As the fate of an ecologically sensitive, beautiful coral archipelago located off the Malabar coast hangs in the balance, a group of 93 former bureaucrats has written a strong, long letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday (June 5), expressing their “deep concern” over the “alien and arbitrary policy” making in Lakshadweep.
They have also asked the PM to withdraw the measures proposed by the administrator, P K Patel and to provide a “full-time, people sensitive and responsive administrator”, and build an appropriate development model suitable for the eco-sensitive Union Territory (UT).
Besides assuming additional charge of Administrator of Lakshadweep in December 2020, Patel happens to be the Administrator of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Daman and Diu.
The former civil servants, who have established a group called the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), are not the first to raise their voice against the far-reaching “reforms” in Lakshadweep. Many politicians, MLAs & MPs, celebrities and social media users too have expressed their ire against these proposed measures by the administrator, which violate the basic rights of the people of the island.
In this letter to the PM, the group of bureaucrats has started their letter by conveying their “deep concern” over the “disturbing developments” taking place in the pristine Union Territory (UT) of Lakshadweep in the name of development.”
According to the CCG, Lakshadweep occupies a unique place in India’s geographic and cultural diversity and any development has to be executed with extreme care and caution. They said that the drafts of three regulations introduced by P K Patel – the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR), the Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation (commonly known as PASA or the Goonda Act elsewhere), and the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation (LAPR), as well as an amendment to the Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulations, were triggering a lot of anxiety on the island and the nation at large.
“These drafts have been introduced without local consultation and are presently with the Ministry of Home Affairs, government of India for necessary approvals,” said the CCG. This group includes former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, former Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar, ex-Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, the former adviser to prime minister, T K A Nair and former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah among many others.
The group criticised the LDAR, which involves the creation of a “Maldives model” development in Lakshadweep. This would include building resorts, hotels and beachfronts completely disregarding the differences between the two island groups in size, population, number of islands and their spread. This is all being executed in the name of development, which the administrator Patel claimed the UT has not seen for the past 70 years.
Lakshadweep consisting of 36 islands (of which 10 are inhabited and one developed as a tourist resort) is spread out over 32 sq kms in the Indian Ocean, with a Muslim majority population of around 65,000 that is matrilineal, largely egalitarian, and ethnically close to Kerala, from where it was ruled through much of its history, said the letter.
The Central government has, over the decades, tried to pursue an environmentally sound and people-centric policy towards the island… which “hinges on better exploitation of marine resources coupled with much greater care in the use of land resources.” And, despite pressures, a sensitive pattern of development had been pursued in the island so far.
But Patel’s draft regulations seems as if it “is part of a larger agenda that is against the ethos and interests of the islands and islanders”, they wrote. The administration has already razed beach huts, storing boats, nets and other fishing equipment of local fishermen, presumably to clear beaches for tourism development, alleging that they had encroached onto government land and citing violations of the Coastal Regulation Zone rules and the Coast Guard Act, even though the fishermen were exempt from Coastal Regulation Zone rules.
Besides the concerns over dispossession of land, predatory corporate development and destruction of the environment, a preventive detention regulation, the group was concerned about the draft PASA. This enabled the Administrator to detain any person for up to a year for common crimes (like anti-social behaviour, smuggling contraband drugs and liquor, involvement in immoral traffic, land grabbing, cyber-crimes, sexual offences or damaging the environment).
While the other regulations proposed by the Administrator targetted the food and dietary habits and religious injunctions of the local islanders, 96.5% of whom are Muslims, it said. Also, the LAPR will effectively ban the killing of bovine animals and prohibit the consumption, storage, transport or sale of cattle meat in an island environment where there are inherent limits to livestock development, the letter added.
No such prohibitions apply to several states in the North-East and even the state of Kerala next door, it said. Hence, the lifting of the ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol in keeping with the religious sensitivities of the overwhelmingly Muslim population, once again ostensibly to promote tourism, combined with the beef ban is giving a “communal colour” in a sensitive maritime region where communal disharmony could harm national security, the letter said.
The changes being proposed by the Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021 for elections to gram panchayats that will disqualify candidates with more than two children from contesting seats for the gram panchayat too have been proposed without any local consultation or taking into account local sensitivities, it said.
According to the group, each of these measures smacks not of development but of alien and arbitrary policy making. It is in violation of established practices that respect the environment and society of Lakshadweep, the letter said.
These actions and far-reaching proposals of the Administrator, which are being framed without consulting the islanders, constitute an onslaught on the very fabric of Lakshadweep society, economy and landscape. The islands were not a piece of real estate for tourists and tourism investors from the outside world, it said. These measures seem entirely misconceived, opening the islands to predatory development and threatening to disrupt and displace a peaceful island community and change their lives for the worse.
They urged the PM to withdraw the measures and provide an appropriate development model that emphasises access to safe and secure healthcare, education, just governance, food security and livelihood options linked to the ecosystem, in consultation with islanders, be put in place, building on the achievements thus far, the letter said.
A copy of the letter has been shared with Home Minister Amit Shah and Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Prakash Javadekar.