Some gained, more lost
The Rs 400 crore alleged scam related to the cleaning of the Loktak Lake in Manipur not only displaced people from where they lived for generations but also endangered local fauna and the rare brow antlered deer.
In the age of alleged multi-crore scams done by the State machinery, here is one from Manipur. It involves Rs. 400 crore Central Government funds granted to the State’s Congress Government to clean the waters of the iconic Loktak Lake of hyacinth.
Following media exposes, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), along with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), have initiated a probe into the matter recently.
While both the state and the national leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are upbeat about the latest development against their arch rival-led Government, Loktak Development Authority (LDA), of which Chief Minister Okram Ibobi is the chairman, has denied any wrong doing.
If the allegations prove true, the ruling Congress party, which have been in power for three consecutive terms in the State, run the risk of being politically marginalised ahead of the February 2017 assembly elections. In fact, probing the alleged scam and bringing the guilty to justice was a promise made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while canvassing in the State before the last Lok Sabha elections. Some other BJP leaders like Nitin Gadkari, Prakash Javedkar, P. Chandrasekhar Rao, R.K. Ranjan and T. Chaoba also talked about “punishing the guilty” if BJP comes to power at the Centre. The Modi Government seemed to have kept its promise by initiating the probe.
The alleged scam goes back to 2007-08. During that time, the Manipur government submitted a Rs. 500-crore proposal to the Planning Commission to develop the Loktak Lake for tourism purposes. An administrative approval for Rs 400 crore was duly given by the then UPA II Government.
The State Government thereafter handed over an initial project money of Rs. 3.61 crore for cleaning the lake water of hyacinth to a Hyderabad-based firm, “on trial basis”. It, however, allegedly didn’t float any tender for the project which was in clear violation of the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) norms. The job assigned was to clean the “10 lakh cubic square metre” of biomass in the lake, the largest freshwater lake in the entire North-east India, which also provides shelter to a large number of people, mostly fishermen, for generations together.
The State Government, however, floated the tender system after the “initial” commencement of the project. On June 4, 2009, the Government, through its undertaking, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA), floated a tender for the final cleaning of the lake for Rs. 224 crore. It granted the contract to a Delhi-based firm, even though it showed paid capital of only Rs. 10 lakhs. Interestingly, the firm allegedly came into being only after the Loktak Development Authority floated the tender. It was also the only bidder for the work though CPWD norms entailed that there should be at least three bidders for the project.
Nevertheless, the firm was given Rs 224,39,14,035 on August 1, 2009. It was also given Rs 22 crore as interest-free mobilisation advance against the CPWD rules. The CPWD norm says just 10 per cent of the work value can be paid as advance on payment of 10 per cent as interest.
As per the agreement signed on November 2, 2009, the staff and machineries for the job were “hired” from the LDA. All that the firm, -- located in a residential area in New Delhi and no heavy machineries to prove that they take up such jobs regularly -- did was to supervise the “cleaning work”.
The cleaning of the biomass also led to displacement of the people who have been residing on shacks that float on the lake for generations. It not only took away a shed over their head but also affected their means of livelihood. Most of these people make a living by catching fish, plucking edible water plants and other living beings such as snails and crabs and sell them in the fringe villages. They also transport these items in canoes to the nearest market at Moirang in
Bishnupur district. The displaced lot is now forced to eke out a living through some other means. Many say they cannot even earn Rs 50 each daily.
The LDA had granted Rs 50,000 each to those households since most of them were reluctant to move out as there was no provision made for their alternative accommodation. It has also been reported that they were forced to leave as LDA officials, reportedly accompanied by policemen, began raiding the shacks from November 15, 2011 onwards. Some were alleged forced to burn their shacks. By January 25, 2013, the officials had reportedly forced the dwellers to burn down 829 shacks. No shack can be seen on the lake today.
Many displaced people, not knowing where to go, took shelter in community halls in nearby villages. Many of their children were pulled out of school since their earnings dwindled. The Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union have expressed worry at so many people being robbed off places where they dwelt for generations together. And also of their traditional means of livelihood. With hardly any fishing taking place in Loktak, consignments of fish are now regularly brought from other States.
Besides the loss of livelihood of the people, there has also been loss of edible water plants. Such plants have been habitat as well as food of the Lake’s fish too.
There is yet another tragedy facing the cleaning work. The 40 sq. km Keibul Lamjao National Park is the natural habitat of one of the rarest animals --the brow antlered deer, found only in the area. Its population is less than 200 today. The Park mostly comprises of floating biomass. The deer also survive on the grass and other vegetation that grow on the floating biomass. The Park is a part of the Loktak Lake. There is now growing fear that the cleaning of the water hyacinth and destruction of the biomass will adversely affect the survival of the deer.
The ongoing probe may “bring justice” in terms of public money, may well lead to few convictions for the crime if proven, but it looks like the loss of the natural bounty of one of the State’s biggest showpieces due to it will never be recompensed.
(The writer is an Imphal-based senior journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)