Discontent is simmering beneath the calm, verdant environs of the Lakshadweep group of islands over a slew of regulations introduced by the new administrator, Praful Khoda Patel in the last five months of his rule, which also saw the archipelago descend from being a ‘COVID-free region’ for nearly a year into one with 6,847 cases until May 24.
COVID hit Lakshadweep after the stipulation for mandatory quarantine of Dweep-bound travellers in Kochi was done away with under his stewardship.
The 10 inhabited islands of the Union Territory are under lockdown for two months now and the Dweep administration is accused of exploiting the inability of the public to mobilise to push what’s widely seen by the islanders as ‘arbitrary legislations’ that are out of sync with the social, political and environmental realities of the archipelago. The latest draft regulation for the creation of a Lakshadweep Development Authority (LDA) is widely resented as the people suspect that this might have been issued at the behest of ‘real estate interests’ seeking to usurp the small holdings of property owned by the islanders, a majority of them (94.8% as per the 2011 census) belonging to the Scheduled Tribes.
Hundreds of islanders have written to the administrator demanding that the proposed regulation, which makes “provision for the orderly and progressive development of land in both urban and rural areas and to preserve and improve the amenities thereof; for the grant of permission to develop land and for other powers of control over the use of land; to confer additional powers in respect of the acquisition and development of land for planning; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid” be withdrawn.
The regulation empowers the government, identified as the administrator, to constitute Planning and Development Authorities under it to plan the development of any area identified as having “bad layout or obsolete development”. Only cantonment areas are exempted from this. An authority thus created would be a body corporate with a government-appointed chairman, a town planning officer and three ‘expert’ government nominees besides two local authority representatives.
The draft regulation defines development as the “carrying out of building, engineering, mining, quarrying or other operations in, on, over or under land, the cutting of a hill or any portion thereof or the making of any material change in any building or land or in the use of any building or land...” These authorities are to prepare land use maps, carry out zonation for type of land use and indicate areas for ‘proposed national highways, arterial roads, rings roads, major streets.... railways, tramways, airports... theatres, museums....playgrounds, stadia...”
The islanders opposing the plan have pointed out that the ecologically fragile islands are tiny and thickly populated. The largest of the inhabited islands is Androth with a landmass of 4.9 sq km area where the density of population is 2,312 per sq km. “What sort of highway or tram-way you are planning to construct in that area?” asks Koya Arafa Mirage, lawyer and leader of Nationalist Youth Congress.
The most sparsely populated is Bitra island where 271 people live in a 0.10 sq km area.
One of the petitions seeking the withdrawal of the LDA regulation says the legislation vests such powers with the authority that it can prepare comprehensive development plans for any area and relocate people regardless of their will. It provides for forcible eviction, puts the onus on the owner to develop his holding as per the plan prepared by the authority as also to heavily penalise them in the event of non-compliance. “The island community is a close-knit group with families living in close proximity. The regulation will destroy the way of life practised by them for generations,” said an islander.
Further, proposals to bring real estate development concepts such as ‘transferable development rights’ to the island have raised the hackles of people who fear they would be forced to migrate en masse. “The draconian regulation is neither ecologically sustainable nor socially viable and the people’s representatives were not consulted before drafting it. Also, it comes in the wake of a slew of bad law proposals including the ‘Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation’, a ‘goonda act’, in the Dweep which is known for the lowest crime rate in the country,” says Mohammed Faizal, MP from the Dweep.
As online campaigns to save Lakshadweep is gaining strength with celebrities including actor Prithviraj raising their voice in solidarity, Elamaram Kareem, Rajya Sabha MP, has written to President Ramnath Kovind urging him to recall the 'authoritarian' administrator. Mr. Kareem’s plea was in reference to the recent ‘Lakshadweep Animals Preservation Regulation’ that bans cattle slaughter and trade which he said was proposed with scant regard for the islanders’ choice of food and livelihood. He also decried the move to lift the restriction on use of alcohol in the Union Territory.