Saturday, June 19th, 2021 20:36:16

Simmering tension

By Nilabh Krishna
Updated: June 8, 2021 11:37 am

Tensions have been simmering in Lakshadweep, an idyllic archipelago of 36 islands, over a number of controversial proposals ranging from a beef ban to the nod to liquor sale, in a Union territory that largely has a Muslim population. Calling the orders “anti-people,” critics view the proposed regulations as a threat to the cultural identity of inhabitants and the fragile ecology of the islands. Over the last few days #SaveLakshadweep has been trending on social media. Alongside, protests have broken out in the Union Territory. All of this is in response to a series of administrative reforms that have been introduced since December 2020 after the administration was changed. Alongside the islanders and people on social media, opposition leaders in Lakshadweep and neighbouring Kerala have raised cause for concern. Kerala lawmaker Hibi Eden, wrote a letter to to President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Modi. In the letter, he claimed that the many government contract employees in the tourism sector were terminated without any reason. “Majority of the 70,000 people in this Island depend on fishing and government services, but the new administration demolished huts of fisherman accusing Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) violation,” he wrote. Lakshadweep lawmaker and NCP’s Mohammed Faizal and his colleagues from neighbouring Kerala—TN Prathapan (Congress), Elamaram Kareem (CPI-M) and ET Mohammed Basheer (Muslim League) have urged the Centre to recall Patel. In a letter to the President, Congress general secretary KC Venugopal alleged that the current administrator of Lakshadweep Praful Patel had taken “authoritarian measures” and demanded his recall.

Against this backdrop, there has emerged a social media movement of sorts to “#SaveLakshadweep” with countless individuals tweeting to highlight an ongoing crisis in the island territory – from politicians to sports personalities and actors. Critics have repeatedly hit out at Administrator Praful Patel over reforms that have been introduced since he took charge in December last year. This list of reforms includes a halt on schools serving non-vegetarian food and reports of anganwadis being closed and officials losing their jobs.

“As soon as Shri. Praful Patel assumed that office; he unilaterally changed the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) which was in force in the island for preventing the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. According to the people of island, this unplanned and unscientific altering of SOP has led to the current surge in COVID cases in Lakshadweep where there was not even a single case reported in the year 2020,” reads an excerpt from a letter by Rajya Sabha MP Elamaram Kareem to the President.

Kareem alleged that that the orders and promulgations issued by the Lakshadweep administration under the current administrator were aimed at destroying the traditional life and cultural diversity of the people of Lakshadweep. Hundreds of casual and contract labourers, he contended, had lost their jobs, even as countless others who depended on fishing and dairy farming have been affected negatively in recent months.

He is not alone. Over the last few days, a slew of well known personalities have stepped up to highlight the situation in Lakshadweep, calling for action against the administration.

What is happening?

In general, the administration of the islands is in the hands of a civil servant but this time, the tradition was changed and a seasoned politician Praful Patel, who was a former Gujarat home minister under the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, was appointed as its administrator on December 5, 2020.

Typically, the administrator jockeys for power without spoiling a working relationship with the elected leaders. Patel, though, has been an odd one. In his five months, his critics have raised at least three main complaints to show his authoritarian approach.

The creation of the Land Development Authority (LDA) is one. It empowers the administration to take over any land, without consultation with the stakeholders. For islanders, this is an attempt for a corporate land grab.

Second, is Patel’s Anti-Social Activities Regulation Bill 2021, which is something of a Goondas Act, using which the State can detain anyone without disclosing it to the public for up to one year. Critics claim that this reeks of the usual tactics authoritarian laws use to brand as criminals and punish those who democratically protest.

“In short, he is threatening islanders, who live isolated from the mainland, using the stamp of authority. Islanders cannot run anywhere, they should not be asked to be subjugated to corporate interests in this manner,” said Elamaram Kareem, Rajya Sabha MP from Kerala, to this author. Kareem also wrote a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind on the topic on May 24.

The third is the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation and Regulation 2021, which is similar to anti-cow slaughtering rules implemented in BJP-ruled states. It effectively prohibits slaughtering cows, by mandating a license for killing animals, which most likely will not be given for cows. The islanders have a lifestyle of using cows for agriculture, breeding or giving milk, and for meat consumption. The new law subverts it.

The set of changes have made the islanders sit up and assert their identity. Being almost entirely Muslims, the islanders abhor alcohol. So there exists a self-imposed prohibition, except on one island popular with the tourists, Bangaram.

Now Patel has announced making alcohol available in three more islands. Combined with the cow-slaughtering ban, it has raised a debate that is bound to split the island and elsewhere over religiosity.

Patel has also abolished the animal husbandry department and fired temporary staffers under it, according to the natives who spoke to moneycontrol.com. Some large dairy farms were ordered closure, their temporary workers were dismissed, and their animals were sold. Meanwhile, Gujarat-based Amul has been allowed to sell milk. This has added to the narrative that Patel prefers outsiders, out of political or regional biases.

According to islanders who shared their stories on Twitter Spaces on May 24 and 25, Patel is also getting into the way of life and livelihoods. The police under him are demolishing fishing harbours, labelling them as unauthorised settlements. The administration also fired some 300 casual labourers in various official departments in the last five months, and shut down some 38 anganwadis.

Who Are The Islanders?

According to a report on moneycontrol.com Kerala has had a long, illustrious relationship with the archipelago; one legend has it that the first settlers on the island came from a shipwreck search party who were exploring the whereabouts of Cheraman Perumal, the last King of Chera empire known for his conversion to Islam and escape to Mecca, that ruled Kerala somewhere between the eighth and ninth century. Even today, from food to medicine to building materials to marriage alliances, the islanders are closely dependent on the mainland, especially Kerala.

Two of the most frequented ports by cargo and passenger ships from Lakshadweep are Beypore and Kochi ports in Kerala. According to the critics, the administrator is trying to reroute this sea path to Mangalore port, where the BJP and some corporate groups have strategic interests. Until recently, the All India Radio’s Kozhikode station in Kerala used

to broadcast a half-an-hour radio programme, the only one of its

kind, in the native island tongue, Mahl. Otherwise, Lakshadweep

residents lack a strong television or newspaper network.

The Reality

Under criticism from every quarter, the administrator, Praful Patel is all the more resolute to usher in an era of development in the archipelago. He believes: “The draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation will usher in development and go a long way in improving the social and economic indicators on the islands, which have so far lagged behind despite having the potential.” He asks from his critics that once these policies will be implemented, who will be the beneficiaries, him or the islanders? He will not be in charge of the islands for lifetime, he contends.

Patel is right when he says that the islands are similar to Maldives and he wants to develop them on similar lines. He promises that he wants to develop sustainable infrastructure and promote sustainable tourism. On an average, 5 lakh travellers land on the islands every year, according to officials in the UT who said the island has huge potential for tourism. At present, tourism activity is restricted to only government operations and an entry permit is mandatory for all tourists visiting the islands. One cannot deny the fact that tourism sector in islands are lagging behind many destinations in the same area. A package for Lakshadweep costs around 30-40 thousand rupees, whereas this author has travelled to Thailand in half of this sum, with many facilities provided. This is only because of the lack of infrastructure in the archipelago and the permit system.

Administrations contention that Lakshadweep has lagged behind in key development indicators is also not too off the mark.

Lakshadweep is an archipelago of 36 islands, of which 11 are inhabited. They have a total geographical area of 32 sq km and the population of approximately 70,000 has a low per capita income and high unemployment level of 13 per cent, according to the statistics.

In 2007, the then Planning Commission prepared a ‘Lakshadweep Development report’, in which it noted that while the neighbouring island countries like Maldives developed their tourism potential and prospered, the UT could not.

“Despite its small size in terms of geographical land mass, it has a large territorial water (20,000 square km) and exclusive economic zone (4 lakh sq km), which makes it strategically important for the country,” the report notes.

Apart from this the proposal for Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation is also not off the mark. While the island remains peaceful, there have been reports of drugs being found along with weapons and live ammunition. On March 8 this year, the Indian Coast Guard managed to avert a major drug transhipment which was being carried via the sea route in the Lakshadweep Sea. The ships were patrolling off the Lakshadweep Islands when they observed suspicious movement of three Sri Lankan boats.

The boats were then monitored by the Coast Guard units and were intercepted. When the crew members saw that the Coast Guard ships and aircrafts were monitoring them, they dropped five bags of the narcotics weighing around 260 kilograms into the water. As per the Indian Coast Guard, the value of the contraband is around Rs 2,100 crore. In a press note, the Collector of LAkshdweep said that “In this small UT, the future of youth is expected to be clouded by such illegal business. Keeping this in mind, strict and stringent laws are needed so that the youth here are not misguided. People having personal interests in such illegal business are propagating against the imposition of strict laws.”

The proposed regulation will help the administration in saving the youth of the islands falling into the hands of these drug cartels. The easy money which this trade ensures will definitely have a detrimental effect on the health and peaceful life of the archipelago.

In a desperate attempt to stop the Administration from introducing reforms to the Union Territory of Lakshadweep, vested interests have opened their propaganda warfare against the administrator Praful Patel and the Union government. Critics  have accused Patel of undermining the ‘Islamic character’ of Lakshadweep where Muslims constitute 96 per cent of the total population. There is no denying the fact that praful K Patel had been trying to prioritise the UT’s development and improve the tourism opportunities of the Island. He has also taken initiatives to improve the security of Lakshadweep due to its strategic importance.

By Nilabh Krishna

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