The unrest in Lakshadweep has come to a head as thousands of islanders observe a 12-hour hunger strike from 6 am to 6 pm on June 7 to mark their resentment against the series of controversial changes brought in by Praful Khoda Patel, the one-time BJP MLA from Gujarat and confidante of PM Modi, since his appointment as the new administrator of the archipelago.
Appeals are mounting for the reversal of his drastic administrative decisions as residents, celebrities and opposition parties claim Patel's actions as autocratic and anti-people. On May 31 the Kerala Legislative Assembly had unanimously passed a resolution demanding the recall of the administrator from the island and had requested for the immediate intervention of the Centre to restore peace in the territory. A letter from 93 former civil servants to PM Modi on Saturday also expressed their "deep concern" over the "disturbing developments" in the island.
Lakshadweep, literally meaning a 'hundred thousand Islands', is India's smallest union territory and is a cluster of 36 islands with a total landmass of 32 sq km. Out of these, only 10 islands are inhabited by the local populace. The union territory once ruled by the Muslim house of Arakkal is now predominantly inhabited by Muslims (96.58%) and scheduled tribes ( 94.8%). According to the 2011 census, the population of the archipelago is 64,473.
The tropical coral paradise set in the Arabian sea, with enchanting lagoons rich in marine life is both an ecologically and strategically sensitive area for India. Interestingly, the society in all Islands is matriarchial in practice and women have equal rights as men even in matters of remarriage and divorce. The islands also boast a literacy rate of 91.85%.
The crime rate on the island is also very low. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (2019) report, the island had not reported any major crimes such as rape, murder, kidnapping or dacoity. The number of violent crimes reported on the island was 16 and over 13 cases were related to liquor and drug-related acts. Lakshadweep also has an alcohol ban in place since 1979, except for the touristy island of Bangaram.
What are the new regulations for Lakshadweep?
Following the death of incumbent administrator Dineshwar Sharma in December, Praful Khoda Patel, who is the administrator of the UT of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu was given the additional charge of Lakshadweep on the same month.
Within six months of being in power, Patel made a slew of controversial decisions that took him to the news headlines for all the wrong reasons. At the centre of the row is the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021. The draft empowers the Planning and Development Authority constituted by the government with arbitrary powers to acquire, alter and transfer any piece of land on the island, irrespective of its own under the aegis of "developmental reforms". As landed properties are scarce on the island, any acquisition of land by the authority will put serious pressure on the resident as no amount of compensation will be sufficient to make up for his/her losses.
Other draft legislation includes The Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021 which intends to ban slaughter, transportation, selling or buying of beef or beef products. What is even bizarre is the direction given to remove the non-vegetarian menu- which are an integral part of their food culture- from midday meals when the island is fully dependent on the mainland for their fruits and vegetable requirements.
The Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation (PASA) or the Goonda Act being introduced in the island's territory where there is negligible crime rate is also likely to be misused to infringe upon the legitimate rights of the residents, especially since the islands witnessed anti-CAA/NRC protests. The recent changes instil the fear of using draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) laws against the dissenters even in the islands.
Further, Clause 14 of the draft Panchayat Regulation 2021 which says that those with more than two children cannot contest panchayat elections is simply unjustifiable as it will rob many islanders right to contest in elections.
Worse still is the removal of quarantine norms for travel which has turned the pandemic-free archipelago into a Covid hotspot with around 8000 active cases currently reported in the island with 35 Covid fatalities. The island reported its first Covid case in January this year.
Mr Patel, meanwhile, tries to defend the widespread criticism against him by asserting that the "development of Lakshadweep" is his only agenda and suggests the Maldives model to revive the tourism industry in the islands.
Will Maldives Model work ?
Though Mr Patel seems firm in his decisions to implement Maldives- like development on the island, the hard truth is that Lakshadweep can never be the next Maldives or we shouldn't be in a tearing hurry to be one without seeking the consent of the indigenous islanders at the least.
According to Rohan Arthur, a marine biologist and scientist at Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation who has spent a good amount of time on the island studying their coral reefs, the Maldives like development model is a big no both from the perspective of the fragile ecology of the island and the local communities.
"The primary ecological problem the Lakshadweep faces right now is climate change. What we're looking at is an island whose very habitability is in question in the next couple of decades. Research suggests these islands, and coral atolls in general, may not remain habitable by the turn of the century — that's just two generations away" said Arthur in an interview with ToI.
Meanwhile, earlier in 2019, Niti Aayog had obtained environmental clearances for a Rs 1,500 crore water and land villa project in the lagoons of Lakshadweep and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands to attract high-end tourists. The proposal plans to construct 125 villas in Minicoy, Suheli and Kadmat islands – a concept which is hazardous to corals – that could collapse in Lakshadweep's turbulent monsoon.
What the tiny islands of Lakshadweep needs today is a well laid out policy framework taking into account the ground realities like the geography of the land and community life of the people.Having said that, it is yet to be seen whether the home ministry will intervene in the matter and resolve the concerns of the people in the islands, as reassured by Mr. Amit shah to the BJP delegation from Lakshadweep a few days back.