20 nov 2011The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from human rights groups in Manipur concerning the state government’s forced eviction of families living on Loktak Lake since 15 November 2011. The state police has used brute force to chase people away from their homes, including burning nearly 200 huts. Government security agencies for some time have been accusing the settlers of being illegal, and there have been reported cases of armed militant groups operating in Manipur and neighbouring states seeking the settlements as their refuge. It is alleged that the present eviction is in fact a security operation, and not to preserve the environment under the controversial Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, as claimed.
The State Government of Manipur has started burning down floating huts, Khangpokshang, built over Phumdis (floating plant mass) of the fishermen living in Loktak Wetlands in central Manipur from 15 November 2011 up to the present. The officers from the Loktak Development Authority and the Manipur state police carried out the deliberate burning down of the huts. The Loktak Development Authority had issued an eviction notice to the residents on 11 November 2011. Nearly 200 floating huts were already burnt by November 17, and the remaining 1,132 floating huts are to meet a similar fate. There are about 5,000 persons living in the floating huts located in Khuman Yangbi, Nambul Machin and Karang Sabal within the Loktak Lake.
The burning down of the floating huts is in accordance with the provisions of the much controversial Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006, in particular Section 19 and 20 of the Act, which divides the 236.21 sq.km Loktak Lake into two zones – a core zone comprising 70.30sq.km, which is a ‘no development zone’, or ‘totally protected zone’, and a buffer zone of other areas of the lake excluding the core zone. A vital aspect of this division is the prohibition on building huts or houses on Phumdis inside the lake, or Athaphum fishing, a destructive form of fishing using vegetation enclosures in the core area. This however, will adversely affect over 10,000 people living in Phumdi huts, as well as others dependent on the Lake.
The burning down of nearly 200 floating huts has led to the displacement of nearly 950 community members so far who has been living in these floating huts for generations. The number of affected families is expected to increase since the burning down of huts is continuing. The victims, including women, children and the aged have sought refuge at the Ningthoukhong Makha Leikai community hall in Bishenpur district, Manipur. The fishing gears and nets of the communities, their only means to catch fish from the Loktak wetlands were also burned and this has left the community having no means to find food for survival. Having lost all their belongings, including books, uniforms and school bags, many children can no longer go to school. With the winter already setting in Manipur, the displaced villagers are left to fend for themselves during the harsh weather.
Each household was offered Rs. 40,000 as compensation before their huts were burned. However, most of the villagers rejected this amount as too meagre, and not able to compensate their livelihood and survival needs. Moreover, there is no process to rehabilitate the affected villagers and their right to free, prior and informed consent has not been complied with. The Manipur police commandoes are threatening and intimidating the affected villagers before burning their huts. In many cases, the police also forced the displaced family members to burn their own huts.
The burning of the floating huts and the destruction of livelihood of the indigenous people dwelling in Loktak Lake constitute a serious violation of the “right to life”, “right to adequate housing” as guaranteed by the Constitution of India and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and also the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which India is party to and has pledged to uphold and practice. The failure to obtain consent of the affected communities also constitutes a serious form of discrimination targeting the marginalised communities and violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.
Affected peoples on several occasions had been raising vehement opposition to the introduction of the controversial Loktak Protection Act, 2006, which they feared would break the age-old bond between the lake and its people. Indigenous peoples depending on the Loktak Lake for survival continue to demand the complete scrapping of the Act.
The Government of Manipur, through its Loktak Development Authority has been blaming the indigenous peoples dwelling in Loktak Lake for polluting and causing contamination of the Lake. However, the impact of the Ithai Barrage of the Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project, commissioned in 1984, which led to a huge scale devastation of the Loktak wetlands ecosystem, loss of indigenous plant and faunal species, disturbance of the wetlands’ natural balance and cleansing system leading an accumulation of pollutants in the lake, has been ignored.
There is no comprehensive government policy to protect the environment in Manipur. Under the pretext of protecting wetlands to mitigate climate change and also to conserve wetlands, there is an increasing effort to evict poor fishermen and villagers who depend on the Loktak Wetlands and Lamphelpat Wetlands. The Loktak Wetlands Ecosystems has already been destroyed by the Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric project. Furthermore, the government has been adopting an indiscriminate policy of converting the Lamphelpat Wetlands for heavy and widespread construction, including several government offices, military camps, Imphal Sewerage Treatment Plant, National Information of Technology buildings, National Games village, Langol Housing complex and the Police Housing complex, all of which has led to widespread destruction of the Lamphelpat Wetlands.
Development policies and projects have been pursued along with the militarisation of the state, whereby indigenous peoples’ right to land and resources are denied with assistance from the military. The indigenous peoples’ cry for help and calls for sustainable development and the respect of their rights are increasingly met with military might, suppression and violation of their human rights. Military operations in Loktak Lake are a common feature and on several occasions have led to displacement and human rights violations of people living in and around the Loktak Lake.
Please write to the authorities listed below asking for their urgent intervention in this case.
The AHRC is also writing a separate letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context seeking an intervention in this case.