Like arteries of the human body, rivers circulate water and nourish the earth. Among the precious free gifts of nature, rivers constitute the most essential being for people’s sustenance, development and the best host for living creatures. Above all the multiple significant roles of rivers, the indigenous river based communities have an inseparable historical chain, cultural relationship, social attachment and key factor for their survival over generations. Rivers have been the source of folk songs and folklores for many communities around the world. It is due to these reasons why the Maori tribe of New Zealand termed the River Whanganui as their forefather and still some other communities considered their rivers as God.
Manipur is gifted with several beautiful small and big rivers. Among them, the Leimatak River is a remarkable and enchanting one. It is a major tributary of the Irang (Alang) River. Originating from Churachandpur district, it flows towards the western side of Manipur. It is a unique river which runs northerly directions unlike others that usually flow from north to south. This river flows with fresh water with a crystal clear appearance. Leimatak River is also known for its profuse and tasty fishes. It has been tiding freely and elegantly since the beginning of ages. According to folks living nearby, the original name of this river is Leimata meaning, rejecting bridge building over it. It was told that people in the past made an attempt to construct a bridge along the said river, but a supernatural creature (as their belief) destroyed it the very night the bridge was built.
The Leimatak River is enchanted not only for its free and natural flow but also encompasses boon and associates with an indescribable chain of relationship with the river based indigenous communities. Thousands of indigenous people sipped the shower of blessing from this river. With the Leimatak River, the indigenous people living in the valley range were blessed with fertile land suitable for permanent wet rice cultivation and for animal grazing. River water and its resources such as fishes, primps, crabs, snails etc. feed the incumbents as a source of food and economy and its sand and stones provided free material for construction purposes since forefathers.
It is worth reflecting that many rivers across the globe have been granted legal entity as human beings today. They are no longer mere rivers as one sees but as a legal personhood. River Whanganui has been legalized by New Zealand Parliament on 15th March, 2015, River Ganga & Yamuna in India on 21 March 2017 by Uttarakhand High Court, the Colombia’s constitutional court granted legal rights to the Atrato River on 22 May 2017, Bangladesh also became one of the first countries to grant all of its rivers the same legal status as humans in August, 2019. River Magpie in Canada has also been recognised as a legal person in February, 2021.
Remarkably, the Earth Law Centre (ELC) based in New York City had made a historic Universal Declaration of Rivers’ Rights (UDRR) on 29th September 2017. Like the declaration made, the Leimatak River in Manipur deserves the same legal rights which enshrined five fundamental rights such as Right to flow freely, Right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem, Right to be free from pollution, Right to native biodiversity and Right to restoration. This implies that any infringement on Leimatak River will be a serious violation too. Aforementioned rivers received legal status with the fact that rivers are significant to different communities on their cultural, social, economic and religious perspectives, so is the Leimatak River significant to the indigenous river based communities.
Factors ailing Leimatak River
It is saddening that the natural flow of Leimatak River was drastically changed ever since commissioning of the 105 MW Loktak Hydro-electric Project in May 1983. Water discharge from this project not only kills the natural flow of Leimatak River but also changes its pattern. Thousand years of tranquility and cordial relationship between this river and river based communities were shattered when the Leimatak River became hostile due to rise and fall of its water level in the post Loktak project era. The changed flow of this river has even claimed 5 precious lives in Taoshang Khunou, 3 in Thangal and still so many more which are not recorded. Frequent loss of animals isn't confined to a place but entire villages in the river range. Besides this, normal way of community fishing and collection of sand, stone, chips etc. from the Leimatak River becomes a risk.
Fate of Leimatak River in the wake of Twin dams
There has been acute apprehension of Leimatak River being completely damaged due to the proposed twin dam over it. As mentioned above, this river has already been maimed by the Loktak project long ago. The National Hydro-Power Corporations (NHPC) in hand with the Govt. of Manipur proposed to build the 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project (LDHP) at Taoshang Khunou village over 30 years back and 70 MW Nungleiband dam at Nungleiband village about 15 years back. During August, 2020 the Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Corporations Ltd (LDHCL) has signed a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with the Manipur State Power Distribution Company Ltd (MSPDCL) for 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project. The PPA of 2020 was finalized as a result of long intense pressure from the NHPC. Even Meghalaya and Tripura state signed PPA on 19 and 20 June 2003 for purchase of power from the Loktak Downstream Project.
The 66 MW LDHP is proposed to build a 28 meters (94.36 fts) high barrage over the Leimatak River right at Taoshang Khunou village in Noney district. Estimated cost of the project was Rs. 867.77 crores in 2006, which was escalated to Rs. 1,250 crores in 2015 and the latest cost increased to Rs. 1391.65 crores in 2018. Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Corporations Ltd was constituted in September, 2008 as a partner of the NHPC. While trying to build it, 211.50 hectares of forest and wet paddy fields will be diluted. Stage-I Forest Clearance was accorded on 3 March, 2011 without compliance of the conditions contained in the FRA, 2006. A Public Hearing for the LDHP was carried out on 7 June, 2011 at Longjang (Thangal) village in Noney district, Manipur. Environment Impacts Assessment (EIA) and Environment Management Plan (EMP) have not been disclosed to the affected villagers. As per the villagers of Taoshang Khunou, land survey was done in 1982 but agreement was signed only in 2020.
Still, there is another plan of building 70 MW Nungleiband dam at Nungleiband which is 25 km in the upstream portion of the Loktak Downstream project. As per the concerned villagers, the proposal of the dam was made fifteen years back. But surprisingly, nothing of the Detail Project Report (DPR), Detail Impacts Assessment (DIA), Rehabilitation & Resettlement (R&R) program and rate of land compensation etc. are opened to the villagers till date. According to the Village Secretary, satellite mapping for the Nungleiband dam was done in 2020. Land survey was carried out during April or May 2021. Public came to know only through newspapers. It is being pursued without transparency and accountability and without Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) of the concerned community people.
The affected Villagers of Taoshang filed a case before the Guwahati High Court against the steps taken by the state Govt. to resurvey land. The same was stayed by the High Court which led to suspension of the survey works for some time. The Citizen Concern for Dams and Development (CCDD) on 15 December, 2017 condemned the plan to start the construction of the LDHP. Community people of Nungleiband expressed serious concern on 21st November, 2021 regarding the possible loss of land, river and forest in the village because of the 70 MW Nungleiband dam. Moreover, the people of Taoshang Khunou village exposed apprehensions on 15th December, 2021 about the 66 MW LDHP as they were not properly informed of the details of the project and detailed impacts assessment disclosed.
Aggressive push of building twin dam projects over the Leimatak is bad news for ecology, environment concern, rights of the river based indigenous people over land, forest and river and their long sustainable living. Building the 66 MW LDHP and 70 MW Nungleiband dam over the same river will be another chapter of disaster environmentally and socially. It will also completely destroy the Leimatak River and close its history. Further, it will have adverse impacts on the downstream portions, even deteriorating the Irang River. Moreover, it will aggrandise the menace of ecological imbalance and issues of indigenous peoples survival caused by the Ithai Barrage of the 105 MW Loktak Project, disaster to the affected people by the Mapithel dam, livelihood disruptive in the Khuga dam area, life hardship caused due to Dolaithabi barrage, devastation of land and resource by Khoupum dam etc.
It is quite irrational to build double more dams in Leimatak River of Manipur because Manipur state is still chronic from the previous dams associated with wide controversies which are not healed. It is also contradictory to the state Govt. plans to build the dams while the world is exhaustively finding solutions to curb the threat of climate change. As per a journal of Biodiversity and Conservation in Washington 2019, large dams are harmful to the environment with the concern that living species are so specific to their habitat, any disturbance that alters their environment can put them at risk of dying off. Dams are a big agent to climate change due to its carbon and greenhouse emission enhancing global warming @25%. It acts as a big factor of forest loss and also an agent to 48% loss of water and their hydro-ecological systems are affected by dam reservoirs. It is a proven fact that large dams are unviable in the seismic zone. Notably, NE region is under the most severe Seismic Zone V of India. Further, it is a bitter conclusion that dams damage indigenous lives and are not feasible in the backward region.
It is high time State Govt and dam building giants like NHPC review the plan of constructing 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project and 70 MW Nungleiband dam project in the interest of protecting the inherent rights and free natural flow of Leimatak River in order to continue performing its ecosystem. Review the plan to build such dams so as to ensure sustainable living of the river based indigenous communities. Let not the normal life of the affected villagers shatter in the name of development by damaging rivers, submerging land, forest, home-stead areas, animal grazing fields, loving ancestral homes and aged old settlements. Development plan at the cost of the indigenous land and resources is unjust and destructive more than upliftment. It is the need based development that is called for not through plundering land, rivers and resources.
Legally the Leimatak River should flow free without violating its fundamental rights. Environmentally, it deserves freedom to perform its own basic ecosystem. Socially and economically, the Leimatak River should move on unhindered so that the indigenous communities can enjoy its blessings through generations. Culturally, Leimatak River deserves to keep tiding so that people’s life depending on it can retain the aged long unbreakable chain of relationship. Blockade of Leimatak River by building a series of dams over it amounts to multiple violations and creating disaster in varied perspectives. There is a need to change the prospect of development from such an unsustainable manner to people and an environmentally unfriendly system.
Speculating the whole perspectives and possible impacts of the twin dams, the Leimatak River is at high risk today. It is the responsibility of every citizen to uphold its legal rights. Undermining its significant roles shall be a huge loss. It is our bounden duty to ensure the Leimatak River renders its invaluable services and performs its own natural ecosystem without retarding. Concerning the significance of environmental, historical, social, cultural and long sustainability of the river based indigenous communities, the Leimatak River should run free and enjoy its own rights through generations without infringement.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]