Manipur’s looming environment catastrophe3 min read . Updated: 24 Jul 2015, 12:39 AM IST
The submergence of Chadong village, fields and forests didn't happen due to excessive rains, rather a deliberate state policy that failed to take the consent of the people there
What would you do if your home was getting flooded with rising waters? As I write this, an environmental catastrophe is in the making. The people of Chadong village in Ukhrul district of Manipur can only reach their village by boat; hundreds of acres of fertile paddy fields have been submerged under water. Not a big deal you could argue given that half the country suffers from floods every year. But in this case, the submergence of Chadong village, fields and forests didn’t happen due to excessive rains, rather a deliberate state policy that failed to take the consent of the people there. A state that sadly makes it to mainstream media only when there’s a bomb explosion. No surprises then that when the homes of the Tangkhul Naga tribal communities started getting flooded with rising waters, few reported it.
Not just Chadong, 14 more villages will lose their paddy fields, homes and forests once the construction of the Mapithel dam is complete. The dam being constructed on the Thoubal river in Ukhrul district aims to supply water to Imphal city and generate electricity. Once commissioned, it will submerge 1,215 hectares of land, 595 hectares of which is under forest cover. And yet shockingly construction on the dam started without obtaining forest clearance way back in 1989.
The Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 mandates clearance for development projects that use forest land for non-forest purposes. A slew of violations and sluggish implementation of green laws made the National Green Tribunal (NGT) halt work on the project in December 2013. The tribunal noted that the Mapithel project did not have the necessary forest clearance from the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). Following the interim order of NGT, stating that construction had to stop till necessary permissions were taken, the government machinery swung into action at high speed. MoEF accorded stage II clearance for diversion of 595 hectares of forest land in December 2013 following the tribunal’s order. The ministry of tribal affairs, which had earlier stated in categorical terms that Forest Rights Act (2006) “was applicable" and if not implemented will lead to “historical injustice", did a complete about-turn within a month.
Under the Forest Rights Act, consent of the local people through the gram sabha is mandatory; a fact also upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark case in Niyamgiri (Odisha) where mining was not allowed as the local people had rejected the project. Oddly, another office memorandum by the ministry of tribal affairs on 18 December 2013 overturned the earlier order stating now that the “present project is a unique isolated case", thus giving a one-time exemption from the Forest Rights Act. This one-time exemption, which the ministry of tribal affairs sought in 2013, not only let down the tribal people who were fighting for their land, but also chose to ignore the Supreme Court. To make matters worse, an RTI (Right to Information) application with the regional office of MoEF found no site inspection was conducted as mandated by the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, again another violation of green laws.
In order to compensate for the 595 hectares of forest being submerged by the dam, MoEF had asked for double the area in the district to be planted with trees and chain-link fences around these trees. So not only did the local people lose their land to the dam, now a fenced-off plantation would further alienate them from their ancestral land. A pertinent question that should be raised is can a monoculture plantation be a substitute for an old-growth forest rich in biodiversity?
Construction of the dam is now ongoing even though the courts are still hearing the matter. This June, as the water levels rise, the headman of Chadong village told local newspapers that he now feared a possible outbreak of epidemic as the water engulfed their fields and homes.
As NGT deliberates on the matter, many questions are being raised. What prompted the ministry of tribal affairs to make a U-turn and ask for a one-time exemption for this dam? Why did MoEF not conduct a site inspection? Meanwhile, the people of Ukhrul are preparing their boats. It’s now the only way left to navigate their way through this watery world.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars: Dispatches From A Vanishing World.