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In-Depth | Sun, sand and turmoil: Tranquil Lakshadweep up in arms against govt’s 'anti-public' initiatives

In-Depth | Sun, sand and turmoil: Tranquil Lakshadweep up in arms against govt’s 'anti-public' initiatives

People of the archipelago, backed by some from the mainland, are protesting a series of new regulations being pushed by the Union Territory’s controversial Administrator, Praful Khoda Patel. While they call the decisions ‘anti-public’ and potentially devastating for Lakshadweep’s ecology, the Gujarat politician at the helm maintains that the reforms are aimed at development alone

One lakh islands – that’s what the name ‘Lakshadweep’ means in Malayalam, the most widely-spoken language in the Union Territory (UT).

Lately, the reposeful archipelago situated off India’s Malabar Coast has been in the news, but not for its pristine beaches and turquoise lagoons.

The picturesque little group of 36 atolls and coral reefs in the Laccadive Sea, with a population of less than 65,000 people, is in ferment. The locals, supported by opposition politicians from the islands as well as the mainland, have called for Administrator Praful Khoda Patel to be recalled over a series of controversial reforms launched in recent months.

Lakshadweep, like most Union Territories, is governed directly by the Centre. Thus, the decision-making power there is concentrated in the hands of the Administrator.

But unlike the Chief Ministers of Delhi and Puducherry – both of which are also Union Territories – the Administrator of Lakshadweep is appointed, not elected by the people.

The person appointed by the President of India is head of the UT and functions ex-officio as the Inspector General of Lakshadweep Police, making his position rather unique.

That position is currently held by former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Patel, who was given additional charge of the territory in December 2020 after the demise of then administrator, Dineshwar Sharma.

Patel’s father was a prominent figure in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – progenitor of the governing BJP. He won a Gujarat Legislative Assembly seat in 2007 and was later inducted into the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s state Cabinet.

Patel held key Cabinet positions and was given charge of several portfolios held by BJP leader Amit Shah when the latter was behind bars in connection with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case.

He lost the 2012 Gujarat election, but was appointed as the Administrator of neighbouring Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli in 2016.

Besides serving as the executive head of Lakshadweep, he is also the inaugural Administrator of the unified Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Daman and Diu.

Lakshadweep Administrator Praful K Patel in Kavaratti (Image: Twitter/@prafulkpatel) Lakshadweep Administrator Praful K Patel in Kavaratti (Image: Twitter/@prafulkpatel)

The Maharashtra government had earlier this year set up a special investigation team (SIT) to look into the alleged suicide of seven-time Dadra and Nagar Haveli parliamentary member, Mohan Delkar, who had named Patel, among others, in his 15-page purported suicide note.

In this note found at his hotel room, Delkar had named Patel and several officials of Dadra and Nagar Haveli. In his complaint to the police, Delkar’s son Abhinav had alleged that his father was being 'harassed' by Patel to cough up Rs 25 crore or face a false case.

In March, the Mumbai Police filed an FIR against Patel and eight others.

Since taking over, Patel has launched a spree of 'reforms' described by protesters as 'anti-people'.

Over the last week, these protests have ramped up under a ‘Save Lakshadweep’ banner. The movement has snowballed into a large campaign with prominent personalities joining the cause.

LDAR – at the protest’s core

While protesters have raised multiple concerns, at the core of it all is the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR), 2021.

The draft was placed in the public domain and suggestions were invited from the people at large.

It describes `development’ as the carrying out of `building, engineering, mining, quarrying or other operations.’

The draft gives sweeping, arbitrary and seemingly unchecked powers to the administration to directly interfere with a citizen’s right to possess and retain property.

If implemented, the reform would effectively give the UT’s administrator powers to remove or relocate islanders from their property, citing town planning or developmental activity.

Lakshadweep’s location has great strategic significance. Minicoy, the northernmost island of Maldives, is located just 125 km north of Thuraakunu, the northernmost island in Maldives. It does not need a rocket scientist to say that Chinese influence in Maldives and Sri Lanka has grown significantly over the last decade.

So, just as India is developing infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh as well as in Arunachal Pradesh, ramping up presence in Lakshadweep is also being seen as `critical’ by the Union government.

The plan includes promotion of tourism and businesses, and to project capital Kavaratti as a ‘Smart City’.

Tourists transferring to Minicoy Island, Lakshadweep in boat (Image: sixpixx/Shutterstock) Tourists transferring to Minicoy Island, Lakshadweep in boat (Image: sixpixx/Shutterstock)

About a month after assuming office, Patel’s administration also introduced the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act (PASA) in January 2021. PASA, popularly known as the 'Goonda Act', gives the government powers to detain an individual without a public disclosure for as long as one year.

The opposition claims this is an attempt to intimidate local people.

Critics suggest that this has been done to make it easier for the UT’s administration to acquire land for projects that it claims would boost tourism.

“While it’s currently not possible for an outsider to acquire or own land in Lakshadweep, the islanders lease out land to the Tourism Department which operates resorts. This has made it difficult for the government to get land for their projects. The LDAR is being brought in to help the government get complete access to land,” a person aware of the local functioning said on condition of anonymity.

The person said that large projects can come up on remote islands that are not used by the fisherfolk, but not on land where people have had customary rights as it will lead to increased conflict between the people and the resorts in the future.

“The administration's decision has been high-handed. People’s needs and voices need to be considered before any such development activities are taken up. Who are we developing the islands for, if not for the local communities?” the person added.

Impact on ecology and fisherfolk

Others have raised alarm over the possible adverse impact of large developmental projects on the livelihood of the tiny fishing community.

“The LDAR will have severe implications for all local inhabitants, particularly the fishermen. Members of the fishing community hold ‘customary ownership’ of land on the beach front for centuries, even on remote uninhabitated islands. The beach front and lagoons, where the fishermen park their boats and dry fish, are linked to their survival and to the economic development of the islands,” said Naveen Namboothri, a marine biologist who has worked in these islands for more than seven years.

“These are the spaces where most of the tourism development activities will be concentrated bringing them in direct conflict with livelihood needs of the local fishers. Fishing is the largest revenue generator and livelihood provider on these islands,” Namboothri said.

Large resorts, hotels and other facilities catering to tourists may pose a threat to the atolls’ local ecology, which is very sensitive.

According to Namboothri, the “carrying capacities of these islands are very limited, particularly freshwater availability. So, the ecological cost of large developmental projects will be high on these fragile islands”.

“Coral reefs play a very critical role in protecting these islands from adverse weather conditions. They need to be protected. Damage to the coral reefs will leave islands – many of which are under sea level – extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” Namboothri added.

Fish being dried along the beach front (Image: sixpixx/Shutterstock) Fish being dried along the beach front (Image: sixpixx/Shutterstock)

Beef ban, COVID-19 spike, liquor rules and wider concerns

According to the 2011 Census data, around 96 percent of Lakshadweep's population practices Islam. Most of them belong to the Shafi School of the Sunni Sect.

Lakshadweep residents are believed to be descendants of migrants who arrived from the Malabar Coast of southwest India. Ethnically and linguistically similar to Kerala, they have strong links with India’s southern state.

Minicoy Island, the southernmost and second largest atoll of the archipelago, is home to ethnic Mahls – natives of the Maldives.

Surrounded by the Arabian Sea, with a fishery-driven economy, the staple food is non-vegetarian. But there were concerns that non-vegetarian food may be taken off school meals.

S Asker Ali, Union Territory's Collector, has clarified that meat was only being substituted with egg and fish in the mid-day meals so that fisherfolk find 'ready demand for their catch'.

A backdoor beef ban?

The draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021, introduced earlier this year also led to concerns that enforcing restrictions on slaughtering animals without certificate and transportation of beef products is effectively a backdoor beef ban.

The proposed regulation mulls life imprisonment and a penalty of up to Rs 5 lakh as punishment for violators.

If an individual is caught transporting beef, authorities can impound the vehicle. It also proposes imprisonment of not less than 10 years, which may extend up to life imprisonment.

Section 8 of the draft bill proposes giving authorised persons power to enter and inspect premises to investigate stocking of beef products. These offences will be cognisable and non-bailable, according to the draft.

Another concern is that the slaughter certificate won’t be granted if authorities feel that an animal is useful for agricultural activities and breeding, among other related activities.

These regulations will not be applicable to animals other than cows, bullocks or bulls being slaughtered for religious purposes.

Beef continues to be legal in Kerala, Goa, West Bengal, and Northeast India, with no restrictions on slaughter, possession, and consumption.

Liquor rules

The Lakshadweep islands are non-alcoholic zones. However, the administration has given its nod for businesses to open liquor bars, to help promote tourism. This has been fiercely opposed by the locals - and even non-locals.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in a tweet: “News reports from Lakshawadeep 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 (Lakshadweep). Unequivocally condemn devious efforts to thwart it. Perpetrators should desist (sic).”

Additionally, temporary sheds built by fisherfolk stand to get destroyed.

Elamaram Kareem, a Rajya Sabha member from Kerala, complained in his letter to President Ram Nath Kovind: “The sheds where fishermen used to keep their nets and other equipment were demolished by the new administration on the grounds that they violated the Coast Guard Act. The temporary buildings, which were earlier constructed under an exemption given only to fishermen by the administration, are now being demolished without any warning.”

“The administration has also decided that islanders should no longer depend on Beypore (Kerala) for freight transit. Instead, they should depend on Mangalore (Karnataka) for the same. It is alleged that the decision is aimed at severing Lakshadweep's ties with Kerala,” he added.

Kareem, who is a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour, also alleged that contract labourers working in Lakshadweep under different departments had lost their jobs as rules had been changed there.

Another proposal that has sparked outrage is the draft Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021, which has been put out for public consideration.

According to it, a person with more than two children would be disqualified from being a member of the panchayat.

In the absence of a Legislative Assembly, the village panchayats representatives form vital pieces of the UT’s administrative mechanism.

A fishing boat and a temporary shed on the beach front in Kavaratti (Image: Twitter/@prafulkpatel) A fishing boat and a temporary shed on the beach front in Kavaratti (Image: Twitter/@prafulkpatel)

Pandemic in paradise

Administrative reforms are not the only reason for the protests. Critics claim that Administrator Patel diluted COVID-19 protocols. They say that Lakshadweep had skirted the pandemic for nearly a year after India reported its first COVID-19 case.

The islands had no confirmed infections until mid-January 2021. But that number spiked to more than 7,200 by May 27, 2021.

While over 4,950 patients have recuperated, about 2,200 cases remained ‘active’. The UT’s death toll from the outbreak stood at 26. The seven-day moving average of novel coronavirus cases had also zoomed to 252 by May 27.

Earlier, the standard operating procedure (SOP) had made a 14-day quarantine mandatory for travellers entering the islands. These rules were changed to say that an RT-PCR negative certificate was enough for entry.

'Not against Centre, but against arbitrary decisions'

Lakshadweep’s lone Lok Sabha representative, Mohammed Faizal Padippura, says that the ongoing protest “is never against the central government, but against the arbitrary decisions” taken by Patel.

“Our protest is against the personal interests that he is trying to enforce in Lakshadweep by colluding with the legal system. Our protest is against the blatant misuse of power by the administrator. Our protest is against the weird anti-social and anti-public new legal measures enacted by the administrator,” the MP wrote in a Facebook post.

Faizal PP, as he is popularly known, said that the people of Lakshadweep were protesting against the ulterior motive of the Administrator to destroy the traditional life of islanders through what he called were 'wrongly drafted promulgations'.

The people want to restore and ensure a peaceful and prosperous life for coming generations in Lakshadweep 'for which our forefathers gave their lives', the MP, who is a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) member, said, adding that people were protesting against atrocities and to protect their rights.

The Lakshadweep MP also stressed that the protesters never intended the discourse to be communalised. “We express our serious concern over the protests being given an increasingly religious colour rather than being limited to be a battle to protect Lakshadweep’s constitutional values,” he said, requesting others to save the islands from political or communal slander.

A pre-pandemic image of tourists arriving at the Kavaratti port (Image: sixpixx/Shutterstock) A pre-pandemic image of tourists arriving at the Kavaratti port (Image: sixpixx/Shutterstock)

Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking his intervention in the matter.

In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, the Lok Sabha member from Kerala’s Wayanad constituency, wrote that Patel had 'unilaterally' proposed major changes without consulting elected representatives or the public and that security of livelihood and sustainable development were being sacrificed for short-term commercial gains.

“Lakshadweep is India’s jewel in the ocean. The ignorant bigots in power are destroying it,” Gandhi tweeted earlier.

On May 25, BJP’s Lakshadweep unit president Mohammad Kasim had also joined the chorus of protests.

Kasim said that people should be taken into confidence before announcing sweeping changes. “It seems some of the grievances of the island people are genuine. It is always good to seek the opinion of people and their elected representatives before making decisions. I have written to both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah about this,” he added.

Read: Opinion | What is happening in Lakshadweep and why it matters

As the social media put its spotlight on concerns raised by people of the archipelago, several celebrities and prominent figures lent their voices to the cause.

Malayalam actor Prithviraj Sukumaran requested authorities to listen to the 'voice of the people' of the island, saying that he had been flooded with messages requesting him to highlight the problems, which the new regulations were creating.

“None of the islanders I know, or none of those who have spoken to me are happy with what is happening (in Lakshadweep). I strongly believe that any law, reform or amendment should never be for the land, but for the people of the land,” he said in a Facebook post.

Actor-filmmaker Geetu Mohandas said the protesters’ cries were 'desperate and real'.

“There is not much we can do apart from voicing our opinion collectively. Please do not disturb their peace, disrupt their ecosystem, their innocence. Not in the name of development. I hope it reaches the right ears,” Mohandas pleaded.

Indian footballer CK Vineeth, in a Twitter thread, sought to raise awareness about what was happening in Lakshadweep.

“Much must be said about the government in power. What goes on behind the minds of people who are taking a moment such as this, when the whole world is already suffering, and make people suffer even more. Enough is enough! (sic)” Vineeth wailed, while ending the thread.

When contacted by, the controversial Praful Khoda Patel, Lakshadweep Administrator, said he was not aware of any campaign against him but did not elaborate.

Patel, however, told The Indian Express that Lakshadweep has not witnessed development since Independence and his administration was only trying to develop the islands.

He said it was not the people of Lakshadweep, but a few whose interests are getting jeopardised, who were opposing the draft LADR. “Else, I do not see anything abnormal in it that should be opposed,” he said.

“The Lakshadweep islands are not very far from Maldives. But Maldives is a global tourist destination and Lakshadweep has witnessed no development in all these years. We are trying to make it a global hub of tourism, coconut, fish and seaweed,” Patel claimed.

“If we have the Lakshadweep Development Authority, then it can be developed into a Smart City in the future. Similarly, what is wrong in having a law related to anti-social activities?” he told the newspaper.

Speaking to The Print, Patel termed public concerns about their land being taken away for developmental work as 'misplaced and other people’s agenda'.

He asserted that 'nothing like this will happen' and that his 'only agenda is development'.

Talking about the ramifications of the Goonda Act, Patel claimed that people did not have to worry about PASA if they had not done anything wrong.

“Only those who have committed a crime will be penalised, for the others it should not be an issue. In the rest of the country, under the Indian Penal Code there is Section 302 for a reason,” he said.

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