Former civil servants write to PM expressing concern about disturbing developments in Lakshadweep

SINCE his appointment as the Administrator of Lakshadweep in December 2020, P. K. Patel has brought about some drastic regulations in the Union Territory, like the Goonda Act, the two-child policy for Panchayat poll aspirants, and a beef ban. In light of this, a group of former civil servants have written a letter to  the Prime Minister Narendra Modi about disturbing developments in Lakshadweep in the name of ‘development’.

In the letter, the group has raised concerns over P.K. Patel assuming additional charge of Administrator of Lakshadweep, who is also the Administrator of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu.

Since his appointment,  Patel has introduced drafts of three new legislations, namely the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR), the Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation (commonly known as PASA or the Goonda Act elsewhere), and the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation (LAPR) – as well as an amendment to the Lakshadweep Panchayat Staff Rules that have generated widespread anxiety in Lakshadweep and the nation at large.

These drafts have been introduced without local consultation and are at present with the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India for necessary approvals.

The draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR) has been introduced based on the claim that there has been no development in Lakshadweep for the past seventy years.

According to the letter, “the LDAR reflects a model of land and tourism development which includes resorts, hotels, and beachfront on the ‘Maldives model’ unmindful of the differences between the two island groups in size, population, number of islands and their spread.”

The letter highlights that the draft provisions that permit “building, engineering, mining, quarrying or other operations in, on, over or under land, the cutting of a hill or any portion thereof or the making of any material change in any building or land or in the use of any building including sub-division of any land” for highways, etc. in small islands that barely exceed 3-4 km in length, constitute a serious threat to the fragile ecosystem of Lakshadweep.

It further claims that the LDAR ignores the unique geography of the UT and its community life and proposes a development plan without any consultation with the inhabitants, while vesting arbitrary and draconian powers in the Administrator to acquire, alter, and transfer properties and/or remove or relocate islanders from their property, for town planning or any developmental activity. This has become a cause of concern as it threatens the islanders’ rights to possess and retain their property.

Recent reports suggest that the administration has already razed beach huts, storing boats, nets, and other fishing equipment of local fishermen, presumably to clear beaches for tourism development, alleging that they had encroached onto government land and citing violations of the Coastal Regulation Zone rules and the Coast Guard Act. However, the fishermen are exempt from Coastal Regulation Zone rules.

Concerns over dispossession of land, predatory corporate development, and destruction of the environment have been compounded by the draft PASA, a preventive detention act that enables the Administrator to detain any person for up to a year for common crimes (like anti-social behaviour, smuggling contraband drugs, and liquor, involvement in immoral traffic, land grabbing, cyber-crimes, sexual offenses or damaging the environment).

National security concerns in a sensitive maritime area, including infiltration of terrorists and arms, have also been cited in support of the Act.

In a territory where, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, crime rates are very low compared to the rest of India, it has generated fears that the real purpose of the act is to smother dissent or protests against the policies and actions of the Administrator or any other issue.

Another grievance raised by the group is how the regulations proposed by the Administrator targets food and dietary habits and religious injunctions of the local islanders, 96.5% of whom are Muslims. The LAPR, if passed into law, will effectively ban the killing of bovine animals and prohibit the consumption, storage, transport, or sale of cattle meat in an island environment where there are inherent limits to livestock development.

On an island where fruits, vegetables, cereals, and pulses have to be supplied and distributed from the mainland by sea and are frequently not fresh, where fishing is risky during the monsoon months, and meat is part of their daily diet, non-vegetarian food has been arbitrarily removed from mid-day school meals. Also, a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol has been lifted to promote tourism.

The letter also expressed disappointment over the fact that the changes being proposed by the Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021 for elections to gram panchayats, which will disqualify candidates with more than two children from contesting seats for the gram panchayat, have been proposed without any local consultation or taking into account local sensitivities.

It further stated that if the District Dweep Panchayat was not consulted for new legislation, particularly those as disruptive as the LDAR, PASA, and LAPR, the public would see it as just grabbing land for real estate, property, and tourism interests.

Most crucially, the letter highlights how the arrival of the Administrator aggravated problems relating to COVID. Until his appointment in December 2020, Lakshadweep did not report a single case of COVID-19. With his arrival and occasional visits, mandatory quarantine guidelines and SOPs for those arriving from the mainland were done away with, leading to the first reported case of COVID-19 on 18 January 2021, the first Covid death on 24 February 2021, and some 5000 cases, 14 deaths and an alarming test positivity rate of 68%, leading to a total lockdown situation until recently.

The letter ends with a request to the Prime Minister to discard the proposed policies as they are misconceived and threaten to disrupt the peaceful tribal population. Furthermore, it asks the Prime Minister to provide the Union Territory with a full-time, people-sensitive, and responsive Administrator, who would work in consultation with the public.

(Hamza Lakdawala is a journalism graduate, who is pursuing his LL.B. at Mumbai University. He is currently a Research Associate at the Chambers of Senior Advocate Indira Jaising.)

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