huts, including some of the huts in CK. The affected families managed to get a stay on the demolition drive after a writ petition (748 of 2011) was filed against it at the High Court of Manipur. During the stay, the fishing families rebuilt their huts and resumed their fishing activities. Subsequently, in its order on 11 December 2018, the high court also asked the LDA to hold an on-the-spot inquiry with the fisher folks and resolve this dispute. However, there has been no further action since this order.


 Current Problems: Safe drinking water & Sanitation 
While the issues related to the Ithai barrage, and its impact on people, have been discussed, other problems cry for attention. Ironically, though the Khangpok dwellers live amidst vast freshwater wetlands, they cannot use it for drinking. Lake water is contaminated mainly due to the inflow of large and untreated waste from urban areas, including the waste carried by the Nambul river that flows through Imphal. Solid waste and plastics have also been piling up inside the lake over the years. Residents say they take their boats to deeper areas of the lake where water is clearer and cleaner. They then boil or filter it for consumption.

Secondly, lack of proper toilet facilities is another problem; the residents usually dig a pit into the mass of floating phumdi, use them as toilets. The lake dwellers are often blamed for this unhygienic toilet practice, pointing out the direct flushing of human excreta into the lake as a reason for water contamination. The residents say they are fully aware of this problem, but they expect the government to find ways to solve it, as they do not know how to address this. Moreover, they are not the only ones responsible for water pollution. There are only a few hundred floating huts in the lake; in fact, all human waste comes from all around the lake and the adjacent urban locations of Imphal. Many lake residents also complained of back pain, eye problems, among other health issues.

Life is still uncertain as the government maintains its old position that those who live on the floating huts are occupiers/ encroachers. In June 2020, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change categorically stated in the local press that the local fishing community, which is polluting the lake, must be evicted.


 Way Forward 
Everyone among the academics, activists, and politicians generally recognises that people from Loktak are ngamee or fisher folks. For generations, people living around the Loktak lake primarily belong to the fishing community. This became much more pronounced in the post-dam scenario. But the state government does not recognise them as fishermen and fisherwomen as they do not have land titles by which they can show that they rear fish. The recognition of a fisher as a legal entity is important to secure their rights and further their business interests and enterprise. The census report also shows them as the ‘Others’ category in the ‘Profession’ column, which is not helping them.

Secondly, their right of residence is systematically denied by the state, showing them as mere encroachers or occupiers of the lake and not as persons in a floating village with rights to fishing and residence in the lake.

There are other issues too that need to be addressed:

i) Cleansing the water of the wetlands of all kinds of human waste, including plastics and other toxic pollutants, ensuring that urban and agricultural wastes do not reach the lake;

ii) Securing safe and clean drinking water for the lake dwellers;

iii) Finding suitable toilet solution for the khangpok residents and proper disposal of household waste. There are efforts to design new ways such as, using dry latrines where even biogas can be used from such a system;

iv) and finally, sustainable energy solution for cooking, fish drying and hut lighting, and charging mobiles. For that, solar solutions are being explored.

The battles are plenty, and a lot of energy is being spent on this effort. A union has been in place for almost a decade, and a new fishing cooperative has been established. Efforts are now underway for the election of the representatives to the ‘village authority’. The union has made submissions to the Inner Manipur MP to help recognise those engaged in capture fishery as fishers. They get similar legal protection as that of the forest dwellers under the LDA. A more significant challenge is to ensure that the Loktak Protection Act of 2006 is amended to conform to the Ramsar Convention and the National/ State Wetlands Rules 2014 to involve local communities in wetlands conservation. The people of CK are trying to tell the world that they are actual guardians of this wetland system and not the destroyer, as portrayed by the dominant conservation model.


About the writer's: 
Nandini Thockksom has worked as a NE Coordinator at the National Commission of Women in Delhi, after which she worked briefly with the Manipur State Commission for Women. She also co-founded Indigenous Perspectives. 
Ramananda Wangkheirakpam is the convenor of Ngamee Lup, a federation of small scale fishing unions in Manipur. He is associated with the environmental issues in the region for a long period. (wangkheilakpa@gmail.com, +917085593415). 
Donald Takhelambam from Manipur has been working as a Research Associate with Indigenous Perspectives and  Smitu Kothari Fellow 2020. (donaldtakhell@gmail.com, +919773819041)