14 kms away from the hustle and bustle of Imphal towards the Kangchup Hill ranges lies Phayeng. Inhabited by the Chakpas, Phayeng is a Loi village famous for its unique traditions, local brew, and the forest conserved by its villagers. According to the 2011 census, there were 660 households. Today locals speculate that the total population must be not less than 7,000. The main occupation of the village is agriculture, animal husbandry, and brewing; best known as Chakpa Kalei . To brew, requires water, rice, firewood, and other ingredients. Water, rice, and firewood are all locally sourced. Women gather firewood from the forest and brewing is done with firewoods; inducing health risks due to long exposure to black carbon. The business of brewing not only helps the village in uplifting its economic positions, but additionally it gives a residual byproduct that is given to the pigs for consumption. Both pork and local brews of Phayeng have a name and a high demand in the current market. Its bustling vendors, laden with people from across the state, opening from the afternoon till late evening selling local brews, pork and other food items are proof of its fame. The village has also become a favourite place for wedding photoshoots; for the green foliage it offers. Each household perimeter is densely fenced with foliage of bamboo, trees and green shrubs, with proper water drainage systems in and around the perimeter.
Photo 2: Inside the village.
The village is flanked with paddy fields on two sides, hillocks on the back, and a national highway in front. Despites fast paced global modernization, the village, to these days upholds its unique customs and traditions. Moreover there is still a strong presence and functioning of indigenous institutes such as the Shinglup; a social organization where the eldest members of a household participates in making decisions for the village. The village is headed by a Khullakpa (headman) and his cabinet that look after the functioning of the calendar activities such as Lai Haraoba , Nahut-Nareng, etc. Nahut Nareng is this particular mandatory ritual of piercing and giving gold earrings. Traditionally according to the Meitei tradition, a newborn is given earrings of gold once the kid reaches 3 years of age. A newborn is believed to transcend to human life only after the Nahut-Nareng Thouram is performed. Whilst in almost all other Meitei inhabitant areas this ritual is celebrated by individual households; inviting their relatives and friends but in Phayeng, it is still done collectively once a year for all the newborns in the village who have come of the desired age. The other stark difference in the Nahut-Nareng Thouram is yoo-ban thaba, where Waiyu and Pork is served to the villagers. The hosts of the ritual ferments the waiyu from at least a year before the ritual is performed. On the first Saturday of Heeyangei ; in the season of harvest, another worship is performed. The worship seeks the Almighty to protect the paddy harvest from untimely rain and storm. All in all, it is safe to say that Phayeng is a village that still upholds collective participatory norms strongly, quite contrary to others.
WAKING UP AND WALKING THE FOREST
Almost 7 decades ago, the village witnessed unnatural calamities due to large deforestation on its nearby hillock. Subsequent to the deforestation, the Maklang stream; the major source of water, dried up. This led to droughts, extreme heat waves and deaths followed. The aftermath of these incidents woke the village up to the need of conserving trees, forest and its water sources. Thus, Phayeng Apunba Umang Committee; a Collective Forest Committee who would look into matters of bringing back the forest and water to the village, was then established in 1950. Under the collective banner of the Umang Committee the village got together and started its journey to reforestation of over 280 acres spreading in 3 small hillocks. A stronger community norm emphasising on the conservation and preservation of the hillocks that not only shelters the trees but also the villagers came into the fore and has continued to this day. Today, the forest has grown and wildlife and birds have also come back to the forest. Hunting of animals and Felling of trees are strictly prohibited in the forest. A fine of Rs 5,000 is levied if any individual is found committing the crime of cutting tree(s). Collection of dry twigs for firewood by women helps avert any possible forest fire.
The Umang Committee consists of 60 elected members drawn from 8 Shinglups; making the composition more equitable, and volunteers for a time span of 2 years. The Members and volunteers, on a rotational basis everyday keep vigil of the total area of the forest by patrolling. What is more interesting to note is that if a member of the Umang Committee is found neglecting their duties then they have to pay a fine of Rs 10,000. This indicates the nature of sanctity one has to maintain in the participatory regime. Whereas in other areas (not just locally but more emphasis globally), people circumvent calamities by introducing technologies or fleeing away (migration) but Phayeng did not take the conventional route but undertook the enduring collective participatory norm to work on the root of the calamity. Decades of this commitment is what makes the village deserve accolades. Thus, Phayeng, as a social-collective village, worldview is centred on the relation its villagers have with the forest. While, the world is talking about Global Climate Change, Alternatives, Development, Pollution, etc it is evident that Phayeng has learnt not only learnt the lesson of ‘being in a crisis’ very clearly but also worked and walked the path to restabilizing, reaffirming that the forest, waters, etc can be saved if people come together.
CARBON POSITIVE VILLAGE
Applauding the efforts of community conservation, the Directorate of Environment, Government of Manipur, stepped in to further help the cause. In September 2015, a Detailed Project Proposal was submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) to turn the Village into a Model Carbon Positive Eco-Village by blending traditional and modern adaptive practices; to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience for traditional livelihood. The project bagged a funding of Rs. 10 Crores under the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change (NAFCC).
Photo 3: Solar Lamp as part of the Model Eco-Village.
The project identified major vulnerabilities the village still faces despites the conservation efforts by the villagers and further intends to work on the vulnerabilities such as securing food security and addressing water scarcity more scientifically. Today, Phayeng proudly boasts of having begged the accolade of being India’s First carbon Positive village in 2019. A village is given this tag if it sequesters more carbon than it emits, slowing the accumulation of greenhouse gases and mitigating the effects of climate change.
WATER SCARCITY AND INTERVENTIONS
Water, unlike Air, needs a certain amount of work to be done to be consumed. Work may vary from fetching, harvesting, digging ponds, filtering, boiling, purifying, etc. Existence of living beings, ecologies, biodiversity, etc are affected by the availability and accessibility of water. It forms the central element of the existence of the world. Indigenous communities, fishers and littoral communities have a socio-cultural attachment to water. Phayeng’s socio-cultural tryst with water manifests in the forms of its worship, relation to the natural environment, its forest, agriculture and local brew. Scarcity of water would mean an attack on not just the socio-economic daily life but also on the cultural front. Scarcity has prevailed due to multiple reasons and ad-hoc measures have from time to time addressed and have led to adaptation to the issue of water. Ad-hoc measures have major risks ranging from equitability of how the distribution happens to quality and extend to costs of the measure. Ad-hoc measures may still fail due to several other reasons. Phayeng, in a sense, has approached the water scarcity issue more holistically, although the quantum of how much is debatable but with the current regimes of participatory conservation approach, one day it might just be able to secure itself.
The total cropland of Phayeng spreads about 1500 hectares, which are mono-cropped and also non-irrigated. While agriculture is still the major mainstay in the village economy, this means that the village depends fully on rain and the Maklang stream for agriculture. Moreover, increasing deforestation in the catchment areas of the Maklang stream has made it more unreliable. During the rainy season, the stream is not potable for consumption as it is muddy due to increasing surface runoff. And when the rain stops, there is hardly any water left in the stream. Hence, agricultural works take place for 4-6 months only and during the remaining seasons, the labour force migrates to other informal works. Like all other major dams in the state, Singda Dam which is at a very close proximity to the village failed to deliver both for domestic and agricultural needs. While domestic consumption also depended on the steam and an open well, this was not able to feed the villagers. It was reported that households had to spend around Rs 2400-3000 per month to buy water from private/commercial distributors.
Ningthoujam Kingchandra, 25, recalls that 10-15 years ago he and his family and friends used to go fetch water from a particular well within the village which is at least 2 kms away from his house . “The task was tumultuous as people would line up and moreover the well dries up soon, so we had to go further” Kingchandra dives down memory lane. Moreover, Phayeng’s inter village roads (IVRs) have no proper tar but has proper potholes. 10-15 years ago it would have been most definitely more worse.
But luckily, certain things did change. In, step-in the Village Water Sanitation Committee (VWSC); another village organisation to look into the matters of the prevailing water scarcity. Sudong; the stream from the forest was replenished with an increasing amount of water. Then a big pond community was dug up in front of the forest, sometime around 2013-14 and water from the stream filled up the pond. A Spring Source Water Supply System under the NAFCC was implemented by drawing up water from the pond. It has the capacity to supply 1.2 Lakh Litre per day with a pipe distribution system spreading over 8754 meters in the village.
However, the existence of the Water Supply System doesn’t guarantee total security. The Pond/Water Supply alone cannot supply throughout the year. And with the wake of erratic rainfalls, the villagers are becoming more mindful of scarcity. The village has 4 common large ponds. Angom Gojendro, former Pradhan and current Chairman of the VWSC narrates “there are some private household ponds, these are all small ponds. There are also small open wells, whose water is mainly used for brewing alcoholic beverages. We are currently trying to develop more active household conservation and proper management”. Moreover the rapid monoculture plantations on nearby hills and catchment areas is afterall leading to more surface water runoff and slower recharge of the water table and thus, the declining water table.
ROLE OF WOMEN
According to the Meitei customary beliefs, running water as in rivers, streams, channels are attributed to male water deities such as Eram-maba tumaba (Controller of stream or channel), Eram-semba Tusemba (manager of canal) and Kum-sana Kumliklai (messenger of water that whether water of a year will be plenty or not). While Wetlands, lakes, swamps, ponds, etc are abode to female deities of Eraleima, Ekheileima and Ereima. The attribution of female deities happens according to the layer of water with Eraleima; the topmost and Ereima; the bottom. The attribution of deities according to mobility or stagnancy of water and the addition of the different roles in which participation have always taken place would suggest water has always been gendered. In Manipur, women have always been subjected to household management of water while men are mostly engaged in other activities.
Photo 4: Angom Sanatombi, President of Ningthibi Hydel, collective water from Ningthibi.
In Phayeng, the Spring Source Water Supply delivers water to 23 Hydels (small tanks) which are located strategically across the village. These hydels are the endpoint of the mechanical supply and the starting point for domestic water consumption. The Hydels are managed and maintained by women. Each Hydel has a committee constituted by users, all being women. Each hydel has a name given by the committee. Angom Sanatombi, Homemaker is the president of one such Hydel. Sanatombi and the women committee have named their hydel as Ningthibi (feminine attribution of beauty). All 22 other hydel also have names. “Earlier we used to buy water if we had money or had to go far for fetching water but because of Ningthibi we do not need to go far anymore……so we have a lot of time now to do other work” Sanatombi affirms. Mostly women come to these hydels and collect water using their jerrycans, jars and buckets. Washing is a major activity that happens at the hydels. For Sanatombi and other women in the village, the coming of the hydel has not only made their lives easier but also given them a space for more informal discussions. Thus this hydels has become an active participation site in socio-political opinion formation of women. The women committee is affiliated under the Village Water Sanitation Committee and 2 members (a secretary and a treasurer) from each hydel participate in the Governing body of the VWSC. Each committee makes a contribution of Rupees 500 to the VWSC every month. Each household, according to the number of users in a hydel, contributes an amount of Rs 20-50 monthly to the committee. This contribution amount or say user fees, not only helps in the overall maintenance of the water supply but also is utilized in the payment of the caretaker of the water supply. For users of Ningthibi hydel, the contribution amount is Rs 30 per month. The VWSC speculates that it has successfully been able to at least supply 60% of the domestic needs of the village. In total, the 46 women members of the VWSC and 60 male members of the Umang Committee have played an important role in making water more accessible and more secure. But this does not mean that the women would not welcome water supply directly to households from the hydel or the source.
ATMS that dispenses water?
Another worthy mention of the village level intervention is Water ATM Booth. ATM booth but this one gives water at 1 Litre for 1 Rupee. Conceived under the Eco-Model Village Project, the boot is funded by the Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana (PMAGY), under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Water from the Spring Water Supply is treated by Reverse Osmosis (RO) and minerals are added. The facility was inaugurated on September 15, 2021 and has been providing hygienic water to the villagers. Users are given a card where they can recharge their cards according to their needs. The card is inserted and the command for the number of litre(s) is given. A 20 Litres jar is a common container used by villagers to collect water and a concession of 5 Rupees is given; paying only Rs 15. For community feast, programmes and rituals, concessions are given as decided by the VWSC. Earlier, villagers boil or filter the water for drinking but with the coming of the Water ATM, they are now blessed with another option for potable water. Not only providing another potable option, it has also boosted the monetary collection from water resources for the VWSC.
Photo 5: Water ATM Booth; ‘Multiplying Smiles Around the Globe’.
We are mere beings that borrows the land and natural resources from the future. Forest, water, air are commons that one does not own individually but collectively. The participation in the ownership of these commons helps determine the fate of communities. A more equitable participation regime with a vision of sustainability would mean better health of the commons. One can definitely say that the social coercion to maintain these commons is strong in Phayeng. Moreover any decision for development takes place with the participation of the various agencies. Active participation not only creates empowerment to the agency/institute such as Umang Committee and VWSC, it also accounts for more visible transparency. For example, the village has a good water drainage system where every outer household perimeter has a iram-khonglam . A recent phenomenon is the constant conversion of this iram-khonglam into drains. Here, conversion means the concretization of the waterways using stones and concrete from earlier mudwalls. The situation of either iram-khonglam or drains in other parts of the state is quite unsatisfactory due to various reasons such as encroachments, contaminated filths, plastic waste, corruptions, negligence, etc. In most cases in the state, it won’t be wrong to say that these outlet or outflow systems have failed or are dysfunctional. But in Phayeng, the conversion is taken up rapidly with financing from the state through its National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, not because of mere availability of funds, but to prevent individuals from encroaching on the waterways. The decision of this conversion was taken after a due deliberation of the Panchayat and the villagers and its agencies. Gojendro opines “This conversion has not only helped prevent encroachment not that encroachment has happened but is also an indicator of how much the village prioritises the importance of drainage systems. Also, with the coming of drains, there are more areas for the roads to widen”. A polluted water body would bring health risk to the village. And as the common saying goes ‘prevention is better than cure’.
All said and done, Ningthoujam Popilal, a political activist from the village, is skeptical. He says “no doubt, my village has suffered and learnt its lesson and worked on whatever progressively it can. The interventions are slow-paced, so what we need is more Government intervention such as financial and expert assistance to the existing arrangement to fasten and water security. Only when we would not need to go out with our pots to fetch water, we can take a breather”. Water, an undeniable entity, without which existence can not be dreamt of, has historically and contemporarily had differences in the uses, access, control, availability of water across terrains and contours. These differences have to be mitigated at any cost because humans sans water is the same as humans sans life.
“The rest of Phayeng water needs are cover from other sources including the regularly-irregular water from Singda Dam” Popilal adds. This water, not just being irregular, has complaints of kak-e-thangba; reddish contamination, making it unsafe for consumption. Other sources also include buying water from private water supplies from nearby upstream villages.
Unlike popular environmental activities (at least in the state) like suddenly waking up on June 5 every year and planting sapling(s) with plastic flex and disposable bottles and cups marauding the plantation site, Phayeng echoes loudly against this form of observation and activities that we not only have to plant but have to conserve what we plant every single day.
There is no water without the forest!
Where there is no water, there is no life!
All Photos by Shubra Dixit.