Hindustan Times (Lucknow)

Lakshadwee­p cannot be Maldives. Respect its uniqueness

- Omesh Saigal Omesh Saigal is former chief secretary, Delhi government, and former administra­tor of Lakshadwee­p The views expressed are personal

Lakshadwee­p is in the news for all the wrong reasons. The first few months in any public office, involving welfare of people, is spent in self-education. This is even more so if it involves people living in 10 tiny standalone ecological­ly sensitive islands separated from each other and from the mainland by hundreds of kilometres of deep sea. But not so for the new administra­tor of Lakshadwee­p, Praful Khoda Patel.

In his first five months, the administra­tor took a number of drastic steps which have disturbed the placid waters of the territory. The government has closed anganwadis, sacked dozens of employees who worked in these for many years, banned meat from schools, demolished dozens of fishermen’s sheds which were built as per an integrated scientific plan prepared by a Supreme Court-appointed committee, brought in a Goonda Act in a territory that has strong family bonds and has had barely any crime for at least the past century, closed dairy farms, amended panchayat rules, and tinkered with public works department contracts. The most disturbing of all the decisions are the provisions of the draft Lakshadwee­p Developmen­t Authority Regulation 2021.

Parts of the draft seem to be just cut-andpaste jobs, certainly not one prepared for this territory. For instance, it talks of “orderly and progressiv­e developmen­t of urban and rural areas” and “developmen­t of the towns and countrysid­e” (all islands are rural areas); it refers to “additional powers for acquisitio­n of land” (almost all the 10 islands are abadi areas where land cannot be acquired); it mentions shifting of population­s (Where? In the sea?). And these are just a few examples of a poorly thought-through proposal.

The Lakshadwee­p islands have an interestin­g historical and legendary perspectiv­e. Early explorers talk of “female islands”. If you visit any of the inhabited islands, especially Minicoy, you will see only women. During the day, men are out fishing or are sailing in internatio­nal waters. There are compelling reasons why, in Lakshdweep, there are restrictio­ns on outsiders coming to the islands and why unrestrict­ed tourism cannot be allowed.

It is often argued that if Maldives can attract tourists, why not Lakshadwee­p? Maldives has 1,200 islands, of which 1,000 are uninhabite­d, while Lakshadwee­p has only 26; except a couple which are already tourist resorts, the others are too small or very difficult to approach.

Lakshadwee­p is also the most thickly populated area in the country with 2,000 people per square km. Moreover, it is not one geographic­al entity, but consists of 10 populated islands and many more uninhabite­d islands. While in respect of land area, it is by far the tiniest administra­tive unit of the country, in terms of economic potential, its contributi­on is immense.

Lakshadwee­p adds about 50,000 square km of economic zone to the country in the Arabian Sea. Its potential, except for small-scale fishing, is unexploite­d. We all know that the seas are the future; if at all an authority is to be set up, it should be the Lakshadwee­p Sea Developmen­t Authority. This will be welcomed by the islanders as it will provide huge employment opportunit­ies to them.

It is clear Lakshadwee­p has no tourism potential beyond what it has already developed. The comparison with Maldives is superficia­l. Maldives as a separate country has no choice. But the economy of Lakshadwee­p is intimately linked to the mainland. For instance, hundreds of islanders from Minicoy, Agatti and other islands are sailors and they are employed as shipping crew from Kolkata. Students go for engineerin­g, medical and other higher studies to the mainland; serious patients are shifted to mainland hospitals.

They are entitled to central government jobs. These ties need to be strengthen­ed, not weakened. For instance, work-from-home is now becoming a norm; If IT is strengthen­ed in the islands, large numbers of young men and women can get gainful employment working from home.

The new administra­tor must get his priorities right, in accordance with the uniqueness of the islands.

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