The tranquil, turquoise waters of Lakshadweep now seem to hide a million ripples underneath. The political undercurrent may change the delicate socio-cultural milieu of the archipelago, one of India’s smallest Union territories. The first signs of trouble in paradise appeared on social media when a video went viral last week. It was of a fisherman venting his sorrow and rage as his temporary shed in Lakshadweep’s capital Kavaratti was being razed to the ground. It soon came to light that the administration had demolished 90 temporary structures built by fishermen along the coastline for keeping their boats and belongings.
There has been a simmering unrest in the cluster of 36 islands off the Malabar coast ever since new administrator Praful Khoda Patel, a former home minister of Gujarat, took charge in December last year. One of the first steps taken by the new administrator was removing Covid SOPs in order to encourage tourists to visit the islands, which had been untouched by the pandemic until December. “It was inhuman to remove the SOPs in a place like Lakshadweep, fully knowing the consequences,” says Manikfan, a doctor who runs a private clinic on an island. “Our medical infrastructure is weak and we depend heavily on Kerala for medical emergencies.” The result: with a spike in cases, the Union territory now has a high Covid positivity rate.
A series of orders followed, from imposing the Goonda Act and terminating hundreds of temporary government staff to banning animal slaughter. The unkindest cut was a draft bill—the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR) 2021—which gives the administrator power to acquire any resident’s land for development projects. The bill has drawn the ire of the islanders, who believe it is part of an attempt to evict them from their land. With 95 per cent of the population in the Scheduled Tribe category, they say it violates the constitutional rights of indigenous people.
Its administrator Praful Khoda Patel
Wajahat Habibullah, who was administrator of Lakshadweep from 1987 to 1990, is aghast at these orders. “The people are very loving and gentle. How can anybody talk about development without consulting them?” he asks. “The island needs people-centric development, not the current narrative of development based on tourism and resorts.” In 1988, an Island Development Authority (IDA) was set up under then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for paying special attention to India’s island territories, including Lakshadweep. “The IDA approved a framework for the development of island territories. Its last meeting was held in the Andamans when Atal Bihari Vajpayee chaired it as Prime Minister. The challenge now is to implement the roadmap, rather than introducing anti-people regulations,” says Habibullah.
For the development of Lakshadweep, administrator Patel has chosen to follow the ‘Maldives model’ instead. This has not gone down well with many. Former Congress MP from the Union territory, Muhammed Hamdullah Sayeed, says the ‘Maldives model’ of tourism-based development cannot be replicated in Lakshadweep considering the fragile ecology of the region. Admitting that tourism was promoted during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure too, he clarifies that the focus then was on those islands that were not inhabited. Out of the 36 islands of Lakshadweep, 10 are inhabited by about 65,000 people. “Maldives is a country comprising hundreds of islands. Tourism is promoted in the uninhabited islands there. Lakshadweep is a fragile area and the land will sink if we don’t protect it,” says Sayeed.
Another contentious action by the administration involves closing down dairy farms and putting the cows up for auction. “The animal husbandry department is being shut down. Besides its regular staff, thousands of farmers will lose their livelihood. It will affect many other people too,” says Sayeed.
Mohammed Faizal P.P. of the NCP, who has been representing Lakshadweep in the Lok Sabha since 2014, agrees with Sayeed. Faizal points out grey areas in the draft bill, including mining, quarries, railway lines and highways. “The longest island here is not more than 5 km long. How are they going to construct highways here?” he asks. Though “welfare of the people” is the intention of the new regulations, the process of drafting them did not involve consultation. “It was a unilateral decision taken by the administration. I came to know about the draft bill when it was placed in the public domain for comments,” says Faizal. “While any development project in the islands needs to adhere to the recommendations of the Justice R.V. Raveendran Committee, which was appointed by the Supreme Court, provisions of the draft bill are at variance with them. There are 12 more draft notifications in the pipeline. One of them is about cutting down coconut trees that stand close to each other!”
Moreover, according to the new orders, a committee will decide the rules for air ambulances to airlift patients to Kochi or Kozhikode. Earlier, it was under the purview of doctors and district administrations. “They are putting lives in danger. How can a gravely ill patient wait for the committee’s decision?” asks Dr Manikfan. Other contentious decisions such as banning beef and the draft Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021, has also triggered outrage among the people. According to the draft regulation, a person with more than two children would not be eligible to contest local body elections.
Many believe that banning beef and eliminating meat from mid-day meals as well as lifting the ban on liquor are being used as tools to divert the focus from the real issue of LDAR, which involves land rights of the islanders. There are also arguments against the need for a Goonda Act as Lakshadweep has the lowest crime rate in India—almost near to nil. C.T. Najmuddin, secretary of the CPI in Lakshadweep, believes the law is used to spread fear among people. “It is a tool to suppress protests and dissent. Under the act, a person can be jailed for up to one year without trial. There is panic among people and government officials. They may be transferred or terminated from service if they react. Courts don’t function properly as there are few judges,” says Najmuddin.
Even the BJP unit of Lakshadweep is not on the same page with administrator Patel. “We don’t support Patel’s actions. We can’t agree on land regulation, beef ban, sacking of government staff and many other draft regulations,” says Mohammed Kasim, general secretary of the BJP.
There have been no protests yet in the streets of Lakshadweep, where Malayalam is the most-spoken language, but people in Kerala are up in arms against the draft bill. Politicians and film stars in Kerala have come out to express solidarity with the islanders in the fight to protect their rights, and the Kerala assembly has unanimously adopted a resolution seeking Patel’s recall. Politicians, however, are not being allowed to visit Lakshadweep. For instance, Elamaram Kareem, who represents Kerala in the Rajya Sabha, was denied permission to visit the islands. “They said the visit is possible after the Covid situation improves. We are not going as tourists. As an MP, they cannot deny my right to take stock of the situation there. I am writing a letter to them and will decide the course of action later,” says Kareem.
“Society in Lakshadweep is undergoing a churning,” says the founder-editor of LAK, the sole YouTube channel based in the Union territory. “Unlike in the past, people yearn for self-governance. There is a feeling among people that we need a democratic setup. We want to choose our representatives.”