Recommitting to LNOB: Challenges of Fisher community in the COVID-19 pandemic
The fishing community of Champu Khangpok- a floating village in Loktak Lake (a Ramsar Site) in Bishnupur district of Manipur- predominantly belong to the Scheduled Castes. On 25 September 2015, India envisioned “Leave No One Behind” by adopting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, six years into the implementation of the SDGs, the fishing community of Champu Khangpok is facing challenges to attain: SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being) and SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).
According to Indigenous Perspectives, Champu Khangpok comprises around 175 floating huts with a population of 1500. Even though the Censuses of 1991 and 2011 record the existence of this floating village, the community is facing an identity crisis as the census records do not mention the community as fishers. Moreover, they have zero access to secure tenure rights to the land due to lack of legal documentation.
The Loktak lake is an essential source of protein, food, water, and livelihood for those living in and around the lake area. Over the years, the deterioration of the lake has impacted the quality and quantity of fish, adversely affecting the health and economic security of people who are dependent on the lake. Further, safety measures taken by the government for the supposed protection of the lake have not only worsened the ecosystem but have adversely impacted the fishing community.
In 1983, the commissioning of the Ithai Barrage on Loktak lake led to the submergence of 60,000 hectares of seasonal agricultural and fishing grounds as the water level had to be maintained at 768 meters to feed 3 turbines of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation to run the 105 MW Loktak Hydroelectric Project. With the absence of any social or environmental impact assessment of the project, the lake ecology and livelihood of the local community were majorly impacted. The community was forced to make a shift from land to water, and from farming to fishing. According to Indigenous Perspectives, no compensation has been paid to the community till now.
The Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act, 2006 established the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) for the administration and conservation of the natural environment of the lake. In 2011, the LDA set fire to the huts on the phumdis (floating islands in Manipur), labeling it as removal of phumdis and weeds. The phumdis and floating huts are seen as a barrier to the Manipur government as they encumber motorised transport under the Loktak Inland Waterways Project.
The local community and state conservation groups have crossed swords over the community’s access to the lake resources. Due to this conflict, community members do not have a secure livelihood.
A study conducted by Indigenous Perspectives and ALLAFUM (All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen Union of Manipur) on 60 families of Champu Khangpok indicates that 93% of families endure indebtedness. The only asset they possess is fishing equipment, which is expensive and needs to be replaced annually.
Circumstances only became worse with the nationwide lockdown post COVID-19. The lockdown had an adverse impact on the community in terms of lack of access to markets for sale and purchase of daily commodities. With the disenfranchisement of the community in the 1990s, they have no ration cards and, hence, no access to the Public Distribution System (PDS). Further, with no COVID-19 relief allotments by the government for Champu Khangpok, the community was denied access to public services and social safety nets.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a health crisis for the community. The blockage of inter-village roads compelled them to travel nearly 50 km to Imphal in case of medical emergencies. Regular health check-ups were next to impossible for anyone in this situation. With public hospitals brimming with COVID-19 patients, private hospitals were the only option for treatment. Given that no community member has access to a CM Hakshelgi Tengbang (CM Health Card), the pandemic doubled the health expenditure of the community while their income steeply declined.
• Enfranchise the community and restore their rights.
• Strengthen the community’s access to social welfare schemes and public services, especially during crisis situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.
• Ensure enumeration of the community in the Census as “fisher” and not “other”.
• Conserve and maintain the biodiversity of the Loktak lake in consultation with the community and ensure their active participation in conservation efforts.
The LNOB principle in the SDGs lays emphasis on reaching out to the vulnerable and marginalized communities. However, numerous communities are being left out as they are unrecognized by the government. In the course of the pandemic, it is crucial for the government to acknowledge the needs of the vulnerable communities, ensure their access to government support and accomplish the SDGs with rigour.
 An NGO based in Manipur that works closely with this fishing community.  Indigenous Perspectives, Champu Khangpok Floating Village of Loktak - A water story  As per the Secretary of ALLAFUM  Meant for the poor and needy bona-fide citizens of Manipur which provide health cover up to Rs. 2 lakhs per year to eligible farmers.
This blog is co-authored by Human Rights Alert (HRA) & Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA) Human Rights Alert (HRA) is a non-governmental organization based in Manipur. Its objective is to disseminate knowledge of human rights, to promote human rights initiatives and to assist the victims whose human rights have been violated to access redress mechanisms.
Photo: HRA and Wikemedia