Destroying A Paradise In The Lakshadweep Sea
The administration has taken measures not only to control what the islanders can do for a living and eat but also to curtail their movement to the mainland, eroding the Lakshadweep way of life from which there is much to learn
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In most people’s imaginations, the name Lakshadweep conjures images of beautiful beaches. For most of my friends outside Kerala, I’m the only person from Lakshadweep they know. People who know me, while introducing me to others, never forget to add (quite unnecessarily) that I am from Lakshadweep. I have lost count of the number of times I have been wrongly introduced as belonging to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, never mind if one is in the Arabian Sea and the other in the Bay of Bengal! This not only reveals a poor sense of geography but also a tendency to homogenise cultures. Sometimes I correct them; most times I don’t. When I do, after their initial enquiry about how and when is the best time to travel to Lakshadweep, they enquire, almost as an afterthought, “You have tribal people there?” assuming that I am not one. Though it is not clear what the question means, they clearly seem to have an image of what they think a ‘tribal’ person is – the potentially dangerous, quintessential Other.
Lakshadweep is an archipelago of 36 islands, of which only 10 are inhabited. These islands are 220 to 440 kms off the coast of Kochi, the coastal city of Kerala. If I were pressed to describe life in the islands in one world, I would probably choose the word ‘peaceful’. Growing up on islands, it never occurred to me as strange that we leave the doors of our houses always open in the day. Everyone is always welcome. It is a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. The crime rate is almost zero, not because people are inherently better than people from the mainland but, I think, because chances of an escape from an island are next to nothing. Until recently, people of Lakshadweep lived in peace without much involvement in national politics as it never affected our lives in any meaningful or drastic way.
All previous administrators appointed to the Union Territory of Lakshadweep were former IAS officers or civil servants. However, things changed with BJP at the Centre. The danger of political appointees to a place like Lakshadweep, where there is no Assembly and which is directly governed by the Centre is manifold. The Centre gets to implement draconian laws as there is hardly any forum for the native adivasis to voice their grievances. Natives feel that most of these regulations are being brought because it is a Muslim-majority territory with around 97 percent Muslim population. The current MP, Mohammed Faizal, from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), appears to be helpless with BJP at the Centre. His recent arrest, many feel, is due to his open criticism of Praful Koda Patel’s policies. His disqualification and the hurried attempt at bypoll appear to be an effort to bring a candidate who would favour the ruling dispensation. In their eagerness to come to power again in Lakshadweep, Congress seems to support BJP without considering the long-term impact that it may have on the natives.
The appointment of the new administrator was a rude shock for the islanders as it immediately became clear that, for the administration, the place mattered more than the people. The development of tourism was already on the agenda but with the present administrator, this move was being made without any regard for the fragile island ecosystem or the concerns of the natives.
The beautiful sandy beaches became a curse to the natives as the mineral rich forests have been for adivasis in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. In July, 2021 the Lakshadweep administration released fresh tenders to construct 370 beach and water villas in Minicoy, Kadmat and Suheli islands, despite warnings from scientists. This public-private partnership project plans to develop tourism along the lines of Maldives. In January 2020, 114 scientists from 30 universities flagged the dangers of such a project and urged the administration to reconsider its decision and, in June 2020, 60 scientists and researchers had written to President Ram Nath Kovind urging him to withdraw the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, 2021(LDAR).
In their appeal to the President, the scientists stress the environmental vulnerability of Lakshadweep, stating that, “As mid-oceanic coral atolls, Lakshadweep depends completely on the health of its surrounding reefs; the living coral framework and the lagoon it encloses, together buffer the islands from waves, storms, land loss and saline ingress into groundwater. However, over the last two decades, Lakshadweep has experienced catastrophic climate change-related coral mass mortality events, straining the accretion and buffer capacity of the reefs… Lagoons are vital to both populated and unpopulated atolls as critical resource areas and as reef insurance sites for climate resilience. Unless urgent action is taken now to reverse these trajectories, scientific studies conclude that between reef decline, sea level rise, land loss, cyclones, and declining freshwater, the majority of low-lying atolls like Lakshadweep will become unlivable by mid-century. The plans for development that the LDAR proposes are strangely unheeding of these self-evident realities. Any further large-scale infrastructural development will have an ecological and social footprint much too large for these islands, lagoons and reefs to sustain and potentially accelerate the rates of decline.”
Not only does the proposed LDAR disregard environmental factors, it also vitiates the rights of the natives. The proposal does not take into account that beaches and lagoons are extensions of land and are used by the community for fishing and processing copra and tuna and, therefore, are directly connected to their livelihoods. Any change will affect them adversely. Beaches are integral to life and livelihood of islanders and hold immense cultural value as they are social spaces shared by everyone in the community be it elderly or children. Beaches are places where the elderly gather, womenfolk wait for the fishing boats to return and children play or swim in the nearby shallow waters. Among other things, the beaches are also used for dry-docking and storage of fishing boats during the off season. Use of these beaches for commercial tourism will make them inaccessible to the people to whom it originally belongs. These shared community spaces are integral to life in the islands.
The LDAR draft empowers the administration to earmark and acquire any piece of land in Lakshadweep, disregarding the land ownership rights of the natives and the region’s ecological vulnerability. The development model envisioned by the administration is highly questionable as local bodies are neither consulted nor included in decision-making. It completely disregards the fact that with regard to gender ratio, heath, literacy, sanitisation etc Lakshadweep is better than the national average. The idea of ‘development’, then, seems to be an excuse to bring in high-end tourism and exploitation of already fragile and limited island resources.
If the draft becomes a law the land that belongs to adivasis can be taken away from them in the name of ‘development’ and without their consent. The islanders fear that the land rate, which exponentally increases everywhere, is being reduced in Lakshadweep, taking away from them even the hope of fair compensation. For most natives their land is the only property they own and taking it away would mean pushing them to a life of poverty. The fear of losing land is palpable among the islanders. Islanders believe that the draft regulation of Goonda Act, in a place where there is no crime, is to criminalise protesters. This Act empowers the administration to keep anyone it deems fit under detention without trial for a year. One can imagine how such an Act can be manipulated as a tool to grab land from poor adivasis and silence dissent.
There has been a slew of draft regulations brought since the current administrator took office. These regulations are largely anti-people and an affront to the cultural and religious beliefs of the natives.
Draft regulations such as the Lakshadweep Anti-Social Activities Regulation 2021 or Goonda Act, Animal Preservation (Regulation), 2021 or Beef Ban, banning meat in school mid-day meals, and changing school holidays from Friday to Sunday, changing the uniform of students etc. do not have any rational basis. The only purpose a Goonda Act will serve in a place with almost zero crime is for the administration to criminalize resisting adivasis and rendering them even more helpless than they already are.
There is no ban on consumption of beef in any of the neighbouring states, yet it is being enforced on a population who are primarily non-vegetarian. A large percentage of natives are meat-eaters, fish is consumed on a daily basis, yet the administration decides to remove it from the mid-day meals provided in schools without considering the food habits of natives or nutritional implications of such a move. However, this was challenged in the Supreme Court and the previous practice of serving meat was continued. Insensitive and irrational regulations such as these have created mistrust against the current administration among the natives. Changing of school uniform and weekend holiday to Sunday instead of Friday is largely seen as arbitrary and anti-muslim decisions.
Interestingly, hardly any worthwhile measures have been taken to improve natives or to generate employment. Drastic measures are being taken to disempower local governing bodies and the adivasis. In May, 2021 an order was released by the Director of Animal Husbandry directing immediate closure of all government run dairy farms in Lakshadweep depriving islanders of fresh milk. There are hardly any substantial private run dairy farms to cater to the diary needs of islanders. The diary farms were closed to introduce Amul processed milk and boost their sale in the islands. Islanders were not against the opening of Amul outlets in the islands but the complete closure of dairy farms. The closure of the farms not only deprived them of fresh milk but many were also rendered jobless because of this decision. Islanders protested these moves both offline and through social media and boycotted the auction of dairy animals. The current government has been either closing or merging departments and centres leading to loss of livelihood for the adivasi population. In a similar move, the tuna canning factory at Minicoy island was closed and the workers rendered helpless. The official claim is that the factory was running at a loss. Even if that was the case, efforts could have been made to improve the machinery, introduce new technologies and offer training for the processing workers. An officer under conditions of anonymity informs that the machinery is almost 40 years old and hardly any measures have been taken to modernise the factory. Instead, on 25th November, 2022, the Directorate of Fisheries, Kavaratti, issued an E- tender inviting private investors. If managed properly, the canning factory has the potential for huge profit due to the abundance of tuna in Lakshadweep sea. However, it is the natives who suffer due to mismanagement of resources and poor decision making.
It is believed that nearly 3600 workers have lost their jobs. This is a huge number if we consider the total population of these small islands. These workers were those who were employed as casual labourers, contractual workers such as teachers, doctors, paramedics etc. under various central and state sponsored schemes. Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (SPORTS) alone is known to have terminated around 200 contractual workers in February, 2021. In Lakshadweep, due to its geographic location, opportunities for employment are limited. For most families, these workers are the sole earning members of the family.
The total number of schools are also reduced from 63 to 48 either through merger or closure. The number of Anganwadis, which was already reduced from 154 to 71, is further reduced to only 59. These anganwadis not only serve as pre-primary schools but also as centers for the distribution of supplementary nutrition to pregnant women and lactating mothers in the form of ration. Anganwadis play a vital role in ensuring that the pregnant women, new-born children and lactating mothers get adequate nutrition. Instead of closing, existing anganwadis could have been provided with better infrastructure and amenities to ensure better pre-schooling for the children. The administration does not appear to be listening to the woes of the islanders. Even transportation to the mainland which is a basic need for the islanders is turned into an ordeal.
These small islands are completely dependent on the neighbouring mainland state of Kerala for all its provisions. Due to its coastal and tropical environment only coconut is viable for commercial cultivation. Anything other than fish and coconut is imported from Kerala. Natives depend on ships for these provisions and any delay in ship can result in acute shortage of provisions in the islands. Healthcare facilities are also limited in the islands with only two hospitals, one at Kavaratti and another at Minicoy, and PHCs /CHCs in other islands. Specialist doctors are limited and most islands do not have any. The laboratories are not well-equipped, therefore, for diagnosis and treatment natives have no choice but to travel to the mainland. Ships, therefore, literally are the life-line of the islanders.
There are a limited number of higher education institutes in Lakshadweep and, as a result, a large number of students study in the neighbouring states. So, reaching the mainland on time is crucial in matters related to careers, like interviews, entrance examinations and admissions. The erratic nature of the ship schedule and ticketing often affects students as they are unable to plan their travel in advance. Ships remain the only mode of transport to most islanders, helicopters being mostly used as air ambulances. There are flights to Agatti but it is mostly helpful to the residents of Agatti and Kavaratti. The passengers are ferried from Agatti to Kavaratti in vessels but travel to other islands from Kavaratti may take days depending on vessel schedule. The inter-island ferry vessels have been reduced from eight to only a few. So, rather than shortening the length of your journey, in the islands, taking a flight might end up lengthening it. Therefore, the preferred, and to many the only, mode of transportation to and from islands remains ships. A government officer, on conditions of anonymity, while talking of the dismal condition of transportation in the islands informs that “Seven ships – MV Kavaratti, MV Corals, MV Lagoons, MV Arabian Sea, MV Lakshadweep Sea, MV Amindivi and MV Minicoy- were procured after in- depth study of geographical nature of the islands, requirements, propensity to travel, cost benefit analysis and other factors at the highest level in Govt of India over a period of ten to fifteen years. However, from 2021 after Covid.19 pandemic gradually ships are withdrawn from service for one reason or another. Initially, the largest ship, MV Kavaratti, with a capacity of 700 passengers was withdrawn from service from December 2021 after a minor fire accident on board the ship. The ship was kept in anchor at one of the islands for a month and later towed away to Kochi for repairs. Simultaneously, other ships were also not made operational and ships under operation were reduced from seven to two ships. This effectively reduced the number of seats available from 2300 to 650.” Even when seven ships were operational tickets were barely sufficient and now islanders are left to their fate. Leave alone serious illnesses, even for a routine scanning during pregnancy islanders have to come to the mainland. Many who come to the mainland for treatment, and other purposes, are left stranded in the mainland months on end due to unavailability of ship tickets. These delays in getting ship tickets cause a huge financial burden to islanders who have to pay for lodging, food, travel etc., on top of treatment related expenses. Unavailability of ship tickets is the single most crucial problem that all the islanders, rich or poor, suffer the most.
To add to the problem, ship schedules are released only a few days in advance, there are times when it is released only a day before. This renders any advance planning of travel impossible. The misery of people who stay or work outside Kerala is unimaginable. These erratic ship schedules mean that they can never book their tickets to Kerala in advance, they eventually end up booking flights at increased rates to reach Kerala to board the ship. Since only a certain number of tickets are released online and rest are released only at the counters, islanders are forced to stand in queue day and night as they understand not getting a ticket would mean that they would have to stay in the mainland incurring huge financial burden. Even then, only a few in the queue get tickets and the vicious circle is repeated ad infinitum.
Many feel that proper planning and management can solve the problem. Instead of keeping ships in the docks for months, maintenance of ships can be scheduled and docks booked in advance, as was the norm earlier. An official informs that mandatory maintenance is known in advance since the expiry date is mentioned in the certificate. However, this protocol is not followed now and administration turns a deaf ear to the woes of the islanders. As per the ship schedule released on 21st January, 2023, only four ships are operational which by no means is enough to cater to the travel needs of the islanders. Between indifferent administrations and a hostile one there isn’t much choice or hope left for islanders.
In Lakshwadeep, we feel currently under siege and unless all these developments are reversed, there is going to be serious unrest on these otherwise peaceful islands.
(This appeared in the print edition as “PARADISE UNDER SIEGE”)
(Views expressed are personal)
Khairunnisa Nakathorige is Assistant Professor of english at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad