Lakshadweep cannot be Maldives. Respect its uniqueness
Lakshadweep is in the news for all the wrong reasons. The first few months in any public office, involving welfare of people, is spent in self-education. This is even more so if it involves people living in 10 tiny stand-alone ecologically sensitive islands separated from each other and from the mainland by hundreds of kilometres of deep sea. But not so for the new administrator of Lakshadweep, Praful Khoda Patel.
In his first five months, the administrator took a number of drastic steps which have disturbed the normally placid waters of the territory. The government has closed anganwadis, sacked dozens of employees who worked for many years, banned meat from schools, demolished dozens of sheds of fishermen which were built as per integrated scientific plan prepared by a Supreme Court appointed committee, brought in a goonda act in a territory which has strong family bonds and has barely had any crime for at least the past century, closed dairy farms, amended panchayati rules, and tinkered with public works department contracts. The most disturbing of all decisions are the provisions of the draft Lakshadweep Development Regulations 2021.
Parts of the draft seem to be just a cut and paste job, certainly not one prepared for this territory. For instance, it talks of “orderly and progressive development of urban and rural areas” and “development of the towns and country side” (all islands are really rural areas); it refers to “additional powers for acquisition of land” (almost all the 10 islands are actually abadi areas where land cannot be acquired); it mentions shifting of populations (Where? In the sea?). And these are just a few examples of a poorly thought through proposal.
The Lakshadweep islands have an interesting historical and legendary perspective. Early explorers talk of “female islands”. If you visit any of the habited islands, especially Minicoy, you will see only women. During the day, men are out fishing or are sailing in international waters. There are compelling reasons why, in Lakshadweep, there is restriction on outsiders coming to the islands and why unrestricted tourism cannot be allowed.
It is often argued that if Maldives can attract tourists, why not Lakshadweep? Maldives has 1,200 islands, of which 1,000 have no population while Lakshadweep has only 26; except a couple, which are already tourist resorts, the others are too small or very difficult to approach.
Lakshadweep is also the most thickly populated area of the country with 2,000 people per square km. Moreover, it is not one geographical entity but consists of 10 populated islands and many more uninhabited islands. While in respect of land area, it is by far the tiniest administrative unit of the country, in terms of economic potential, its contribution is immense.
Lakshadweep adds about 50,000 square kms of economic zone to the country in the Arabian Sea. Its potential, except for small scale fishing, is largely unexploited. We all know that the seas are the future; if at all a development authority is to be set up, it should be the Lakshadweep Sea Development Authority. This will be welcomed by the islanders as it will provide huge employment opportunities to them.
It is clear Lakshadweep has no tourism potential beyond what it has already developed. The comparison with Maldives is superficial. Maldives as a separate country has no choice. But the economy of Lakshadweep is intimately linked to the mainland. For instance, hundreds of islanders from Minicoy, Agatti and other islands are sailors and they are employed as shipping crew from Kolkata. Students go for engineering, medical and other higher studies to the mainland; serious patients are shifted to mainland hospitals. They are entitled to central government jobs. These ties need to be strengthened and not weakened. For instance, work from home is now becoming a norm with most important companies; If IT is strengthened in the islands, large number of young men and women can get gainful employment sitting at home.
The new administrator must get his priorities right, in accordance with the uniqueness of the islands.
Omesh Saigal is a former chief secretary, Delhi government and a former administrator of Lakshadweep
The views expressed are personal