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Maldives Row: As Centre Focuses on Lakshadweep, Land Rights Remain a Sore Point

In 2019, the island saw massive protests over administrator Praful Patel's 'anti-people' & 'authoritarian' policies.

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In the midst of online and offline debates around India and Maldives – triggered by 'derogatory' tweets by a few Maldivian politicians (which eventually led to their suspension) – and a coordinated effort by India's netizens to promote tourism on Indian islands, an earlier proposal to build a second airport in Lakshadweep has been revived.

In a letter dated 8 January – a copy of which has been accessed by The Quint – which was signed by Additional District Magistrate of Lakshadweep, R Giri Sankar, a host of development projects has been proposed, including developing a new airfield in the Minicoy Islands in Lakshadweep and increasing its capacity to accommodate tourists.

As per the present proposal, the Indian Air Force will take the lead in running operations from Minicoy.

In 2019, the island saw massive protests over administrator Praful Patel's 'anti-people' & 'authoritarian' policies.

List of developmental projects proposed on the islands.

(Copy accessed by The Quint)

At present, the Union Territory has only one airport, on Agatti Islands. A single Alliance Air flight operates daily between Agatti and Kochi, Kerala – its gateway to the mainland.

"We have one airport in Agatti, capable of holding ATR 72 flights. There is a proposal to expand the airport to make it suitable for Airbus 320 landings," Dr Sankar told The Quint, speaking about the renewed focus on improving connectivity to Lakshadweep.

ATR 72 flights are used for short-haul and regional routes – and have a standard seating capacity of 72 passengers. Airbus 320 are narrow-body airlines which can seat double – anywhere between 150 and 170 passengers.

Apart from that, Dr Sankar said at least two new airlines have been rostered to operate in Lakshadweep under the UDAN Scheme by the Government of India. "They are expected to start operations by the end of this month or in the next month," he added.

UDAN Scheme aims to provide air connectivity to Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities.

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Speaking about Minicoy, Dr Sankar said, "A proposal to build a new greenfield airport has also been sent to the Union Cabinet. It will also be capable of landing Airbus 320 flights."

"The reason for choosing Minicoy Island is because it is close to the 8-degree channel, which separates Maldives from the rest of India. Minicoy Island is located just north of the 8-degree channel.
Dr R Giri Sankar, Additional District Magistrate, Lakshadweep

Sources told The Quint that both these proposals are in their advanced stages of approval with the Union Cabinet, and for all these developmental plans, land acquisition would be done as per the Land Acquisition Act of 2013.

However, there is more to the story. Even as the government pitches 'development', locals – as well as the Lakshadweep MP – are opposing the move in its current form.

'Praful Patel Wants to Use Land Arbitrarily'

"For any development, you need land. And the people of this island have had land registered under them for years," claimed Lakshadweep MP Mohammed Faizal Padippura.

"The administrator of this island [Praful Khoda Patel] wants to use this land arbitrarily. He contends that the land – especially in islands where there is no habitation – belongs to the government. This is an argument that has never been raised with regard to Lakshadweep before or after Independence."
Lakshadweep MP Mohammed Faizal Padippura

In December 2023 – ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit – the Lakshadweep District Collector had issued orders for land acquisition for the development of "high-end eco-tourism projects and allied infrastructures" in various islands of Lakshadweep.

"Lakshadweep Islands have vast potential for tourism and will help in employment generation and economic development of the Islands. The return on investment is also very high for tourism projects. Therefore, these projects are highly essential for ensuring the overall development of the islands as well as the Islanders," the orders, copies of which have been accessed by The Quint, read.

The requisition order was for pandaram lands, which are under the possession of cowledars. Pandaram lands, in short, fall in the uninhabited parts of the islands, which are used by local families – or cowledars – for cultivation. These lands are found in Androth, Kalpeni, Kavaratti, Agatti, and Minicoy islands.

The Laccadive, Minicay and Amindivi Islands Land Revenue and Tenancy Regulation of 1965 reportedly mentions that the cowledars who possessed the land before and in 1965 have rights over it. However, they do not have deeds to show ownership.

In 2019, the Union government took steps to provide ownership deeds to cowledars, as per a report by The News Minute. This, however, was reversed once Praful Patel took change as administrator.

The District Collector, in the orders issued in December 2023, claimed that "the proprietary rights of pandaram lands as per Section 2(s) of the Laccadive, Minicay and Amindivi Islands Land Revenue and Tenancy Regulation are vested with the government."

"The aforementioned pandaram lands were given for the purpose of agriculture, and occupancy rights have not been conferred to these pandaram landholders ... Therefore, the cowledars in this extant matter are eligible only for the legal improvements effected by them in the lands mentioned above," the orders further said.

Opposing these orders, several local families whose pandaram lands were to be acquired filed writ petitions before the Kerala High Court last month. The court, in orders issued on 9 January, has stayed the acquisition of the pandaram lands, The Quint has learnt.

"Even before the prime minister's visit, Praful Patel had claimed that certain lands are that of the government's, and as a result, he says that whatever the people of Lakshadweep have grown in these lands – like coconut plantations – will be removed and compensated for. He had sent notices to some parts of the island regarding this. These notices are all under stay in the Kerala High Court. The court knows that there is no proof to claim that these lands belong to the administration."
Lakshadweep MP Mohammed Faizal Padippura

The Protests Against Draft Regulations

In 2021, Lakshadweep had witnessed massive protests by the locals due to several draft proposals issued by administrator Patel, which included the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 (LDAR 2021), the Goonda Act, and the introduction of liquor shops, and beef ban, among others.

The LDAR 2021 gave the administrator powers to remove or relocate islanders from their property, for town planning or any developmental activity. The draft bill also gave the government and its bodies arbitrary and unchecked power to directly interfere with an islander's right to possess and retain their property, the locals had told The Quint then.

The plan to resurrect developmental work after the prime minister's recent visit, and the row with Maldives, has islanders questioning the route that the central government will take.

"We are not against tourism, we need development, we need employment. We are all on the same page. However, development should be done by ensuring that it doesn't affect the rights and land ownership of the people of the island," said MP Faizal.

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Dr Sankar, however, assured that no developmental work would take place without the consent and involvement of locals in the atolls. 

"Lakshadweep can't have open tourism. Over here, we have something called the Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP). The last management plan was submitted in 2016. A study was done to calculate the island-carrying capacity for each island. So, everything would be done based on that. IIMP limit would never be breached," said Dr Sankar. 

Even before the prime minister's visit, several developmental works and proposals were carried out to increase tourism in the archipelago, including increasing the room capacity of the premium Bangaram Resort from 32 to 64; and construction of 150 rooms land- and water-based villas in Suheli and Kadmat Island by Indian Hotel Group in Agatti.

Apart from that, a 100-room tent city is coming up, a proposal for 200 tents to be erected at Thinnakara Island has been made, and a policy to promote homestays in Lakshadweep is in the pipeline.

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What Does the Island Need?

Apart from tourism, the administration plans to work on the essential needs of the islands. "Solid waste management and the availability of freshwater are already in our focus. Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the NIOT (National Institute of Ocean Technology) plant on Kadmat Island," said Dr Sankar.

"A new technology called LTDT (Low Temperature Thermal Desalination) plant was introduced under the Jal Jeevan Mission. This will be implemented across islands," he further noted, adding that the IIMP 2016, which also considers environmental aspects and ecology of the islands, will be followed while implementing any developmental measures.

Speaking to CNN-News18 after the Maldives row, Praful Patel had said the administration was not worried about the inflow of tourists as Lakshadweep had sufficient infrastructure to handle them. He also said that resorts and villas were being constructed on some of the islands for tourists.

“This will help with accommodation. We have received direction on the development of tourism, and we are working on that. Some islands are strategically important so to keep a check on that, the system that is there [of taking online permits] if it continues, then there shouldn’t be an issue…”

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