What is Going on in Lakshadweep

Dr Fousiya A.A

Lakshadweep is a Union Territory with Muslim majority population mostly engaged in fishing. So many people would have seen the news trending in the social media with the hashtag “#SaveLakshadweep” and “#StandWithLakshadweep”. These all started with the bizarre and senseless administrative changes brought about by the newly appointed administrator Mr. Praful K Patel. It is pertinent to mention here that normally bureaucrats or retired bureaucrats are appointed as Administrators of Union Territories, but this is for the first time a politician has been appointed as the administrator, a step seen to be motivated by political agendas. The proposed reforms have attracted widespread resentment among the local populace with many believing that these changes are aimed at destroying the unique culture and traditions of the Islands that make up around 90% population in these Islands. The changes are such bizarre and serious that the Hon’ble CM of the Kerala Mr. Pinarayi Vijayan had to tweet in response to this: “News from Lakshadweep are quite serious. Challenges imposed on their lives, livelihoods and culture cannot be accepted. Kerala has a strong relationship, a long history of cooperation with LD. Unequivocally condemn devious efforts to thwart it. Perpetrators should desist.”

What has really happened/is happening in Lakshadweep. I will briefly go through these imposed administrative changes and the serious consequences they will have in the long-run on the lives/livelihood of people living in these remote Islands.

1- Dilution of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) during the Covid19 pandemic

Lakshadweep was the sole green zone during the global spread of Covid pandemic in 2020 until December 2020 with the support of the previous SOP measures.  As per this SOP, it was mandatory for a person visiting these Islands to isolate himself with a quarantine for 14 days to avoid spread of the virus in the local population and to avoid any overstress on the local health department that was already facing a lot of crunches in terms of emergency medical facilities. But since January 2021, the pandemic cases started rising and currently there are around 2320 cases with 24 deaths due to Covid 19 pandemic in the Islands. The newly appointed administrator is being blamed for the rising number of Covid cases as he removed the mandatory quarantine period of 14 days in the old SOP. As per the new SOP, persons with negative Covid19 report are allowed to visit these Islands without undergoing the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.

2- Proposal to Implement Goonda Act

The Administrator has proposed to implement Goonda Act in the Islands where the crimes are near zero. Such law is likely to be misused and may infringe on a person’s legitimate/constitutional rights. The local populace believe that this act is being enforced to scare them so they don’t protest or show any resentment if the proposed changes are enforced. This law allows detention of any person for up to a year without offering a public reason.

3- Enforcing the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation 2021

This law bans slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks. Being a tribal area and a Muslim majority region, beef is a part of the regular diet in these Islands.  This proposal is again being fiercely opposed as many believe that the administrator is implementing the RSS agenda of beef ban in these islands. Not only this, the removal of non-vegetarian food from the menu of mid-day meal from schools is also fiercely opposed. Lakshadweep is having a population of around 70000, and all of them are Muslims. The ban on beef will adversely affect the food habit of this community and will lead to unrest in the Islands.

4- Allowing Liquor sale

The newly appointed administrator has proposed to allow bars in Lakshadweep as a measure to boost tourism. Lakshadweep just like Gujrat has a prohibition law that bans sale and consumption of liquor. Being a Muslim majority region, the alcohol consumption is banned in these Islands taking into consideration the religious and cultural beliefs of the community. Lifting liquor ban itself will create insecure atmosphere in a peaceful land specially for women population. Then in that context this is going to break down the ethnicity of the island communities.

5- Proposal to prevent people with more than two children from contesting Panchayat elections

Panchayat is an important component of the Indian democracy. The proposed new law is to prevent those with more than two children from contesting the Panchayat elections. It is seen that with this law, the government wants to keep the prominent leaders of the Islands away from the democratic process in the region.

Other “discriminative decisions” taken by the Administrator that stand against the interest of Lakshadweep Islands:

Decision to take over the control of the administrative powers of elected zilla panchayat regarding – Education, Healthcare, Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries. One must understand that Lakshadweep has a serene beauty of its own natural kind. People are attached to sea and most of the people still depend upon the native soil and sea for their income and livelihood. Keeping in mind that majority of them are fishermen, these laws can cause damage to their livelihood. He has also taken decisions to divert all cargos to Mangalore by ending a centuries-long trade relation between the island and Beypore port of Kerala.

6- Lakshadweep Development Authority (LDA) Regulation

Among these changes, the most contentious is the LDA Regulation 2021 proposed by this newly appointed administrator published by the Department of Lakshadweep Building Development body (F.No: 16/1/2021 Dated 28.04.2021). This Regulations empower the administrator to constitute Planning and Development authorities for the development of any area identified as having bad layout or obsolete development infrastructure. This regulation is being seen as one aimed at serving the “real-estate interests” and usurping the small land holdings of the scheduled tribe people.  

The regulations empower the administrator to hold, manage and encroach any property according to his wish for the developmental activities, without any concern of any of the local interests even if the property belongs to the islanders for centuries. In short, this is the basic target of LDAR with its own hidden agendas. Here, the administrator can pretty much do anything according to his whims and fancies, without considering the sensitive ecosystem and the geography of the island, including any activities such as mining and quarrying, cutting down of hills, etc. As the single power holder taking decisions is going to be the administrator, such a development will be nothing shorter than a legal death warrant to the islanders.

Now imagine where shall we live if they are going to construct national highways demolishing our houses, in accordance with the LDAR 2021. Lakshadweep all together consists of just an area of 32 square km, if we consider an average of 2 to 3 sq.km for an island. Widening of the roads to 7 meters by destructing the current settlement and the ecosystem will lead to unsustainable losses.

Section 41 of this Regulation which if enforced will destruct the middle‑income status of the people; many are going to be “trapped in an accelerating and unsustainable cycle of disaster and debt.” Relocation could severely impact their social texture and way of life, and even raise questions of sovereignty and national identity. This Regulations will bring injustice on injustice.

Apart from all these, the administration has demanded to close all the dairy farms by 30th of this month (May 2021). The logic given is that it is unsustainable to feed them since the fodder has to be imported from Kerala and their output is not enough to meet the demand.

Lakshadweep’s lagoons are stunningly the most exciting rainforest with highly enriched biodiversity in the Indian Ocean. Almost like a rainbow with different corals burst in tones of different colours. These waters are also home to a variety of threatened and endangered marine life, including green turtles, sea cucumbers, giant clams and corals. The Lakshadweep lagoon is enriched biologically also and is fragile by nature. So, this ecosystem must be given a preference before anyone step on its nature.

A grassland of sea grass comes closer to the coastline, beneath the seemingly bare white sand. Tiny tips of smooth, waxy sea grass gently break the grainy surface, and if left undisturbed, will grow into a lush meadow in a few years, that can be helpful to bind the sand from the terrigenous sources, which is very important because if these sediments slip, the sand can clog the tiny pores of coral that grow in these lagoons. Ambition of tourism project involving the construction of beach and water villas can be dangerous to coral reefs and underwater grasslands. The multi-crore project has been proposed by NITI Aayog and the Ministry of Home Affairs. In a petition this January, 114 scientists from more than 30 universities and research institutions have urged the Lakshadweep administration to reconsider the project, fearing the possible ecological impact it could have on the islands’ sensitive lagoons and beaches.

The NITI Aayog report repeatedly stresses that the projects are ‘technically feasible, economically profitable and socially acceptable’; that the ‘up-front’ clearances (both environmental and Coastal Regulation Zone) recommended for the project are a ‘unique move aimed at creating much-needed conducive environment for private entrepreneurs to invest’. And in November last year, the Lakshadweep administration supplied more details of the project to potential bidders: successful bidders would get 75 years to finance, construct and operate the projects. Floating solar panels in the lagoons nearby will supply sustainable energy. And as much as 75% of the jobs will go to the local community, says Asker Ali, Managing Director of SPORTS, and DC of Kavarathi, but it is impossible.

The vision appears straightforward and grand: create job opportunities for locals, and world-class, ‘Maldives-like’, carbon-neutral tourism facilities that will also give India its first-ever water villas. A win-win for all stakeholders: the government, locals and tourists. But the ecological impact of such a project on the lagoons and coral reefs is likely to be far more complex and damaging than what is being acknowledged, argue India’s scientists in their petition.

Rohan Arthur is a marine biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation-India and has been studying Lakshadweep’s reefs and sea grasses for more than 20 years. He, and the several others who framed the petition, describe these lagoons as the islands’ ‘insurance sites’. The shallow lagoons are protected from the open sea by an outer coral reef; this reduces the impact of wave action, preventing beach erosion and protecting the islands’ limited freshwater supply. The healthy sea grass meadows in lagoons, crucial nurseries for many reef fish, also have high soil-binding capacities, he says. “Lagoonal sea grasses help stabilise beaches and prevent beach erosion.”

Erosion is indeed a problem in many of Lakshadweep’s beaches. While wave action on beaches is a common geological process, extensive beach erosion and accretion (the creation of new sandy areas) from ‘unscientific, indiscriminate dumping’ of concrete tetrapods (structures used as a seawall to reduce wave action) has already impacted the islands’ beaches, says the 2015 Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP) that governs management activities on 10 islands of the Lakshadweep.

Lagoons act as insurance sites also because it is only here that you find temperature-adapted coral species. Coral cover in outer reefs (in deeper waters) declined by almost 40% during the climate-change related coral bleaching events of 1998, 2010 and 2016, as Arthur and his team found.

That’s not the only hazard the floating panels bring. They will also get in the way of the green turtles that graze on the sea grass. Then, the artificial shading that they cast on the lagoon floor would be ‘disastrous’ for sea grass meadows and reefs.

Says Arthur, “Going carbon-neutral in this manner in a place like Lakshadweep is warped logic. The first ecological casualties of the project will be the green turtles, the sea grass meadows, and the coral reefs.”Moreover, the energy and water needs of such a project are an abiding concern. Already, two of the inhabited islands where the villas are to be built are reeling under a water crisis.

The scientists behind the petition clarify that they are not against development, but they want a transparent, third-party impact assessment to evaluate the project’s ecological and social costs. As the project now stands, it does not meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

7- Diversion of the Cargo to Mangalore, Karnataka

Earlier the Cargo for the Lakshadweep used to dock at the Beypore port in Kerala, with which the islanders have strong cultural and trade ties. Now the Administrator has changed the port from Beypore to Mangalore. This is accused to be done to benefit the Karnataka state – a BJP ruled state and to disrupt the cultural and trade ties with the state of Kerala.

Also, Gujarat based Amul products are going to launch soon throughout the islands. 

Another issue is the demolition of temporarily based fisherman settlements and huts that are used by the fisherman to store their nets and their necessary stuffs built with the permission from the former administrator, accusing CRZ violation. Fishing being the livelihood of the majority in these islands, this demolition is a huge damage to the livelihood of these community.

36 Anganwadi centres have been closed by the new Administrator and he has been taking decisions that are against the interest of Lakshadweep Islands.

Over 300 Contract staff from different departments like sports and labour were dismissed. All these changes are moving so fast that too in this crisis of pandemic, also when the islanders are under imposed lockdown due to covid 19 for the first time since the pandemic outbreak. People are trying their level best with the hashtag #SaveLakshadweep on different social media platforms and many are asking to recall Mr Patel as the administrator, and roll back these forced changes. Lakshadweep must not become Singapore or Maldives in the name of development.

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PS:  People of Lakshadweep are facing many atrocities under the name of these unlawful and bizarre enforced administrative changes but only a handful of media is reporting it. This is mainly because these islands are located very remotely; mostly water locked and mainly form the tribal areas. 

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The author Dr Fousia a Native of Minicoy, Lakshadweep is a Research associate in the Department of Earth sciences, IIT Kanpur

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