When Praful Patel, the ex-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and newly-appointed administrator of the Lakshadweep Islands arrived at Agatti on 14th June of this year to review development projects, he was welcomed by disturbed residents. Wearing black shirts and COVID-19 protective masks, the islanders held placards declaring a “Black Day”, demanding the administrator to “Go Back”, and to “Repeal the Controversial Acts” while at it. Following a hunger strike the previous week, the locals of the Muslim-dominated Union Territory had made their stand clear: the new administrator, who took over in December 2020, was not welcome. The same day, the President, Secretary, and Treasurer of Minicoy’s BJP Unit resigned from their posts because they found it “futile to continue further due to the unfortunate current public circumstances in Minicoy Island and Lakshadweep.”
The contention amongst locals stems from a series of regulations and changes that arrived with Patel in December of last year. By April, four months into his arrival, a draft of the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR)—one of the strongest triggers of the protests—made it to the public domain. Amongst other things, it gives the Union Territory’s (UT) government the authority to “declare any area to be a planning area” and acquire any land “needed for a public purpose.”
“The kind of development that the LDAR is proposing includes wide highways, industries, rope ways—how can this be possible in our islands, where in most areas, only a motorbike can run comfortably?” Dr. Muneer Manikfan, Vice-Chairperson of Minicoy Panchayat tells The Bastion. “This will particularly impact the backbone of our economy, the fisherfolk.”
Muneer’s concerns are valid. In April this year, 90 huts belonging to fishers were razed along the coast of Kavaratti, Lakshadweep’s capital for allegedly violating the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. Besides infrastructure, the picturesque beach fronts and reefs teeming with aquatic life upon which fisher folk are dependent have also become attractive spaces for ‘parks and playgrounds’ and ‘residential’ purposes, all part of the development that the LDAR envisions. The additional push for tourism adds more pressure on these sites. In May 2021, Lakshadweep’s Collector S. Asker Ali announced, “we want to develop Lakshadweep as Maldives, if not better [as a tourism model]”, a comparison that had been made as early as 2003 when a ‘Tourism Perspective Plan’ was prepared for the islands.
Whether it’s for tourism or other development infrastructure, the LDAR will ease the process of acquiring land—a resource that is already precious in the islands. After all, only 10 of the 36 islands in the archipelago are inhabited, and a miniscule 30 square kilometres of landmass supports a population of approximately 65,000 people.
Through this all, islanders complain that they were not consulted before these new developments were brought to Lakshadweep’s shores. As these changes in land use and local decision making hover over Lakshadweep, how does it impact the Island’s many fishing communities and its blooming fishing industry?
A Shaky Future for Fishers
Most of the islands’ population is directly or indirectly dependent upon the reefs and the ocean surrounding them. Tuna and mackerel dominate the fishing production here—between 2007 and 2012, they comprised 82% of Lakshadweep’s catch which landed up in foreign or domestic ports. A majority of these fish are cured to make a smoked, dried tuna product called masmin, a Lakshadweep speciality. “For the production of masmin, the beaches and coasts are integral,” says Anitha Shanti, an environmental educator and socio-ecological researcher who has worked in the Lakshadweep for 14 years. “While the tuna is left to dry, other smaller fish are cut and put in salted water, and hung like clothes on a clothesline to dry. All these activities happen on the beaches which are used as commons by the communities.” The tuna is stored in small temporary huts along the coast, along with other fishing gear that fishers use. With the beachfront and lagoons also acting as parking spaces for boats, it is clear that this beach landscape is cardinal for the fisheries economy in Lakshadweep.
In April this year, 90 of these makeshift huts were razed, a decision that the administration justified by citing violations of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2011, which disallows construction activities in geologically sensitive areas along the coast. However, this notification restricts itself only to the mainland.
For India’s two island groups—the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Lakshadweep Islands—the Island Protection Zone (IPZ) notification has been applicable since 2011 instead, as it was felt that unique island environments and social structures required a separate protection strategy compared to the mainland. Contrary to the administration’s allegations, IPZ makes it clear that in the areas of the non-ecologically sensitive intertidal zone the construction of homes and public facilities for fisherfolk is, in fact,permitted.
Since the demolition drive happened in tandem with the release of the LDAR, locals believe it to be a precursor of what is yet to come. A letter signed by the National Platform for Small Scale Fishworkers stresses the need to protect the fishers’ rights. “Members of the fishing community hold customary ownership of land on the beach for centuries,” the letter, accessed by The Bastion, states, dated June 7th. For these customary rights to be recognised, the letter demands the “immediate identification of all the land and water used by the fisher people for fishing and fishing-related activities or habitat and conferring on them inalienable user rights of the same.”
However, fishing is not the only livelihood threatened by the new development plans unfolding in Lakshadweep. On 12th May, Lakshadweep’s Department of Animal Husbandry designated a retail space in Kavaratti for a store for the Gujarat-based milk-cooperative Amul. Nine days later, the Department sent an email to all animal husbandry units in the islands, directing them to “close the dairy farms run by the department of animal husbandry including bulls, calves, heifers and bucks immediately… [and]…dispose the available animals in the presence of auction committee members.” With just about 250 people across all ten islands owning cattle, the island produces a little less than 100 litres of milk per day. But, it sustains the demands of hospitals, anganwadis, and local islanders too, who over the years have integrated milk into their food culture. Some 20 contract workers who were directly engaged in the dairy farms now face termination. The office of Lakshadweep’s Administration did not respond when reached out to for comments by The Bastion.
“While the milk production is not a lot, it was a livelihood option for many, and it also made us islanders self-sufficient. Otherwise we would have to depend upon the mainland for milk, as we do for many other goods,” says Dr Manikfan. In fact, another development has threatened the islands’ self-sufficiency and local democracy—the weakening of panchayats.
Taking Back Powers from the Ground
Since 2012, all schemes and programs—and the accompanying functionaries and funds—related to agriculture, animal husbandry, education, fisheries, and medical and health services have been transferred to the jurisdiction of Lakshadweep’s district panchayats. For close to a decade all plans for economic development and social justice in the islands were initiated and implemented by this mechanism of local democracy.
But, through a notification issued by the Lakshadweep Administration this May, all these transfers of power have been taken away and reallocated to the Directors of various government departments with immediate effect. The notification stated, “It was felt that the said notification [that transferred the powers to panchayats] had overburdened the PRI [Panchayati Raj Institutions] with manpower management and issues regarding procurement of various commodities, thereby adversely affecting the efficiency of the seamless execution of schemes transferred to PRIs.”
Yet, “there were no complaints of incompetencies from local communities in these last ten years from the panchayats,” says Minicoy Panchayat’s Vice-Chairperson Dr Manikfan. “The transfer of funds to us empowered us to plan the kind of development we envisioned for our areas. But this all changed with the new notification. The worst thing about all this was that we [panchayat members] were not consulted in this decision.” It isn’t just the panchayats that were ignored. Even Lakshadweep’s sole Memeber of Parliament P.P Mohamed Faizal, a member of Nationalist Congress Party, reiterated that his office too was left out of the decision in an interview with The Hindu.
Clearly, developments such as the LDAR (and the events leading up to it) seem to centralise power. They “vest arbitrary and draconian powers in the administrator to acquire, alter and transfer properties and/or remove relocate islanders from their property…[threatens] the islanders’ rights to possess and retain their property,” 84 retired civil servants wrote in a letter on June 5th to the Prime Minister.
The letter of the law literally inhibited much public debate over these decisions initially. “The LDAR, the Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation, and the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation were all made available on websites in English, and not in Malayalam [the local language used here]. Which islander will go online and read the website, without being notified?” Anitha asks. “The consultation process should have happened.”
The Islanders do envision development for their islands, albeit differently than the administration does. “We have a scarcity of land here, so instead of something like LDAR to develop this space, the focus should be on the oceans and our fisheries sector. That too, should be done in an economically viable, and environmentally sustainable way,” Dr. Manikfan remarks.
The Road Ahead for the Fisheries Sector
Developing fisheries has been a priority area for the Lakshadweep Administration for the past few years. In various recommendations by the Chennai-based National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM), a push for ‘modernizing fishing’ was made in 2016. The NCSCM called for modern equipment and facilities to be used while fishing for better harvesting and post harvest handling, as well as the modernization of the traditional small-scale pole and line methods of tuna fishing through larger boats, amongst other things.
But, as previously reported by The Bastion and the Dakshin Foundation, such production-centric development might not work for this resource-scarce island: the traditional pole and line method is dependent upon smaller fish which are used to bait the tuna, and allow the fishers to catch tuna one at a time. Now, the larger boats would mean increased fish holding capacities, which would demand more baitfish to catch the tuna, threatening the bait fish’s over-extraction.
“The belief that tuna are just there for the taking disregards the highly competitive nature of tuna fishing in the Indian Ocean. While the idea of shifting fishers to high-value species sounds appealing, this shift will be accompanied by an entire overhaul of the island’s existing fisheries economy: new boats, new harbours, new cold-supply chains, new markets, new credit mechanisms. Whether this shift is actually geared towards [the interests of] fishers from Lakshadweep needs a deeper examination,” shares Siddharth Chakravarty, a member of the National Platform for Small Scale Fishworkers.
The competitive nature of tuna fishing is evident in Lakshadweep’s previous experiments with entering Sri Lanka’s tuna markets—prices offered here were much lesser than Indian counterparts. Earlier this June, the new Lakshadweep Administration began the first air cargo export of tuna to Japan via Bengaluru. Its long-term economic viability is yet to be seen. But, instead of a blind production-oriented push, experts have suggested looking at factors like fixing a minimum price for the procurement of tuna to safeguard the islands’ fishers from fish price volatility and related market uncertainties.
Chakravarty believes that the focus on fish production is not solely economic. “Very often, increasing the size and range of fishing fleets is accompanied by aspirations of geo-political expansion: the quest to claim territory,” he shares, highlighting one of the reasons for India’s interest in this region. This makes sense. For more than a decade, the increased presence of Chinese fishing trawlers has threatened the exploitation of India’s fishery resources. This year, more than 1,000 Chinese trawlers have been reported to be prowling the waters off India’s west coast. “India’s response in the Indian Ocean has to be placed against the backdrop of Chinese-flagged fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean,” Chakravarty adds.
Another interest for India to ‘develop’ the Lakshadweep region could also be connected to its location on the global trade route. A 200 kilometre wide funnel called the nine degree channel falls near the island and is an important communication sea lane that connects the Persian Gulf with East Asia. “It’s not unlikely that ports might be developed in Lakshadweep in order to tap into the logistics value chain that dissects the atolls,” says Chakravarty. This could explain why Lakshadweep is witnessing something like the LDAR and the wide highways and trams that it suggests—it might centre Lakshadweep at the heart of international trade. “It is vital that the imbalance between national strategic interests and local dispossession is revisited,” he adds.
These islands in the Arabian sea are currently in turmoil owing to various legislations that the residents believe will cause upheaval to many different ambits of their lives—such as livelihoods, political empowerment, and culture. However important—or not—geo-political expansion and security might be, the trade-offs that it demands need to be revisited in consultation with the islanders.
Featured image: Masmin being made along the beaches in Lakshadweep; courtesy of Anitha S.