While Lakshadweep Administrator Praful Khoda Patel is busy introducing ‘development projects’, the people of the Union Territory (UT) are struggling hard to survive the lockdown crisis.
The island has been in the news for various ‘reforms’ being introduced by Patel, which are being opposed by the residents of the UT. Amid the political imbroglio, the region is facing an acute shortage of food and other essential due to the COVID-led lockdown.
With the entire island completely shut down, the major sources of livelihood — fishing and coconut farming — have come to a standstill. The people of the island allege that they hardly receive any support from the UT Administration — be it financial or in the form of food supply.
Hunger, complete isolation
Panchayat members, farmers, fishermen and merchants whom The Federal spoke to shared distressing tales of being thrown into starvation, hunger and complete isolation from the rest of the world, probably for the first time in their lives.
In particular, the smaller islands that are located far from the headquarters (Kavaratti) are going through a severe crisis. “Around 80 people are infected with COVID. There was only one centre for COVID patients, which is now a new building for the police station,” said Mohammad Yasin, a fisherman from Bitra, one of the 10 inhabited islands of Lakshadweep.
“COVID patients are being shifted to temporary shelters (by boats) and many continue to live in their own houses. It has been three months since I went fishing. All my money is spent, I have no idea what to do if the lockdown continues,” rued Yasin.
Bitra, India’s smallest inhabited island, has a population of less than 300 and a land area of 0.10 sq km. Like all the other islands, Bitra is home to several lagoons — it has a lagoon area of 45.61 sq km. A cooperative society which also runs the public distribution system (PDS) is the lone source of grocery and other food material for the people of the isolated island that lies 485 km west of Kochi, deep inside the Arabian Sea.
The island hosts no hospital. There’s neither a permanent doctor nor a team of health workers in that tiny island except for an auxiliary nurse and a health inspector. They work with the only Primary Health Care Centre located in the island, which is referred to as ‘First Aid Centre’ by the islanders.
“Luckily, so far, no one has died of COVID,” said B Hyder, president of the Bitra gram panchayat. “If someone needs an ICU bed or ventilator support, we have to wait for hours for emergency evacuation. If someone’s health deteriorates by evening, we have no option but to wait till the next morning to get emergency evacuation.”
“We were supplied with groceries and other essentials during the lockdown in 2020. But this time, the authorities do not even respond to our calls,” added Hyder.
He told The Federal that the panchayat has the provision to offer free food only to those who test positive for COVID. “We run a canteen and provide food to COVID patients, but there is no means to provide food for others. People have no work, no money and they are literally starving,” he said.
Crisis like never before
Life in the other islands is no better. “We have not faced such a crisis ever in my memory,” said UCK Thangal, a trade unionist, writer and Congress leader, who’s also the convenor of the Save Lakshadweep Forum, the recently formed collective of all political parties and organisations in the island.
“Though we did not have sky crappers and big shopping malls, we have never faced poverty,” Thangal said. He further recalled that the lockdown last year did not cause such a hassle. The previous Administration of Lakshadweep had distributed food material and provided financial support to the islanders, he said.
Instead of increasing the supply of essential goods from Kerala to the island, there is a drastic decline in such activity since the lockdown.
“There were seven cargo ships to the island from Cochin port, now there are only two,” said Shakkeel Ahamed, Deputy Director of Shipping and Aviation at the office of the Lakshadweep Administration in Kochi.
Cargo movement downsized
Ahamed told The Federal that cargo movement has been downsized due to many factors. In March, 3,760.24 metric tonnes of cargo had been moved to the island from Kochi. On the contrary, only 3,000 MT of cargo was shipped from May 15 to June 9, he said.
The repeated demands made to the Lakshadweep Collector by the merchant’s unions in the island — for the transportation of essential commodities — received no positive response. “There has been a blockade in cargo movement for around three weeks since April. Even after it was resumed, we are not getting even half the quantity that’s required,” said Vajid Khan KK, President of the Merchants Association at Kalpeni Island.
“The merchants in the island are going through a very serious financial crisis. Many of them had to dispose of the goods as they were past their expiry date due to the lockdown. Piles of cargo bundles of shop owners are lying at Kochi waiting for cargo movement,” Khan said. He told The Federal that each shop owner is allowed to ship less than 50% of his actual requirement.
PDS falls short
The PDS also is not in action when people are hit by a scarcity of essential goods. “We get only rice under PDS. We don’t get anything else for a subsidised price, even wheat,” said Noorjahan, District panchayat member from Kavaratti. “We are not provided food kits or money to manage this period of absolute unemployment as being done in states like Kerala. The local bodies do not have the resources to provide essential goods to all. We are struggling even to manage the needs of people in quarantine.”
According to Noorjahan, the authorities have not even convened a meeting of the local body members to chalk out a plan to handle the lockdown crisis.
“We had gathered a meeting of our own — the members of gram panchayat and district panchayat. The police came to the venue of the meeting and asked us to disperse, as if we were committing a crime. We did not even get an opportunity to enter the premises of the Collector’s office to meet him despite repeated requests,” said Noorjahan.
Following lockdown restrictions, visits to the island are completely banned. Even the Members of Parliament are not given permission to go. The LDF MPs from Kerala staged a dharna at the office of the Lakshadweep Administration in Kochi in protest against the denial of permission.
CPI leader and Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswam has filed a breach of privilege motion with regard to the denial of permission for visiting the island.