When Abdul Rafiq* (name changed) was playing a game of ball earlier this week, he bumped his head on the ground and got a serious injury. He was rushed to the hospital and his bleeding was immediately contained. The doctors advised that he travel from Minicoy Island to Kerala to get an X-ray and MRI done; but there were no ships to travel in. Disappointed, he returned home. He didn't wake up the next day.
Probable cause of death shown on death certificate: Head injury
Actual cause of death: Negligence by the government to provide access to healthcare and transport?
The Quint spoke to several residents of Lakshadweep who explained that their lives have been crippled due to the gradual reduction in the number of ships plying between the islands and mainland over the past two years, from seven ships to two.
On Thursday, several people marched to the secretariat in the capital, Kavaratti, demanding resumption of ship services connecting the islands to Kochi.
No Transport to Access Education & Healthcare: Locals
Lakshadweep is an archipelago of 36 islands with 10 of them inhabited by over 65,000 people.
June-August is one of the busiest periods of the year as several students travel to Kerala for higher education. Imraan* (name changed) told The Quint:
“This has been an issue since August 2021. Since January, it became more severe as many students missed out on weeks of classes because there weren't adequate ships. Now, because of the rainy season, smaller boats are also not operational, leaving us entirely dependent on ships, which aren’t there.”
Beyond disruption of education and other travel plans, the biggest issue, the locals alleged was that they have not been provided with transport even in the case of medical emergencies.
Salman Akhter* (name changed) who is a shopkeeper in Kavaratti recalled an incident from a month ago.
“A 10-year-old child fell down when he was playing. He broke his hand and so we took him to the hospital. There were no X-Ray facilities and so we tried getting a seat on the ship so as to travel to Kochi. But even after two weeks, we have not been successful. The doctor has put his hand in a cast and treated him for a fracture, despite having done no tests,” he said.
“We are also Indians who deserve access to basic needs. How can we not be able to take our kids to the hospital to check what is wrong? This is absurd.”Salma, Lakshadweep Local
Akbar Zubair from Kalpeni Island added that the procedure to get a chopper to facilitate air-lifting of patients to Kerala has also been made complicated; so many "have been denied access to healthcare."
The Seat Matrix
It is to be understood that waterways is the main mode of transport within the islands and to the mainland. An airstrip is located only in Lakshadweep's Agatti Island. From there, boats are available to Kavaratti and Kadmat during October to May. Helicopter transfer is available from Agatti to Kavaratti during monsoon season.
There are seven passenger ships – MV Kavaratti, MV Arabian Sea, MV Lakshadweep Sea, MV Lagoon, MV Corals, MV Amindivi, and MV Minicoy that operate between Kochi and Lakshadweep. The passage takes 14 to 18 hours and high speed vessels too operate between islands during peak season.
A local explained that earlier, people on every island had access to travel by a ship at least twice a week. However, in the past few months, every island has to wait for a fortnight or longer to get access to one ship. Recently, Minicoy and M V Amindivi, which used to operate to Beypore Harbour in Calicut, were decommissioned.
"A family had to extend their stay in Kerala by a month because they couldn't get tickets to travel back home. They aren't affluent people and lost so much money on accommodation and food. The uncertainty of returning home has scared them."Syed Malik*, Local
Explaining the seat matrix, Syed Malik* (name changed), who is a businessman who shuttles between Kerala and the islands said, "Earlier we had to stand in a long queue to buy a ticket but now everything is online. But the requirement doesn't match the availability and so getting a seat is like winning the lottery."
Several locals claimed that the seats get booked out, even if they log in in the morning.
However, the administration refuted this allegation stating, "On 8 July, MV Arabian Sea sailed from Kochi to Kavaratti and Agatti with 11 seats vacant. On 17 July, MV corals sailed from Kochi to Bitra, Chetlat, Kiltan, Kadmat, Amini, Agatti and Kavaratti with 75 vacant seats. And on 19 July, MV Arabian Sea sailed from Kochi to Agatti, Kavaratti, Bitra, Chetlat and Kiltan with 47 vacant seats. It is evident that many unsold tickets were there in the recent voyages and this clearly indicates the optimal planning and utilization of voyages of ships considering the requirement of the local population."
Administration Clarifies Why Services of 2 Ships Were Struck Down
Decommissioning, maintenance and repair are the reasons cited for the number of ships to be reduced.
Asker Ali, Secretary of the UT administration clarified that since two of the ships have been sent for maintenance and repair, three weather ships are operational now, for ensuring passenger connectivity between various islands and Kerala.
A panchayat leader questioned the Centre’s decision to stop the service of two crucial vessels between the UT and Kerala, a state with which they have had strong ties for several generations.
"Is this administration trying to weaken our ties with the mainland. We have our doubts that he is doing this to benefit players close to him which in turn is disrupting our businesses and lives," he added.
‘Protests Aim to Create a Fear Psychosis Against the Government Machinery’
Following the protest, authorities arrested a number of protesters, that triggered growing dissent among the public towards the Administrator Praful Patel.
The administration justified the arrests by stating “there are ill-intended news spread by certain elements with an intention to spread hatred and panic among the community.”
They said that the people who were arrested were found guilty of spreading “false and fabricated information” on social media platforms, print and electronic media."
“Protests which violate the law with an aim to create a fear psychosis against the government machinery so as to wean away the genuine support of people for the welfare measures of Lakshadweep Administration have to be dealt by the police to uphold the law.”Asker Ali, Secretary, UT of Lakshadweep Administration
Several locals condemned the administration for preventing the locals from exercising their right to protest.
The administration brushed aside allegations that they were “quelling democratic protesters.”
Patel has been infamous in the archipelago since he came to power in 2020. The former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader had served as the home minister of Gujarat under Narendra Modi when the latter was the chief minister in 2010.
The locals have slammed him for his “anti-people” and “authoritarian” policies that include a proposed cow slaughter ban, a decision to remove meat and chicken from mid-day meals and the closure of dairy farms citing financial loss. The matter is pending in the Supreme Court.
“But what is taking place in the name of protests is a political stunt. Similar to the high rush of passengers in trains during peak seasons, the vacation season is to blame for the increased demand for services and the associated difficulties,” he told The Indian Express.