Vanishing wetlands: Another outcome of anthropogenic pressures

Once lost, it would be impossible to retrieve or regenerate any of the wetlands which are closely associated with our world view and of course, livelihood. The report that all wetlands of Manipur except Loktak and Pumlenpat have virtually vanished is a wakeup call for the Government, NGOs, the civil society and the general public to do something significant to save these dying wetlands. Observing the World Wetlands Day every year on February 2 will be of little value if it is restricted to just impressive speeches and power-point presentations without any action. Generally, a wetland is defined as an area of land that is saturated with water – either through the year or for varying periods of time during the year. Wetlands are typically shallow so sunlight can penetrate the surface to facilitate subterranean photosynthesis, making these ecosystems one of the most biologically productive areas on the planet. If one goes by this definition, classifying the Loktak Lake as a wetland is highly debatable. One may classify Loktak as a wetland or a lake or both, but Loktak is central to a vast portion of the State’s history, cultural evolution, mythology, folklores and undoubtedly ecology. Loktak Lake and the other wetlands which are now fast vanishing have been constant sources of varied aquatic food, in addition to water creatures such as fish, mollusc and others. Legends talk of how various water bodies have supported livelihood of the general populace of Manipur. People living in the vicinity of such water bodies, developed skills, which later on became traditional occupation of the area, passed down from generation to generation as forms of knowledge. Then is it the traditional occupation of the people living in the vicinity which has been threatening wetlands or has led to loss of wetlands? Perhaps, people dependent on these wetlands might have harmed them inadvertently, out of compulsion to some small degree. But it is largely modernisation and urbanisation projects which have taken a very heavy toll on wetlands.
Unfortunately, almost all these modernisation and urbanisation projects are directly executed or patronised by the State. Modern state is often quite pervasive in its action. Welfare is the catchword. Every available means would be used in the name of development for welfare and justice, yes, in the name of the people. All the urbanisation projects and construction works executed after filling up wetlands were directly or indirectly exonerated by the State in the name of ‘development’ and ‘welfare’. However, it never bothers to pay attention to the structural violence unleashed in the process of undertaking development or preservation and protection project. The Loktak Protection Act 2006 is one such instrument which is embedded with structural injustice. First point worth considering is the restriction placed upon the people in terms of access to the lake for livelihood purposes. The notified areas are too small to accommodate the people who have been traditionally dependent on the lake. In this denial mode, what is being suppressed is use of one’s knowledge and skills, which ultimately form the core of one’s occupation and source of livelihood, passed down from generations, and the related issue of transformation of one’s identity, for example from a fisherman to an agricultural labourer. Encroachers need to be punished but one also has to distinguish between an encroacher and a dependent on the lake. Wetlands across the world have been increasingly facing several anthropogenic pressures and Manipur is no exception. Rapidly expanding human population, large scale changes in land use/land cover, multiple development projects and improper use of watersheds have caused serious impacts on wetlands. As such, it is these areas which the State, NGOs, the civil society and the general public must pay extra attention if the vanishing wetlands of the State must be saved. It is a hard fact that our ecosystems have been shrinking exponentially as the wetlands vanish one after another.