Champu Khangpok: The Story of a Floating Village in Manipur

Manipur: In school textbooks, information on Loktak remains confined to a bunch of facts: that it is the largest freshwater lake in Northeast India; the floating biomass called phumdis are its most distinctive feature; that it has been designated as a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention in 1990; and, Keibul Lamjao, the world’s only floating National Park is also home to the unique and critically endangered brow-antlered deer, or the Sangai, which lives only here.

Photo: Allan Jose.

To the people of Manipur, however, the lake and the sentiments attached to it, go way beyond such factual details. In Manipur, Loktak is referred to as Loktak Lairembee Ema or Mother Loktak. It is not difficult to understand this deep reverence if you closely observe the relationship between the people and the lake.

It is not just a harmonious ecological community comprising the water, the phums, the floating houses, the fishers, the fish and the birds. It is an ecosystem in which many of its distinctive aspects work in tandem to sustain the ecosystem of life on Loktak.

We had gone to Champu Khangpok, Loktak’s floating village with a floating school and community hall, to meet Oinam Rajen. A union leader of the fisherfolks of the lake, Rajen invited us to his home for a discussion on how the community of Loktak will be observing the World Wetlands Day – celebrated every year on February 2.

Over lunch, it was decided that our hosts would be participating in Shangkha-Namba – an affair of the Loktak commune which involves members from the floating huts coming together to help another member build the foundation on which their homes float.

A floating school, community hall and Rajen’s house in Champu Khangpok. Photo: Allan Jose

Community spirit is strong in Loktak. As we made our way to the Shangkha-Namba, other members of the community also rowed towards the same location. What greeted us were ebullient and high-spirited women and men participating in the process of rebuilding and reinforcing the foundation of a phumdi on which stood a single thatched roof khangpok. Every two to three years the foundations need to be propped up with fresh and more buoyant phums.

With the commissioning of the Ithai Barrage across the Manipur river in 1983, the water cycle of the lake involving the periodic ingress and egress has been severely disrupted. Before the barrage the phumdis would rise and fall with the seasonal variations in the water level of the lake. This was an important phenomenon in the lifecycle of the phumdis.

Shangkha-namba in progress. Photo: Sana Huque

The dry season was the time when the phumdis touched the bottom of the lake. With the arrival of the monsoon, the phumdis would float up again, buoyed by the roots of the biomass that have been nourished through the dry season by nutrients from the lake bed. With the barrage maintaining the water level in the lake at a constant height throughout the year the phumdis can no longer derive their nutrition from the lake’s fertile soil and hence have been rendered fragile. They now fall apart more often and have to be bolstered by shoving underneath long reaps of fresh phumdi.

Fish and Greens sourced from the lake. Photo: Sana Huque

This year, the World Wetlands Day acquired greater significance for the people here. Riding on the back of a wise-use plan proposed by Wetland International South Asia, the Government of Manipur and the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) are pushing an inland waterways project and an eco-tourism project. These developments have become a grave cause of concern among the local inhabitants, who are afraid of being displaced.

Every year, the fishing union, All Loktak Lake Area Fishers Union Manipur (ALLAFUM), commemorates the Loktak Arson Day in Champu Khangpok during the month of November. In 2011, on a cold November day, the LDA, a parastatal agency set up under the draconian Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act, 2006, with tacit support from the Manipur government torched homes across the floating village in a bid to clear the lake from illegal “occupiers”. There are stories galore in Champu Khangpok of homes being burned down to ashes along with people’s hopes, their fishing gear and their pets. This act of arson by LDA has continued from time to time over the years, empowered as it is by the draconian law that terms the fisherfolk as “occupiers”. Yet the village remains afloat with resilience and hope.

Dugout canoes on the shore of Loktak. Photo: Sana Huque

The month of November last year, ironically, came with a good news for the residents of Champu Khangpok. After 30 years of being struck off from the electoral records, on November 11, 2020, the authorities approved a new electoral list and a polling booth for the floating village.

This development has renewed hopes among the residents of Champu Khangpok that LDA will probably stop hounding them out of the lake and allow them to lead a life which is one with Loktak Lairembee Ema – as they have for centuries now.

Sana Huque works as a Senior Research Associate with Environment Support Group Bangalore.

Featured image credit: Allan Jose