The season of Great Despair stalking the states and union territories of India has hit the pristine shores of the fragile coral islands of the Lakshadweep. For those seeking a brief synopsis of what befell this tropical paradise, it is as follows:
A pandemic-free idyllic archipelago with its peaceful people. Mr Praful Patel, a close aide of Mr Modi, becomes its administrator (on December 5, 2020). In six months' time, by May 25, there were 6,823 confirmed Covid cases and 24 deaths on the island and multi-pronged other reasons for despair. What do citizens do when the Administrator himself becomes an affliction worse than Covid?
Twitter caught fire with 'Save Lakshadweep!' hashtags run by Malayalis. Malayalam cine idol Prithviraj Sukumaran, other renowned stars, leaders of Opposition, everybody stood as one in registering support with their neighbours.
Lakshadweep, situated in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Kerala, is truly unique compared to the topography of other parts of India. With 36 islands spread over 32 sq kms in the sea, including 12 atolls, 3 coral reefs and with only 10 inhabited islands, this is a nature retreat made up more of crystal-clear emerald waters than of land. With a local population of approximately 65,000 people, both natives and visitors to Lakshadweep for ages have maintained a very delicate and conscientious environmental balance for the sustainability of its underwater coral reef ecosystem. The islands, inhabited by highly literate people not propelled by greed, have down the years settled all their disputes amicably amongst themselves. Their negligible crime rate is just a part of their lifestyle, which they lead like a whisper respecting their unique habitat.
The Kerala Assembly under Pinarayi Vijayan on Monday passed the unanimous resolution to remove the Lakshadweep administrator and to revoke all the controversial orders he has passed. "The Centre has the responsibility to ensure the unique way of living of the people in the centrally administered Lakshadweep," Mr Pinarayi Vijayan read out the resolution.
(Incidentally, in 2019, the Kerala Assembly passed a resolution demanding the scrapping of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Shallow coral reefs occupy only 0.1% of the world's vast ocean area and India's smallest UT, Lakshadweep, is one of these marine regions of outstanding universal value. Needless to say that Lakshadweep should need to be governed by an administration that exudes valuable insights on its marine and coastal area preservation, and respects the traditional livelihoods of its natives.
Principles of development that can be uniformly applied to vast tracts of land on the mainland will wreak havoc if applied to this fragile ecology. Despite all the Covid and other economic devastations that has been a lot of our country, for the mainlanders and others who are unaware of the special case of this UT, the government's narrative is that the development of Lakshadweep will be on the lines of Maldives. The Maldives, with a total of 300 islands, has commercialized tourism on its shores, comprising private beaches, resorts and shopping destinations while Lakshadweep holds fewer options for a commercial line of tourism development.
However, upon entry on the scene, Praful Patel wasted no time in binning the existing, well-studied, tourism and infrastructure development guidelines/restrictions, drawn up over the years keeping in view the sensitivity of the island's ecology. The standard principle of commercial tourism which is to create a lot of built-up spaces for rash holiday get-togethers with drinking, dining parties, and mindless swank hotel rooms is not environmentally feasible on this territory. Construction and maintenance of scaled-up tourist facilities, their means of waste disposal, coupled with chemical waste seepage into the sea will be detrimental to the coral reefs. The damage done by the Adani Group to India's own coastal ecosystems as well as to the Great Barrier Reef, which again is a universal natural heritage, is well known.
When all such swanky, scaled up five-star facilities around the world lie deserted and cry for footfall, and especially when the world is preparing itself for a period of excessive frugality, the Lakshadweep model of ecotourism ensuring the safety and health of tourists walking through the length and breadth of the islands and canoeing to the ring of islands, restoring tired limbs, hearts and souls, and guided on their way by environmentally diligent, warm, hospitable natives….
All of these are "could have beens" as the draw bridges have come upon a group of hapless people, who have been humiliated by the "system". Now travel from outside to the island is also restricted.
The whole project seems quite unconvincing from a scientific or even a profit point of view. Especially, the haste with which the Centre had literally unhinged the people with new regulations that meddled with their culture and livelihood (as one Dweep dweller said, at the rate of one sinister regulation at every 'baank' call from the mosque), defies all sense of political decency. The regulations that Praful Patel brought about upon his entry into Lakshadweep, namely throwing out the Standard Operation Practice (SOP) vis-à-vis Covid that was observed for travel to the island till last December, then all the alcohol-in, beef-out regulations passed in between, and rounding it all off with a neat Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act (PASA) reeks of a larger agenda of communal intimidation.
While the Lakshadweep episode has distracted the nation's attention from the hows and whens of Covid vaccination and the ridiculous Baba Ramdev school of Covid sophistry, the Hindutva agenda of humiliation of Muslims has once again been brought to the fore.
The Centre's presence on an island that is so close to Kerala, an unequivocal bastion of secularism in the country, under the pretext of tourism development, is highly suspect.
"We need to strongly oppose attempts to enslave people under corporate and Hindutva interests," Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stated, deviating from the written text of the Kerala Assembly resolution.
(Leena Mariam Koshy is a freelance writer based in Kozhikode)