Lakshadweep’s draft land regulations by Centre-appointed Administrator last nail for simmering islanders

Natives of Lakshadweep are upset with many decisions taken by Praful Khoda Patel, including allowing outsiders to enter UT during pandemic, dictating their food choices and permitting sale of liquor

Photo courtesy: Social media
Photo courtesy: Social media

Ashlin Mathew

The residents of Lakshadweep are up in arms against the sweeping administrative reforms being imposed on them in the name of development by the Administrator Praful Khoda Patel, who was appointed to the position on December 5, 2020.

After his appointment, he had opened the islands to tourists after having done away with the stipulation for mandatory quarantine of the island-bound travelers in Kochi and in Lakshadweep. The previous Administrator had ensured the quarantine because each of the 10 islands have just one hospital each, making it impossible for medical facilities to be accessible to all.

The opening of islands meant that Lakshadweep, which had been declared a COVID-free region last year, ended up with 6,847 cases until May 24.

As the cases multiplied, Patel put the residents under lockdown for two months. While the residents were under lockdown, Patel introduced the draft regulation for the creation of a Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR 2021), which is being seen by the residents as an attempt to take over the small landholdings of the islanders at the behest of real estate sharks.

The islanders, 98% of whom belong to the Scheduled Tribes, have been attempting to mobilize public opinion against these draft regulations.

The last date for the submission of comments was May 19, but the residents found out about the draft regulation only a week after it was put out due to weak internet and Cyclone Tauktae sweeping through. Even so, more than 3,000 responses have been sent to the Administrator demanding that the draft regulations be withdrawn.

These draft regulations state that any area in the island can be declared as “area of bad layout or obsolete development” by the government through publishing of a Development Plan in accordance with the procedure established in the LDAR 2021, irrespective of the fact that whether such an area is inhabited by the local population or not.

“The Section 2 (29) while defining ‘relocation of population’ states that in relation to an area of bad lay-out or obsolete development or a slum area can be relocated to another area for developing such an area. This means that the local community will not have any peace of mind or security for their own property as the government will have the power to declare any area as area of bad layout,” explained Faseela Odivalukanjarugothi, a lawyer from Lakshadweep.

In Lakshadweep, where the maximum land area is limited to only 2.5-4.66 sq km, relocation implies being moved out from their place of birth and land, which is contrary to Right to Life ensured under Art 21 of the Constitution of India.

The Section 27 of the LDAR 2021 empowers the Planning and Development Authority to carry out fresh surveys every 10 years and make alterations or additions to the Development Operation. Section 29 states that any land required, reserved or designated in a Development Plan shall be deemed to be land needed for a public purpose irrespective of the locality and type of land.

“This means that even if an islander complies with all the requirements of the LDAR 2021 and has settled in an area earmarked as Planned Area, there is a high possibility that his home may be relocated or altered if a new requirement is evolved due to the fresh survey,” explained Faseela.

Union Territory of Lakshadweep is an archipelago consisting of 36 islands, of which only 10 islands are inhabitable, with an area of 32 sq km, located at about 220 to 440 km away from the coast of Kerala. Each island is a maximum of 2-4 sq km, of which 20 meters are under Coastal Regulation Zone where no construction is possible in front of the beach.

One-third of the available land is owned by the government. This means only 2 sq km of available island land is available for private ownership and in some of these cases, private owners are on government land. There is minimal land in the hand of local citizens.

“The total population of these islands is around 80,000, translating into 10,000 people in an island. So, in a 2 sq km land, there are around 6,000 land owners. That is the kind of land scarcity. In smaller islands such as Bitra (0.105 sq km) around 200 people live,” said a local government official, who did not want to be identified.

The draft notification goes on to highlight that ‘development’ could mean the carrying out of building, engineering, mining, quarrying or cutting of a hill or any portion of any building or land. Explaining this, Faseela said this meant that the Administrator did not understand the geography of the islands. “If activities such as mining and quarrying take place in the name of development on these islands, it will erase the islands from existence,” she underscored.

The notification identifies the Administrator of Lakshadweep as the ‘government’ and as the absolute authority in matters related to LDAR 2021 including appointment of chief town planner, planning and development authorities, declaration of any area as planning area or in case of amalgamation of two or more planning areas into one planning areas under this regulation. The Administrator makes rules and regulations in this regard.

In what will ensure devastation of the ecologically fragile area, the draft states that the PDA must prepare a land use map which has highways, arterial roads, ring roads, major streets, for existing and proposed lines of communications, including railways, tram-ways, and canals, in addition to provision for controlling and regulating the use and development of land within the development area.

“The islands of Lakshadweep have tiny land areas and therefore it is geographically impossible to construct highways and railways in these lands. Such a stringent restriction in a small land area such as Lakshadweep islands will suffocate the local community and force them to migrate,” pointed out a resident.

Section 35 of the LDAR states that for any development that an islander intends to make on private land, the resident has to seek permission of the Planning and Development Authority, which has powers to approve or reject such requests. In case an approval is granted, the maximum period allowed for such development will only be three years, after which the PDA will again have authority to approve or reject the request, leaving the islander at the mercy of the local government.

Additionally, even if the permission has been granted, PDA has the right to withdraw permission without consultation and the penalty for unauthorised consultation is a maximum of Rs 2 lakh and incremental penalty of Rs 25,000 per additional day of violation.

Section 106 of the draft regulation has most of islanders worrying because it provides power to the administration to enter into any property to carry out any inspections without any consent of the occupier or owner of the property.

LDAR was the last nail in coffin

The draft regulations of LDAR were the proverbial last nail in the coffin for the islanders. Resentment had begun when Patel, known to be close to both PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, opened up the islands for tourism without paying heed to the local population.

His first move as the newly appointed Administrator was to withdraw the Standard Operating Procedures that protected the islands from the COVID-19 pandemic for a year. As of May 25, the islands have recorded a test positivity rate of 66%.

He followed it up with the Draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulations 2021 on the ban of transportation, sale, storage and consumption of beef in the islands. For the local residents, beef along with fish are a part of their staple diet. The new regulation directly attacks the right of people to consume food of their choice.

Meat has also been removed from mid-days meals in schools and anganwadis. Respecting the cultural choices of Muslims, who constitute 96.58% of local population according to the 2011 Census, transportation and sale of liquor had been banned in these islands. But the new Administrator issued directives to open sales outlets for sale of alcohol in the islands.

The combined reading of these two actions shows that the intention behind these acts is to destabilise peaceful life on these islands.

When people protested against this, the Administrator issued the Anti-Social Activities Regulations 2021 to silence them. According to the 2019 report of National Crime Records Bureau, Lakshadweep had one of the lowest crime rate in the country after Daman and Diu and Sikkim.

Then in March, Patel brought about the Lakshadweep Panchayath Regulations 2021, through which administration intended to grab all powers of Lakshadweep Panchayath and reduce them into an ordinary body of people with no powers. These draft rules stated that those who have more than two children were banned from contesting Panchayat elections.

“In Lakshadweep, for ground level assessment of programmes and schemes, powers must reside with the Panchayats so that the people benefit from these schemes. The measures to strip the powers have already implemented through an administrative order. This is draconian,” said B Hassan, president and chief counselor of district Panchayat in the island. Objections to the draft Panchayat Regulations have been submitted by T Abdul Khader, chairperson of Village Dweep Panchayat –Kavaratti.

Political and social support

The simmering discontent bubbled over with the LDAR 2021 leading several young environmentalists to run campaigns to #SaveLakshadweep. A Twitter page, LetUsBreathe, began a campaign to highlight the environmental implications of the draft notification. Malayalam actor Prithviraj and footballer CK Vineeth have extended their support to the residents.

On May 23, former Congress MLA VT Balram, in a detailed Facebook post, warned that the Administrator of the Union Territory was trying to transform “Lakshadweep into another Kashmir”. He underscored the politics behind the Anti-Social Activities Regulations 2021 and banning of beef in the island.

On May 24, two Rajya Sabha MPs Binoy Viswam of CPI and Elamaram Kareem of CPI(M), Lok Sabha MPs Mohammed Faizal of NCP and ET Mohammed Basheer of IUML wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind drawing his attention to the authoritarian rule of the Administrator Praful Patel. They requested the President to withdraw Patel as his draft notifications have caused widespread unrest amongst the islanders.

The draft panchayat regulations ensuring persons with more than two children ineligible to contest panchayat elections was a sinister move to disenfranchise the people, underscored Viswam. While the NCP MP Faizal in his letter alleged that Patel signed orders to retrench some 200 contract staff who were working as marine watchers for conserving marine biodiversity.

Soon after, Congress Lok Sabha MP Hibi Eden wrote letters to President Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, requesting them to protect the culture of the islanders. The MP raised objections to the four discriminative decisions taken by Patel. “Majority of the 70,000 people in this Island depend on fishing and government services, but the new administration demolished huts of fisherman accusing them of CRZ violation,” he stated.

Both Congress general secretary KC Venugopal and former opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala urged President Kovind to immediately recall the Administrator of Lakshadweep.

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi has underscored on social media that the people of Lakshadweep have nurtured their islands. “The BJP government and its administration have no business to destroy this heritage, to harass the people or impose arbitrary restrictions and rules on them. Why can’t the people of Lakshadweep be consulted,” she asked and extended full support to the islanders.

The Central government has maintained silence on the entire matter so far.

It may be recalled that Praful Patel served as Minister of State for Home in Gujarat from 2010-2012 when Narendra Modi was the CM, before he lost the 2012 assembly polls. He was appointed as Administrator of Daman & Diu in 2016 and shortly thereafter as Administrator of Dadra & Nagar Haveli after Modi assumed charge as PM in 2014. The position of Administrator of these Union Territories has traditionally been held by IAS officers.

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    Published: 25 May 2021, 9:21 PM