by Apoorva Sabavath 9 May 2019

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Loktak lake and Keibul Lamjao NationaL Park, Manipur. Photo: Alamy

Ecology is often politicized more than it appears to the naked eye. Political ecology does not essentially see the environment in isolation but views it as a result of political behaviour. Ecological change is not often natural but is ‘brought about’ through external interventions in the ecosystem. This change in the environment brought through interventions often leads to changes in the socio-economic behaviour of the people and especially those who have the power and the authority to exercise it. These changes often widen the gap between the already existing unequal distribution of resources in the society through the implications of politics.

Degradation and Marginalisation Thesis expounded by Paul Robbins (2012) evaluates environmental change caused due to the over exploitation of natural resources which eventually worsens with the intervention of the State. The argument can be ideally located in the post-modernist approach which concentrates on the increase in the pressure on resources for increase in production. And for the same, the local and traditional practices of the particular region are declared unsustainable. Likewise, the modern approaches are unsustainable too and cause greater havoc than the traditional practices.

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India’s first floating school in Manipur – Image source

North-East India is still one of the most neglected regions in India and not much information is available regarding anything done towards resolving conflicts concerning the environment. It is the home to ethnic, linguistic, army-civilian and environmental conflicts. Very little is known to the world about the veil of paradise that the North-East India holds, the present case is concerned with environmental issues of the Keibul Lamjao National Park and the degradation of the Loktak Lake that ensued due to State intervention. The construction of the Ithai Barrage for the Loktak Hydro Electric Project to commence, in the name of development, proved to be life-threatening to the Phumdis and the Sangai deer of the only floating island in the world.


Keibul Lamjao National Park is the world’s only floating national park and is home for the endangered Sangai deer, also commonly called as ‘dancing deer’. These dancing deer were once believed to be extinct until the breed was spotted in the year 1950. The emphasis on their conservation is not just because they were once extinct or that, the Sangais are Manipur’s state animal but because they are a part of the environment that we live in. They should ideally not be affected by products or by-products of human behaviour.

The story of this place unravels with the Loktak lake, the Ithai Barrage, the Loktak Hydro Electric Project and the shift in land usage practices. The problem arose when the Ithai Barrage was built which was linked to the commission of the Loktak Hydroelectric Project in the year 1979. The Loktak Hydroelectric Project was supposed to be built upon the Loktak Lake which contained floating islands also referred to as Phumdis.

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Sangai deer; Image

The habitat of the Sangai deer is the Phumdis, shallow water bodies and the hard ground. The national park is also established over the phumdis. However, these phumdis have led to the death of many deer with the construction of the Ithai Barrage. These reasons drove to the realisation and importance of conservation of biodiversity which lead to the establishment of the Keibul Lamjao National Park. The Sangai Deer are now solely confined to the National Park, completely secluded from the outside world. They are restricted in the name of protection. There has also been an increase in poaching of the dancing deer with the advent of protectionist approach.

The Loktak Lake is now recognised as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importancewhich stands for sustainability and conservation of wetlands. This lake is a source of drinking water for the locals, fishing, purposes of agriculture i.e., irrigation and to generate hydroelectricity. The lake showcases itself and the phumdis as a major attraction for the tourists.

 Traditionally, the dancing deer of this place use the floating islands to navigate over the lake. They are partly submerged in the water and partly on the surface of the water in the lake like meadows. These Phumdis carry the weight of the animals and now, are in a deteriorated condition and less in number after the Ithai barrage was constructed. They provide fodder for the herbivores Sangai Deer.

The increase in human population and the submerging of the agricultural lands was the outcome of the Ithai Barrage. The barrage intervened with course of the river water which proved to be detrimental for the sustenance of the Phumdis on which the Sangai deer rely on. The water flow has become constant due to which the Phumdis remain afloat throughout the year but that is not their natural functioning. They lost thickness and the ability to carry the weight of the deer. This incapability resulted in the accidental deaths of the Sangai by drowning. It also led to loss of agricultural land and encroachment of the lake to fulfil agricultural needs unlike earlier. The demand for water supply and fish subsequently increased with the upshot in human settlements around the lake.

The isolated population of the Sangai Deer has invariably led to decrease in their gene variance and reduction in immunity power. It displays how interventions of the state in the name of protection, conservation or development often result in damage to an entire species. Establishment of the Park could not undo the damage caused by the Barrage which changed the natural cycle of the Phumdis, which in turn led to the death of a huge number of Sangai Deer. It changed the natural functioning of the lake wherein the agricultural lands got submerged and the lake was in turn encroached upon for the purpose of agricultural settlements.


The Degradation and Marginalization theory efficiently encapsulates and provides for the case of the Keibul Lamjao National Park and the Loktak Lake from the North-East India. Being a protected region, what one imagines is to witness the harboured marvels of overarching biodiversity. But the reality states otherwise. The pitiful plight of the Sangai Deer of Keibul Lamjao National Park urges us to re-think the concept of conservation and the rosy pictures of State intervention into the ecological arena in the name of protection. State intervention where it is not required and absence of State intervention in areas where it is required, can lead to similar drastic effects onto the ecology of the region.

This study helps us understand the everyday environmental issues that come to light from a critical lens which otherwise are overlooked due to the veil that displays fruitful conservation methodologies. The seclusion of dancing deer and the floating island basically lies around the loss of habitat due to state intervention to develop and conserve the region. If such development strategies were in the right places, a number of environmental issues that the country and the world at large are plagued with could be eliminated or to say, would not have existed in the very first place. The interventions can sometimes lead to loss of traditional functioning of nature and the species dependent on it and this in turn affects the resource distribution and leads to an increase in resource exploitation.

It is necessary to be mindful while drafting policies or programmes especially for the region, the nation is not well-versed with and often neglected in many spheres and now, concerning the environment. There are a lot of aspects that remain unaddressed and loopholes which remain unidentified but manifest later on as a failure of the interventions made. The government needs to consider the inputs of environmentalists while undertaking any development activities in and around areas with rich biodiversity. The proposed mechanism should be such that it includes the voices of the local population, respective environmentalists and the local government. It will not only lead to constructive discussions around important aspects concerning the ecology of the area but can also be used as a means to find balance between the necessities of preserving ecology at all costs and the development goals/objectives of the government.

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