Ecology Environment

Can Lakshadweep’s fragile lagoons survive a multi-crore tourism villa project?

Tourists sunbathing on the pristine beaches of Lakshadweep.   | Photo Credit: K.K. Mustafah

Hidden in the azure waters of Lakshadweep’s lagoons is a stunningly colourful world: corals burst in tones of red, pink, yellow and blue. “And you’ll find every colour of the rainbow in the reef fish,” says Nachiket Kelkar, a biologist who has studied these lagoons. These waters are also home to a variety of threatened and endangered marine life, including green turtles, sea cucumbers, giant clams and corals.

Closer to the shore, and beneath the seemingly barren white sand, grows an entire grassland. Tiny tips of smooth, waxy sea grass gently break the grainy surface, and if left undisturbed, will grow into a lush meadow in a few years, waving their green fronds as far as the eye can see.

But all these inshore reefs and underwater grasslands may be in deep peril if an ambitious tourism project — involving the construction of beach and water villas offering 370 rooms — becomes a reality.

The multi-crore project has been proposed by NITI Aayog and the Ministry of Home Affairs. In a petition this January, 114 scientists from more than 30 universities and research institutes urged the Lakshadweep administration to reconsider the project, fearing the possible ecological impact it could have on the islands’ sensitive lagoons and beaches.

News about tourism villas on 10 islands in the Andaman-Nicobar and Lakshadweep archipelagos has been trickling in since October 2018. A 2019 NITI Aayog report lists ‘best possible development strategies’ for the ‘holistic’ development of these islands. In the 36-island archipelago of the Lakshadweep, this proposal has been earmarked for the islands of Kadmat, Minicoy and Suheli.

Boulder-like Porite coral near the island of Kadma

Boulder-like Porite coral near the island of Kadma   | Photo Credit: Rohan Arthur

With an initial investment of ₹266 crore (and additional investments of up to ₹788 crore expected from the private sector), the project will be implemented by Lakshadweep’s Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (SPORTS).

Just like Maldives

The NITI Aayog report repeatedly stresses that the projects are ‘technically feasible, economically profitable and socially acceptable’; that the ‘up-front’ clearances (both environmental and Coastal Regulation Zone) recommended for the project are a ‘unique move aimed at creating much-needed conducive environment for private entrepreneurs to invest’. And in November last year, the Lakshadweep administration supplied more details of the project to potential bidders: successful bidders would get 75 years to finance, construct and operate the projects. Floating solar panels in the lagoons nearby will supply sustainable energy. And as much as 75% of the jobs will go to the local community, says Asker Ali, Managing Director of SPORTS.

Not so win-win

The vision appears straightforward and grand: create job opportunities for locals, and world-class, ‘Maldives-like’, carbon-neutral tourism facilities that will also give India its first-ever water villas. A win-win for all stakeholders: the government, locals and tourists. But the ecological impact of such a project on the lagoons and coral reefs is likely to be far more complex and damaging than what is being acknowledged, argue India’s scientists in their petition.

Rohan Arthur is a marine biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation-India and has been studying Lakshadweep’s reefs and sea grasses for more than 20 years. He, and the several others who framed the petition, describe these lagoons as the islands’ ‘insurance sites’. The shallow lagoons are protected from the open sea by an outer coral reef; this reduces the impact of wave action, preventing beach erosion and protecting the islands’ limited freshwater supply. The healthy sea grass meadows in lagoons, crucial nurseries for many reef fish, also have high soil-binding capacities, he says. “Lagoonal sea grasses help stabilise beaches and prevent beach erosion.”

Erosion is indeed a problem in many of Lakshadweep’s beaches. While wave action on beaches is a common geological process, extensive beach erosion and accretion (the creation of new sandy areas) from ‘unscientific, indiscriminate dumping’ of concrete tetrapods (structures used as a seawall to reduce wave action) has already impacted the islands’ beaches, says the 2015 Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP) that governs management activities on 10 islands of the Lakshadweep.

Lagoons act as insurance sites also because it is only here that you find temperature-adapted coral species. Coral cover in outer reefs (in deeper waters) declined by almost 40% during the climate-change related coral bleaching events of 1998, 2010 and 2016, as Arthur and his team found.

The stunning blue-tipped branches of an Acropora coral in a lagoon near Kavaratti

The stunning blue-tipped branches of an Acropora coral in a lagoon near Kavaratti   | Photo Credit: Mayukh Dey

The reefs witnessed a startling shift in coral species, as they tried to adapt to climate change. Coral species such as the delicate, finger-like Acropora gave way to more temperature-tolerant ones such as the large, boulder-like Porites. As bleaching events keep recurring, these lagoons will become ‘source sites’, says Arthur. “Every time there is a mortality of coral in the outer reefs, these lagoons will supply new recruits to recolonise the reefs in the deeper waters.” Without them, the reefs outside the lagoon will suffer. “The entire outer wall of the protective reef will start crumbling. The lagoon will die and islanders will suffer,” says Arthur.

Plastic in coral

Human activity, such as construction, is bound to impact the lagoon’s corals too, says Kelkar, a doctoral student of aquatic ecology at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment. Waste disposal will affect water quality; microplastics are also a concern. In Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, for instance, studies show how inshore corals can confuse microplastics for food and these microscopic pieces then get embedded in coral structures, impacting their health. “And we still don’t know how increased boat movement in the lagoon could affect these ecosystems,” he adds.

In 2014, the Justice R.V. Raveendran Committee, appointed to evaluate the IIMP, made some strong recommendations. It is “highly essential to protect corals, sea grass and other ecosystems from anthropogenic activities,” the report said, going on to list activities such as waste disposal, port development, dredging of navigational channels, construction of breakwaters, tourism and related activities, sand mining, and intensive fishing. This recommendation is now part of the IIMP.

Whose beaches are they

The petition from the scientists also points out that beaches and lagoons have always been important economic and cultural spaces. Islanders fish in the lagoons for their daily consumption. Lagoon fish are also the backbone of Lakshadweep’s famous sustainable and indigenous tuna fishery industry. And the beaches are heavily used: catch is processed and sundried on these sands. With tourism, and the spatial restrictions it could bring, locals fear that they will not be able to use the beaches or lagoons for their traditional livelihoods. “We catch bait fish — two or three-inch fish — for our pole-and-line tuna fishery from the lagoons,” says Mohammad (real name withheld on request), who lives in Kadmat. “I fear that the floating solar panels could restrict our access to the lagoon and affect the fishing.”

Lagoon fish are also the backbone of Lakshadweep’s famous sustainable and indigenous tuna fishery industry

Lagoon fish are also the backbone of Lakshadweep’s famous sustainable and indigenous tuna fishery industry   | Photo Credit: K. K. Mustafah

That’s not the only hazard the floating panels bring. They will also get in the way of the green turtles that graze on the sea grass. Then, the artificial shading that they cast on the lagoon floor would be ‘disastrous’ for sea grass meadows and reefs.

Says Arthur, “Going carbon-neutral in this manner in a place like Lakshadweep is warped logic. The first ecological casualties of the project will be the green turtles, the sea grass meadows, and the coral reefs.” Moreover, the energy and water needs of such a project are an abiding concern. Already, two of the inhabited islands where the villas are to be built are reeling under a water crisis.

The scientists behind the petition clarify that they are not against development, but they want a transparent, third-party impact assessment to evaluate the project’s ecological and social costs. As the project now stands, it does not meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

‘No approvals yet’

Ali, who heads SPORTS, is also the nodal officer for the tourism project in Lakshadweep. He insists that the process is transparent and that all stakeholders, including local panchayats, have been consulted. He dismisses claims that the project would restrict local people’s access to beaches or lagoons. “The project was not decided overnight. Impact assessments and studies were made by government institutes including the National Institute of Ocean Technology. The project will be implemented within the approved carrying capacity,” he says, adding that “SPORTS cares about the protection of coral reefs because without them there can be no tourism. After all, livelihoods are more important and you have to strike a balance.”

In an email response, Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog, says they are committed to sustainable development of the islands, and adds: “We will not undertake any project without detailed environmental studies and only after following all due processes and taking all approvals. These processes are still under way. No approval has so far been received. All proposals will be subject to technical and environmental inputs.”

But 370 rooms are “far, far beyond” Lakshadweep’s carrying capacity, points out tourism entrepreneur Jose Dominic, the former CEO of CGH Earth, who pioneered sustainable and responsible tourism in Kerala and ran Lakshadweep’s Bangaram Island Resort for 20 years.

He strongly discourages the project. “The water villas will be a disaster for everyone except the tourists staying in them,” he says. “There was a similar proposal to build water villas on the Bangaram coral atoll almost 15 years ago, which thankfully didn’t materialise. The pillars for the villa construction will be driven through coral rock. You’re destroying the very resource that people are visiting the island for.”

The scientists agree. “Why is this particular project being pushed with so much urgency when we have far more urgent climate realities to deal with,” asks Arthur. “The project pursues an imagination that is far at odds with reality.”

The writer is a wildlife biologist-turned-journalist.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 7:19:23 PM |

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