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Lakshadweep belongs to us: P.P. Mohammed Faizal

P.P. Mohammed Faizal. Photo: Creative Commons  

Forever thought to be a tranquil abode of corals, lagoons and a peaceful people, the Union Territory of Lakshadweep, in the Arabian Sea to the west of Kerala, made sudden headlines a few weeks ago. Widespread protests had erupted over a slew of new development regulations that were announced seemingly unilaterally by Lakshadweep’s new administrator, Praful Khoda Patel.

A campaign for the recall of the ‘insensitive’ administrator has now gained national momentum, with the island chain’s elected representatives, including its Panchayat members, and the sole Member of Parliament, P.P. Mohammed Faizal, seeking a restoration of democracy. Excerpts from an interview with Faizal:

Why did the new ‘development proposals’ rattle the calm political environs of Lakshadweep?

There were ongoing development projects in Lakshadweep well before Mr. Patel arrived. For example, when we needed specialist doctors during my first term as MP, we sought the help of the National Health Mission to contract doctors for a specified period in Lakshadweep. Agatti island had the service of some specialists but we wanted to extend it across Kavaratti, Androth, Amini and Minicoy islands. A monthly grant of ₹2 lakh was offered and the experience criterion was relaxed, but the response was tepid.

So we changed tack and called for tenders from hospitals to delegate doctors for one year. It worked and we got 35 specialists available round-the-clock. Hospital infrastructure and facilities were upgraded in tandem.

These contracts were set to expire when Mr. Patel arrived and without bothering to consult anyone, he ordered a return to the old, unviable system, which has reduced the number of specialists and their 24x7 availability. And how many days has Mr. Patel spent on the islands in the past six months to understand the ground realities? Hardly 15 days!

Secondly, all islanders evacuated to Kochi on medical grounds used to be covered under a comprehensive medical insurance scheme specific to Lakshadweep. Mr. Patel replaced it with Ayushman Bharat, which restricts the benefit to just BPL families. Worse, very few hospitals in Kochi are empanelled under Ayushman Bharat. The result is that treatment expenses are on the islanders now.

Work on a 100-bed hospital in Kavaratti, whose foundation was laid by President Ramnath Kovind, was 30% complete when the district collector halted it, citing the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR) and claimed at a press conference in Kochi that the administration would build a new hospital. Hundreds of workers have been retrenched. The people are put to untold hardship amidst a raging pandemic.

All draft notifications were in English and published on the Internet with just 20 days for people to respond. What was the tearing hurry? The people’s representatives learnt about the proposals just like the commoner. While they speak volumes about federalism, where’s the federal system here?

So, there were no consultations while these reforms were drafted?

We have a two-tier panchayat system and a district planning committee in which chairpersons of village panchayats, the MP, the district panchayat president, members and officers are members. The drafts weren’t discussed anywhere. Mr. Patel will go back when his tenure ends, but the island belongs to us and we live here. Democracy demands that reforms are discussed with us.

But the argument is that the legislations are still in draft form…

The draft notification for the Goonda Act (Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation) came in December and I’m not sure if it incorporated comments by the people before it was forwarded to the ministry. The Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation [that bans beef on the Muslim-majority islands]; the Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation [which clips the wings of democratically elected representatives] have all been sent. Only the LDAR is probably left.

But hasn’t it been in the works for some time now? The contention is that the Island Development Agency was formed for ‘holistic development’ in keeping with the Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP).

I am a member of the advisory committee chaired by the Union Home Minister, which evaluates the overall development of the islands and of Centre-sponsored schemes. The committee hasn’t discussed any of these regulations.

As for the IIMP, it has been accepted and notified by the government, on the basis of which local entrepreneurs submitted several proposals that have been pending with the department of tourism for several years now. Why is the District Collector, who heads the tourism department, not granting permission to local entrepreneurs?

Lakshadweep is a place where VVIPs roam about without any security. The Collector has maligned the island, saying AK-47s have been seized, drug running has been unearthed. The archipelago is surrounded by international waters, where these seizures were made. Till date, not a single islander has been connected with these incidents.

Are you suggesting an ulterior motive behind the moves?

When the people of Kiltan protested the District Collector’s irresponsible statement, they were arrested for violating curfew. There was also an attempt to foist sedition charges on them. There’s a concerted move to justify the Goonda Act. Their intent is to implement LDAR, but see how the discussion was diverted to banning beef and introducing liquor on the islands. If LDAR, which has several downright foolish sections, is discussed, one would ask why Lakshadweep, whose largest island has a surface area of just 4.9 sq. km., needs a highway or a quarry.

Do you suspect that someone is eyeing the land on the uninhabited islands?

That’s the crux of the matter — land. The islanders have for decades cultivated on Pandaram land, and there was an effort to notify and regularise all transactions in relation to Pandaram land till December 2019. It was notified in the gazette and the framing of the rules for awarding occupancy was in the final stages when Mr. Patel came and questioned why people should have land on uninhabited islands. The creation of LDAR is targeted at the agricultural land, low-lying and underdeveloped, held by the islanders on uninhabited islands. These areas can be easily taken over in the name of tourism development. This is a way to grab land officially, and then lease it out. This is legalised land grab.

Are the islanders ecologically aware?

The islands are made of coral, which takes centuries to grow. The comparison with the Maldives is faulty because it has numerous uninhabited islands. Lakshadweep is tiny and densely populated and any development should be in tune with the IIMP. If you do it mindlessly, the island ecosystem will collapse and it’s our home, not Patel’s. A vast number of islanders have over time become aware of the fragility of its ecology. Sea cucumber is abundantly seen off these islands and their excretion feeds the corals. The islanders now know that if exploited extensively, this food chain breaks, threatening the existence of the corals.

With legislations still in draft form, it is alleged that panchayats are being denuded of powers.

They have thrust a dagger into democracy by divesting the panchayats of control over five major departments like agriculture, fisheries and animal husbandry, which directly contribute to people’s lives and welfare. We have written to the President and the Prime Minister. We are going to fight in the court too. We are now awaiting the Centre’s response. We will not succumb to any pressure and are ready to face the consequences.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 10:56:32 AM |

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