Why Lakshadweep islands need to be left alone

A cluster of 32 islands with a population of 71,000, Lakshadweep may soon be turned into a concrete nightmare and a real estate player’s wet dream, if Administrator Praful Khoda Patel has his way

Lakshadweep Administrator Praful Khoda Patel with PM Modi
Lakshadweep Administrator Praful Khoda Patel with PM Modi

Pankaj Chaturvedi

He is no Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama. A political appointee, a former BJP minister from Gujarat, Praful Khoda Patel nonetheless ‘discovered’ Lakshadweep in 2020 when he took over as Administrator. Ever since, he has been trying to develop Lakshadweep ‘like neighbouring Maldives, a renowned international tourist destination’.

He probably dreamed of a Hindu paradise on these islands where 93 per cent of the population happens to be Muslim. He withdrew beef and other kinds of meat from mid-day meals, an action endorsed by the Supreme Court, which felt it was the government’s discretion to frame policy, and how did it matter anyway, as fish and eggs were still in plentiful supply.

He ordered coconut trees to be painted orange or saffron to ‘beautify’ them and proposed a ban on cow slaughter in a territory where there were no cows (except in dairy farms); a preventive detention law where there was no crime and took over the authority to acquire tribal land without paying compensation.

In the Lakshadweep islands, where the maximum road length is just 11 kilometres, he planned to widen the roads, allow exploitation of mineral resources and convert the islands into a hub for cement manufacture.

In another flash of brilliance, Khoda also initiated a population-control scheme on the islands where the total fertility rate, according to the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019–20) was 1.4, which is far behind the national average of 2.2. He also planned to allow sale and consumption of alcohol though locals favoured its sale only in resorts and hotels.

The ‘Goonda Act’ was used to arrest dissenters like Hussain Manikfan for a Facebook post in which he complained about the lack of transport between the mainland and the islands. His FB post read: ‘Only 2 of the 7 ships are running and people are going through hell. In a skewed logic, this will be a justification for not requiring more ships.’

The brouhaha that followed PM Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep on 2–3 January 2024 would have people believe that the islands have been neglected over the past 70 years. But every home in the islands has rainwater harvesting facilities and solar power substantially covers the islanders’ electricity needs.

All islands are connected by helicopter service since 1986, and high-speed passenger boats were purchased in the 1990s. The National Institute of Oceanography helped redesign tripods ensuring piped water supply from the fresh water lens that, in every coral island, floats on the saline underground seawater.

Minicoy boasted one of the country’s first Navodaya Vidyalayas and Kadmat has a degree college. Indeed, every island had a computer by 1990, recalls the then Administrator, Wajahat Habibullah.

Ignoring the warnings of marine biologists, the Lakshadweep administration held an investors’ meet in New Delhi and is pressing ahead with the construction of beach and lagoon villas. A tender notice was issued inviting proposals from developers for building 370 such villas using the design, build, finance, operate and transfer (DBFOT) model on a public–private partnership (PPP) basis on Minicoy, Kadmat and Suheli islands. On

4 January 2024, the day PM Modi ended his visit to the islands, the Lakshadweep collector acquired 1.9 hectares of land belonging to 218 residents for construction of a beach road.

Lakshadweep’s environmental balance is shaken by land erosion, cyclones and rising water temperatures along the coast. This is exacerbated by fishing permission granted to large trawlers. S. Abhilash of the department of meteorology, Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) says, “These islands are extremely sensitive. The sea here remains rough throughout the year. In addition to stormy waves, changing ocean currents and bleaching of coral reefs, large-scale construction will only worsen the situation.”

Loveleen Arun, a veteran of the travel trade, points out, “While Maldives is spread across an area of 298 sq. km, Lakshadweep’s is just 32 sq. km. In comparison, Andaman island is 6,000+ sq. km. The coral reefs around the Lakshadweep islands are already bleaching or dying. So please think twice before trying to promote it as the next Maldives. Some places need to be left alone.”

A cluster of 32 islands with a population of 71,000, Lakshadweep has been protected and preserved till now with good reason. But Khoda and his political masters have different ideas and would like to turn it into a concrete nightmare and a real estate player’s wet dream.

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