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Develop Lakshadweep, But Not On BJP Model: Former Administrator

‘None of the issues Lakshadweep faces today need Praful Patel’s measures. Here’s why,’ explains Wajahat Habibullah

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image of Wajahat Habibullah, former administrator of Lakshadweep (R) and Praful Patel, current administrator, used for representational purposes.
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Claiming that there has been ‘no development’ in Lakshadweep for the past 70 years, the Administrator of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, Praful Khoda Patel, posted as Administrator, Lakshadweep since December 2020, has proposed:

  • a cow slaughter ban in a territory where there are no cows
  • a preventive detention law where there is no crime
  • and a draft law undermining tribal ownership — ostensibly for land development — with judicial remedy denied, with plans for road-widening in islands in which the maximum road length is 11 km

Other initiatives include relaxing prohibition, extant in the Union Territory (UT) because of public demand. Worse, Patel’s occasional visits to the UT and relaxation of quarantine restrictions for travel to and from there have brought to the islands a pandemic of which they had been totally free.

What 1989 Island Development Authority Report Had Recommended for Lakshadweep

A paradise set in the heart of the Arabian Sea is the archipelago of Lakshadweep. A Union Territory since 1956, this chain of 36 coral islands — of which 10 are inhabited by 66,000 islanders in 32 sq. km, nestled 200 to 440 km off the Kerala coastline — gives India a vast 400,000 sq. kms of the Indian Ocean as an exclusive economic zone.

Shoals of skipjack tuna and yellow fin tuna swim these waters, making them a rich fishing ground. The language, except in Minicoy, is Malayalam, while in Minicoy Mahl is spoken, a language akin to17th century Divehi of the Maldives. This Muslim society is based on matriarchal joint families with women serving as the head of household until at least 1990, when I served as Administrator (1987-90), following a stint in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which I regard as easily the most enriching assignment of my career.

A specially constituted Island Development Authority for the island territories of India, chaired by no less than the prime minister had, in Kavaratti in 1988, approved a framework for the development of India’s island territories. The report concludes: “An environmentally sound strategy for both island groups hinges on better exploitation of marine resources coupled with much greater care in the use of land resources”.Published in 1989, the report carried six recommendations for Lakshadweep.

And by the conclusion of my own term as Administrator, the UT had — apart from its decentralised political entity from the adoption of Panchayati raj even before the constitutional amendments of ’93 — its own airport, a flourishing tourist industry with an international tourist resort in Bangaram that was — according to its first franchisee Jose Domini — to trigger ecotourism in Kerala, serviced by a luxury cruise liner the ‘Tipu Sultan’ which had been imported from Italy where it had sailed as the SS Santorini.

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Lakshadweep’s Futuristic Outlook

Lakshadweep is a tribal area, its land ownership constitutionally protected. Rainwater harvesting was therefore introduced in government buildings on every island. Today, every home in the islands has that facility.

Solar power for lighting makes Lakshadweep a pioneer in India’s present flagship initiative to address global warming. All islands are connected by helicopter and high speed passenger boats purchased on international tender.

A study by the Institute of Oceanography had helped redesign the tripods reinforcing beaches against erosion, and water supply especially designed to protect the fresh water lens that floats on saline seawater at the kernel of every coral island.

The UT has long boasted of total literacy. It has a degree college in Kadmat designed by KT Ravindran, an authority on vernacular building traditions, who was to become Dean and Professor and Head of the Department of Urban Design at New Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture. Minicoy had among the country’s first Navodaya Vidyalayas. The vernacular building tradition was the theme of all government housing undertaken in the islands in the ‘80s, with leading architects providing the design.

Kavaratti had a desalination plant gifted by the Danish government, powered by wind.
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The office of the Administrator, Lakshadweep became among the first in India to be computerised with a mainframe and Fax machine, and every island in Lakshadweep had a computer by 1990.

Endorsed with outlays by the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Finance Commissions (1984-2005), this established — in the words of the last of these Commissions — “speedy and accurate generation of accounting information that might be needed for purposes of better planning, budgeting and monitoring”.

And although the poverty line in terms of GDP is only slightly higher than the World Bank’s poverty threshold, Lakshadweep today has no poor.

Need for Lakshadweep’s Development Model to Be People-Centric

In January 2020, the Government of India listed the islands in Lakshadweep for holistic development, to promote tourism on the basis of public-private partnership (PPP), and offer facilities to export seafood and coconut products manufactured in the islands. Development plans on this basis have been prepared, and implementation has begun on five islands. Opening Lakshadweep to international tourism was planned not as a means of generating wealth for investors from the mainland, but for bringing prosperity to the islanders.

Specifically, rejecting the Maldives model, the plan for Lakshadweep required that the industry stay people-centric. and enrich the fragile coral ecology.

Training of local youngsters in water sports, including professional scuba and deep sea diving, became the backbone of a thriving water sports industry in India led by entrepreneurs such as the Mumbai-based Prahlad Kakkar.

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Using local resources, Bangaram had risen by the turn of the century to be a coveted destination, and commanded what was then a lucrative rent of USD 700 per night for a cottage and USD 450 for a room, with no air conditioning, no television in the guest rooms and a telephone only in the resort lounge. 70 percent electricity came from solar energy, and efforts were made, albeit unsuccessfully, to harvest wind energy. An array of national and international celebrities were guests, including film star Richard Gere, and by the then 90-year-old legendary Nazi filmmaker, ‘Leni’ Riefenstahl, who dived there.

Lakshadweep Needs a Clear Developmental Policy That Accounts for Conservation

Today, longlines and refrigeration has aided the expansion of the fishing sector, but income disparities have grown. Hence, the government’s recognition of the need to develop policies for enhancing employment opportunities, management of fisheries, sanitation, waste disposal and drinking water, none of which requires any of the measures announced by Patel.

Revenue from tourism has declined, with the closure of resorts including Bangaram. A clear policy that includes conservation and natural resource management, arrived at after wide consultation — eminently possible within the UT’s existing infrastructure — is needed to ensure a sustainable future.

Administrator Praful Patel is quoted in the press as saying: “Not people of Lakshadweep, but a few whose interests are getting jeopardised are opposing (the draft regulations)”.

But how, Mr Patel, can the people object unless asked?

(With extracts from Wajahat Habibullah: My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy, Westland 2020)

(Wajahat Habibullah, veteran IAS officer, was the chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities. Prior to this, he held the position of the first Chief Information Commissioner of India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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