Is Lakshadweep India's answer to the Maldives? The islanders don't think so

The people of Lakshadweep are anything but thrilled with the attention

PTI01_04_2024_000234B Making a statement: Prime Minister Modi during his recent visit to Lakshadweep | PTI

In 2019, a genetic study on the population of the Lakshadweep islands was published in the peer-reviewed Scientific Reports. The findings indicated that the inhabitants of this 36-island archipelago share close genetic ties with people in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India. Moreover, the researchers discovered a notable ‘founder effect’ in both paternal and maternal lineages of the islanders, which means that the population had limited genetic mixing. This suggested that they are their own people, and have for hundreds of years inhabited the islands and formed a bond with their land.

In the Maldives, there are reportedly 59,924 tourist beds. MP Mohammed Faizal Padippura said this number was close to 100 for Lakshadweep.
Since assuming control in 2020, Administrator Praful Khoda Patel has made a series of controversial decisions, sparking mass protests in the islands.

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Lakshadweep―and the ensuing controversy triggered by derogatory remarks by some Maldivian officials―a widespread campaign urged Indians to ditch the Maldives and head to Lakshadweep.

The initial enthusiasm, however, faded as the people got a reality check; there are few places to stay on the archipelago and the ecosystem is not built for a massive influx of tourists.

The islanders were measured in their response to the massive attention and the big talk of development. In fact, many of them are now gearing up for legal battles to counter any efforts that would ride roughshod over their rights in the name of tourism and development.

An island of woes

Najmudheen C.T., 47, a mukhtar (local law practitioner) hailing from Kalpeni―287km from Kochi, and home to rare flora and fauna―said he could not bring his infant’s body back to the island when he died of a medical complication at a private hospital in Kochi in 2018. The boy had an infection and was airlifted to the mainland. “This is not my fate alone. It is the fate of every ordinary person in Lakshadweep,” he added. “For every serious medical case, we still have to go to Kochi in an air ambulance. The air ambulances―operated by the port department, not the health department―do not fly after 6pm. With only three or four helicopters for the entire population (around 68,000), the opportunity to fly is determined more by a patient’s influence than their medical condition.”

The move to Kochi becomes necessary because Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kavaratti, the only major hospital on the islands, is understaffed and ill-equipped to handle complicated cases.

Lakshadweep MP Mohammed Faizal Padippura told THE WEEK that though he was happy that there was a lot of attention on Lakshadweep, there was a lot the administration had to do. “Connectivity is the biggest part,” he said. “If you look for air connectivity, we have only one flight a day. Both tourists and islanders have to depend on the same flight.”

25-Youngsters-on-a-beach-in-Lakshadweep Vacation, vexation: Youngsters on a beach in Lakshadweep | Shutterstock

Agatti―an inhabited island 459km from Kochi where fishing, coir and copra are the main industries―has the only airstrip of the archipelago. While Maldives receives direct flights from 40 capitals, Alliance Air operates a solitary 72-seater aircraft between Kochi and Agatti every day. Post Modi’s visit, when THE WEEK last checked, no seats were available till the end of March.

Fuel, said Najmudheen, was also a problem in most of the islands. “Only four islands―Kavaratti, Minicoy, Kalpeni and Andrott―have fuel pumps; everywhere else, fuel is brought in barrels and is sold at exorbitant rates,” he said. “We pay more than Rs250 for a litre of petrol here. You need to be influential to get fuel also! We need to show our RC book to get it.”

Ship connectivity to the mainland is another nightmare. “Though we have five ships, two will be under maintenance at any point of time,” said Faizal. “So, how do we connect with tourists?” The ships take three to five days to make a round trip.

In the Maldives, there are reportedly 59,924 tourist beds. Faizal said this number was close to 100 for Lakshadweep. “So, we are not in a position to accept the demand we have now,” he said. And even if someone wanted to come and build hotels and resorts, he added, the administration would have to take the people of Lakshadweep into confidence. And that hurdle is linked to land acquisition and compensation, and related legal fights.

Happy, not happy!

During his recent visit, Modi laid the foundation stone for a series of development projects worth Rs1,156 crore, including a submarine optical fibre cable connecting Kochi and Lakshadweep, the renovation of the primary health care facility at Kalpeni and the construction of model anganwadi centres. The prime minister announced these projects in the presence of both the Administrator Praful Khoda Patel and MP Faizal, who are not on the same page about development plans.

One of the contentious issues they are divided on is the use of ‘pandaram land’ to execute the development plans. The administration is apparently, contrary to convention, trying to acquire pandaram land from the islanders without compensating them for the land value.

Misbah A., a former member of the Union home ministry’s advisory committee for the archipelago, said the islanders were not against development and tourism. “But what is the problem in making us stakeholders and partners in these developments?” he asked, adding that the administration’s recent moves were directed at grabbing land from the islanders. “In Lakshadweep, 100 per cent of the land is owned by islanders, except for those that the government has acquired by paying compensation,” he said. Pandaram land, he said, was created when the islands were under attack from Portuguese colonisers. The Arakkal [Cannanore] kingdom―to which the islands belonged―appropriated uninhabited land on the periphery of the islands to protect local residents. Later, under British rule, islanders were allowed to occupy pandaram land as cultivating tenants.

24-Administrator-Praful-Khoda-Patel Administrator Praful Khoda Patel at a meeting with residents of the islands | X@prafulkpatel

“On this land, people were not only allowed to farm, but also to build houses,” said Misbah. And many did, given the rise in population over the years. Pandaram land on uninhabited islands have been farmed seasonally for more than a century now. “Approximately 49.5 per cent of the total land holdings of islanders [in Minicoy, Kalpeni, Andrott, Kavaratti and Agatti, and the attached uninhabited islands] are pandaram land,” said lawyer P. Deepak, who is currently representing the islanders in the Kerala High Court.

In 1965, the Union government had introduced the Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi Islands Land Revenue and Tenancy Regulation, 1965. “Section 83 of this regulation empowered the administrator to confer occupancy rights to the occupants of the pandaram land,” said Misbah. “All those who occupied pandaram land before this regulation were considered legal occupiers. But now, the current administrator is taking steps to take over land without giving us any compensation.”

A lot of the land, however, was not regularised according to the 1965 regulation, perhaps because of red tape. But administrators in Lakshadweep, traditionally, have given compensation while acquiring pandaram land, said Deepak. That is, until the current administrator showed up. Praful Khoda Patel is the first non-bureaucrat administrator in Lakshadweep’s history. Since assuming control in 2020, he has made a series of controversial decisions, sparking mass protests in the islands in 2021. These decisions―including the introduction of an Act that allowed the administration to detain a person for up to one year without trial, the banning of cow slaughter on the archipelago, and the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, which apparently grants arbitrary powers to the administrator to acquire land―are awaiting the Union home ministry’s approval. With the recent moves to acquire pandaram land, Patel’s administration is adopting a confrontational stand against the islanders.

“In June 2023, a Kerala High Court single bench made an observation (in a civil case) that said that the administration possesses the proprietary right to pandaram land,” said Deepak. “The court outlined that those lacking occupancy rights were not entitled to the land’s value but only to the value of improvements (crops or buildings they might have grown or built on the land).

“The administration started using this as a basis to initiate steps for land takeover. Though not explicitly citing the judgment, they began identifying all pandaram landholders. The collector issued orders, declaring that, for reasons such as high-end tourism or other developmental activities, the administration was assuming control of the land.”

B. Abdul Jaleel, a former sub-divisional officer from Agatti, said that in 1971, H.S. Dubey, then deputy secretary to the Government of India, wrote a letter to the Lakshadweep administrator regarding the acquisition of land for government purposes. THE WEEK accessed the letter, which said: “As regards pandaram land in the occupation of ex-cowleders (pandaram landholders) whose cowles have expired, but have been conferred with occupancy rights under Section 83 of the Laccadive, Minicoy, and Amindivi Islands Land Revenue and Tenancy Regulation, 1965, their rights as occupants would have to be recognized, and they would have to be paid compensation for the acquisition of their land under the Land Acquisition Act.”

However, in the wake of the Kerala High Court’s observation and an amendment to the 1965 regulation in October 2023―which removed a clause favouring pandaram land holders that a 2020 amendment had put in―the administration instructed deputy collectors to assess the value of ‘improvements’ on these properties for the “sanctioning of compensation”. “They have been explicitly telling the people that they are entitled only to a modest sum allocated for the number of coconut trees and other improvements, not for the value of the land,” said Deepak. “This prompted islanders to start filing writ petitions. We have filed nearly 200 petitions so far. Now we are progressing with cases, bringing together all those affected from one specific area under a single writ.”

The islanders have secured a stay from dispossession and are preparing for a protracted legal battle. Activists like Misbah alleged that the administrator was deliberately taking steps to harass the islanders.

“For instance, there was a proposal to establish a military and civil airport in the northern part of Minicoy, and we were ready for that,” he said. “But now the administrator has asked to move the location to south pandaram land―a measure that would displace and affect more people.”

An official from the administration, who did not want to be named, told THE WEEK that an airport in south pandaram land would have a more significant social impact. “In contrast to the northern strip of Minicoy [which is largely barren], south pandaram is broader, rich in flora, and houses a historic lighthouse [established in 1885]. I do not believe an airport will be built there.”

THE WEEK tried to contact the secretary and director of port shipping and aviation in Lakshadweep, but they are yet to respond to specific questions.

Faizal said he had expected Modi to speak on the land acquisition issue when he visited Lakshadweep. “This is an issue that has to be settled by speaking to the people. Their rights have to be protected,” he said.

Interestingly, former BJP Lakshadweep president, C. Abdul Khader Haji, said the administrator had assured him that the value of land will be compensated when the government takes over pandaram land. His family also holds pandaram land. THE WEEK contacted the administrator’s office for an interview, but he is yet to give an appointment.

“When the administrator is taking a stand that this land does not belong to people, things go in a different direction,” said Faizal. “Unless and until this is sorted, how will the investors come to Lakshadweep to invest in tourism?”