ITHAI BARRAGE: NHPC’S BIG PROJECT CRUSHING PEOPLE’S BIG DREAMS

The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) Limited is the largest organization for hydropower development in India operating since 1975. The NHPC began overseeing a 105-MegaWatt (MW) Loktak Hydroelectric Project (LHP) in 1984, along with the Ithai Barrage, which is a part of the LHP project built on the junction of two rivers – Imphal River and Tuitha River on the Loktak Lake—in the northeastern state of Manipur. The barrage alters the naturally fluctuating river level, which is favorable for the growth of Phumdisthey are floating islands on Lohtak lake, which float during the rains and sink during the dry months, sucking nutrients from the lake bed to replenish their roots and float again when the next monsoon cycle begins. In the last four decades, there has been significant ecological changes, environment degradation, and transformation of aquatic creatures, migratory birds and animal life, due to the construction of the Ithai barrage. 

Since the beginning, the project faced a lot of criticism for bypassing community consent and ignoring the needs and aspirations of the local inhabitants of the Phumdis. One reason was that the project was implemented before the Environment Protection Act (1986) which meant that, neither a comprehensive environment assessment was undertaken, nor were the local communities consulted during the preparatory stages. There have been severe adverse consequences from the project, including recurrent flooding, loss of arable land, and impact on the unique flora and fauna of the region, including the lake region (identified as RAMSAR Wetland site)12Civil society organisations (CSOs) and advocacy groups have used various means to highlight their disapproval and dissent, but NHPC has neither paid heed to them, nor compensated the community for the damages caused. 

Community’s Resistance  

One of the most significant episodes of resistance from the region took place in the aftermath of Loktak Operation, which was carried out by 2000 Indian Army personnel in 19993. The operation was carried out with an aim to remove alleged insurgents from the Loktak Region. Four days after the operation, a 36-member fact-finding team, comprising of human rights activists and volunteers from various CSOs, visited the area and reported on incidents of torture, arbitrary arrest, detention and inhuman treatment of the local people, and violation of fundamental human rights. The public outrage against the operation spilled over multiple days, with the local community organizing a protest meeting, sit-in protests, public rally, and a joint memorandum to the then Union Home Minister of India4

With respect to the NHPC’s project, the state of Manipur has over the years witnessed a series of strong people’s resistance movement with its unique ups and downs phases. The people’s movement can be divided into two phases– the first phase gained momentum between 1994 and 2001 when the Association of Loktak Project Affected Areas Action Committee (ALPAAAC) and ten Adivasi leaders filed a case against the Loktak Hydro Multipurpose scheme. The ALPAAAC claimed that 80,000 hectares of arable land were destroyed.  

Loktak Development Authority…  

The second phase began in 2006 when the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) was institutionalized.5 The LDA is a body constituted by the Manipur state government after the enactment of Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act 20066, which intended to “provide administration, control, protection, improvement, conservation and development of the natural environment of the Loktak Lake.” Under this legislation, the area was divided into a central Core Zone and the Buffer Zone (the remaining area of the lake, excluding the Core Zone). As a result of the Act, Manipur state government started to clear the lake and pushing fisher-folk off the phumdis. By creating this segregation of core and buffer zone, the government was able to successfully diminish the traditional community rights over the Loktak wetland area. It also meant that the Government and NHPC were no longer obligated to consider the demands from the community regarding their sufferings and losses on account of the project.   

… And The Ensuing Violence 

In 2011, the LDA issued eviction notices to people with traditional ownerships and displaced families that had sought refuge in the Loktak lake area after their agricultural lands submerged. The notice, citing the Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act, 2006, ordered inhabitants to evacuate the Phumdis and accept Rs. 40,000/- per household as compensation. Some of the inhabitants accepted the offered settlement, while others who felt it was too little, refused it. After few days, the LDA burned down 1332 huts.7 Protestors opposed the government’s policies and demanded that Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act be revoked, allowing them to rebuild their houses on Phumdis and give them adequate compensation for their losses.8 The National Association of Fishermen also submitted a memorandum to then Prime Minister, to stop the burning of their houses. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) strongly criticized the Government of Manipur for causing serious human rights violation in the region.9 The Government, instead, claimed that the action was taken to weed out illegal occupants in a bid to maintain its legal and moral position.  

The impasse created by the mass eviction exercise continues even as NHPC moves ahead with more extensive plans of renovation and upgradation. Despite massive public protest for the Ithai Barrage, NHPC has aggressively pushed to build an additional 66MW Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project over Leimatak River in Manipur, along with other proposed projects in the region. Human Rights Forum Manipur (HRFM) and the Youth Forum for Protection of Human Rights (YFPHR) organized a public meeting to demand the decommissioning of the Ithai Dam in September 2017.10The meeting discussed in detail the losses incurred by the local communities over the past years and concluded with a silent rally. It also decided to appeal to the Central Government for decommissioning the project and provision for adequate compensation for the destruction caused. in 2017, the Chief Minister of Manipur formally urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to review the Loktak project for figuring out the permanent solution to flooding in the state.11 The public meeting, rally and the Chief Minister’s appeal to the Prime Minister also got extensive media coverage.  

NHPC passes the buck! 

The NHPC earlier had denied its responsibility and raised a number of objections to expert committee recommendations12. It also stated that the state government of Manipur and the LDA were responsible for deluge caused by severe soil erosion.13The NHPC blamed the damage on people’s ignorance and argued that decommissioning the dams was not possible, as it may lead to severe safety issues and environmental concerns. One of the project supervisors of the Loktak Project said that the problem lay with the Manipur River and not the dam, and that the state government should try and revive the river instead of blaming the dam.14 

Civil society meeting and press conference organized by the Committee on the Protection of Natural Resources in Manipur in February 2018 discussed the rights of the indigenous people and how various state government policies have curtailed their rights.15Civil society members held the NHPC responsible for not considering demands of the local community affected by Loktak Ithai Barrage Project, and aggravating the scenario by its aggressive push for the downstream project, causing further damage in the region. A press release issued by civil society urged the Government, international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and corporate bodies to respect people’s rights over their land and resources.16 Yet, the corporate juggernaut shows no signs of halting its progress, with hopes of increased power generation in near future guiding its continued pace.  

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