Neighbours Ibohal and Babu, who live on Manipur’s Loktak lake, are pulling their phum-shang (meaning dwelling in the local language) towards a new area. Their wives are helping them in the task.

They are being forced to do this as the fish around their habitat has started to dwindle, so it is better to move towards an area where they feel they will find more fish and other edible water plants.

Phum means floating biomass and shang means hut. These phum-shangs are small huts of fishermen families built upon the floating biomass of Loktak lake. Moirang, where the lake is situated, is about 40 km on the southern side of Imphal, the capital of Manipur. The lake stretches to about 287 sq km in surface area and for centuries, families have lived on the biomass area that roughly covers 30 sq ft of the lake.

Families here are primarily fisherfolk, whose sole livelihood is catching fish — the harvest of the lake.

But things seem to be deteriorating for the lake dwellers. “These days, we really need to make an extra effort to catch fish,” says Ibohal, as he explains the reason for shifting his shang towards a greener pasture. The shifting of the hut includes shifting of the entire biomass on which the hut stands, and this indeed is physically a very challenging job.

The phumdi , on which the hut stands, is encircled with a strong rope. The rope is tied and rolled to a pole and pulled on the other end of the rope towards whichever direction it has to be moved. Thus, the phum slowly sways and moves. The movement from one place to another is usually not far, approximately 200 ft. Once this is achieved, the lake dwellers fix their fishing nets in and around the huts and in various places across the lake.

In the night, the fisherfolk paddle in their wooden boats through the lake, waiting for the fish. With lanterns and, in recent times, re-chargeable torches, they remove the catch from the nets and take it early morning to the market to be sold. It is transported across the State and, most importantly, to markets in the Capital city of Imphal.

“These days the catch is small” laments Ibohal. “Earlier we used to get good income from selling fish. Nowadays we earn only between ₹50 and ₹100 a day”. The 63-year-old has been fishing and living on the lake ever since he learnt to catch fish as a child while assisting elders in the family.

Hit by eco degradation, evictions

But life has become even more hard than before. That could, perhaps, be one reason why a fisherman like Biren has turned his shang -hut into a cosy, one-room homestay on the lake. “I used to take students or tourists to study or view the lake in my boat, that’s how I realised that a homestay on the lake would be ideal,” he says. He and his wife are managing the home and going that extra mile to ensure they follow all the green norms regarding waste and plastic.

Of late, Loktak lake dwellers face tremendous hardship and challenges. Besides the environmental degradation that is impacting the biodiversity of the lake, and decreasing fish species, the major challenge for them are evictions. Several families have fled the lake due to their dwellings being demolished.

Until 2010, there were more than a thousand such dwelling huts on the Loktak. Today, only around 200 shangs remain. “Fortunately, we have not faced any untoward incident so we continue to stay put here,” says Ibohal. Post enactment of the Loktak Protection Act, 2006, by the State government and subsequent court order, eviction of Loktak phum dwellers began in 2011. According to media reports, over 700 huts were dismantled by 2013. Several of those who resisted the move found their huts burned down. The Act prohibits dwellings on the phumdis on the lake and the dwellers were termed “occupiers”.

The Act was purportedly for providing the administration control for the protection, improvement, conservation and development of the natural environment of the lake. Babu, Ibohal and Biren say that the huge Ithai dam construction has caused tremendous rise in the level of water in the lake and this has also impacted the fish population.

If you try to speak to the dwellers on the evictions, you are met with a studied silence. They have escaped it and want to be left alone.

And that is not surprising, as the unique and picturesque Loktak is the only freshwater waterbody in the entire North-East of the country. The traditional fishing community has lived for centuries on the floating biomass with the lake’s natural resources as its main source of sustenance. Considering its ecological status and biodiversity value, the lake was designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1990.

The writer is a Manipur-based journalist