The series of administrative reforms, which are being vehemently opposed by the residents of the Lakshadweep islands as well as many in Kerala, have left many government staff unemployed in the Union Territory.

A group of residents of the Kiltan island protest the new administrative reforms in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep. Protesters are holding some party flags and an effigy of the Lakshadweep Collector.Residents of Kiltan island protest in Lakshadweep
news Labour and employment Sunday, May 30, 2021 - 14:19

On March 10, 2021, around 8 pm, a Lakshadweep Forest Department team left Agatti island in Lakshadweep as soon as they got credible information that some people were planning to poach sea cucumbers near Perumal Par, an uninhabited coral atoll. “Around 6 am, we spotted two boats suspiciously parked. We checked the boats and found at least 486 dead sea cucumbers on board,” said Ashkar (name changed), an anti-poaching watcher of Agatti, who accompanied the Lakshadweep Forest Department team of two foresters, five forest guards, and 35 Lakshadweep Marine Wildlife Protection Force Watchers of the Thinnakara anti-poaching camp. Sea cucumbers, an important component of the coral ecosystem, are endangered species under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

The seized boats and the seven accused were brought to Agatti range office headquarters. “Our superior office told us that the sea cucumbers were worth approximately Rs 5 crore and there is a chance that we might get promoted,” said Ashkar. However, two months later, the Department of Environment and Forest issued an order, which said, “All watchers engaged under APO (army post office) for Marine Wildlife Protection Watchers and establishment of temporary anti-poaching camps in all the protected areas of Lakshadweep are hereby disengaged with effect from June 1, 2021, till August 31, 2021, and until further orders.”   

The order, signed by the Range Forest Officer CN Abdul Raheem, cited restriction of the movement of patrolling boats on the island during the monsoon as the reason. Instead of a promotion, the 35 anti-poaching watchers in Agatti and 165 watchers from other islands got terminated until further notification. The Lakshadweep Marine Wildlife Protection Force Watchers of the Thinnakara anti-poaching camp was set up to protect the marine wildlife in the Lakshadweep islands.

Incidentally, the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation is one of the several draft reforms that BJP politician Praful Khoda Patel introduced when he took charge as the new Administrator of Lakshadweep in December 2020. Praful Khoda Patel introduced a series of laws that disrupt the socioeconomic structure and traditions of Lakshadweep, an archipelago of 36 islands, inhabited by 94% indigenous communities classified as Scheduled Tribes (ST), according to the Indian Constitution. These administrative reforms, which are being vehemently opposed by the Lakshadweep islands' residents and many in Kerala, have left many government staff unemployed. 

Read: An assault on culture and nature: Why Lakshadweep is against Administrator Patel

According to a government employee, at least 9,600 people are employed in various government sectors in the Union Territory. Of this, there are at least 5,500 permanent posts and 4,100 are casual labourers, additional labourers and contractual appointments. There are at least 1,000 contractual appointments in different sectors, including the revenue, forest and wildlife, tourism and health departments.

“After the new administrator took charge, more than 500 people who were on contract employment were terminated. The termination includes 200 marine watchers employed under the Forest and Wildlife Department, 197 additional labourers in the Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (SPORTS), 30 contract surveyors in the Revenue Department and scores of others from the Women and Child Development Department and Health Department,” said the employee on the condition of anonymity.

Immediate future uncertain

Ashkar started his career as an anti-poaching watcher in November 2020, after 45 days of rigorous training, both physical and theoretical. “The admission test, too, was intensive. We had to cover five kilometres by foot within a few minutes, float in water for 10 minutes and also had a tough interview,” he recounted. Although his contract was signed for a year, clauses said the employee can be terminated at any time. But Ali expected a renewal of the contract as it was a uniformed service.

Lakshadweep MP and Nationalist Congress Party Leader Mohammed Faizal PP termed the administrator’s move as an “unscientific decision that threatens the existence of common people”. He said, “Majority of the residents of the island are dependent on government jobs for survival. If these employees, who are an integral part of the system, are dismissed, the efficiency of the departments will be affected. The administration did not consult any of the elected representatives before making such decisions.”

In a press meet held in Kochi on May 27, Lakshadweep Collector Asker Ali hailed these reforms as development.

Thirty-year-old Razak joined the Society for Promotion of Natural Tourism and Sports (SPORTS) as a housekeeping staff at a resort in Kavaratti in May 2018. There are at least 600 employees under SPORTS, the society formed by the Lakshadweep administration in 1982 to promote tourism and water sports. Razak’s works in two shifts, from 6 am to 11.30 am and 2.30 pm to 6 pm. He received a salary of Rs 12,000 per month.

“On February 2, 2021, we got a notice that the SPORTS has decided to disengage 193 additional casual labourers with immediate effects till further order. The order said that SPORTS is unable to generate enough revenue to pay salary to the staff and to take care of the operation and management of the organisation,” alleged Razak. He is hoping that he will be recruited again once the funds are sorted. “Last year, during the off-season in June, we were terminated but taken back in August,” he added.

Some alleged that many employees are made to work without salary and even when their contract has not been renewed. Thirty-year-old Shaheed, a DYFI member in the Union Territory, spoke to TNM about his friend, who worked as a contract employee in the survey office. According to Shaheed, his friend has not received his salary for the last two months. “Although the administration ended their contract in February, they are still doing hard labour, surveying lands for the government projects,” Shaheed alleged.

Incidentally, the files of the contract employees are renewed at the Collector’s office and approved by the administrator.

Lakshadweep Communist Party of India state secretary CT Najmuddin said that the absence of a strong labour court and labour union made it easy for the administration to implement such anti-labour policies. “Lakshadweep is controlled by bureaucrats. Only the top-level officers are the organised groups in the Union Territory. Although there are two government employees’ unions here, they hardly raise the issue of contract labourers," alleged Najmuddin.

Many health staff members employed under the National Health Mission (NHM), too, are under fear of losing their jobs as their contract ends in May. MP Faizal said he has already been getting calls from contract doctors. “The administrator is planning to draft a notification to terminate them,” alleged the MP. “Most of their contract ends by this month. They are the COVID-19 warriors of Lakshadweep. Their future remains uncertain,” he added.

On May 17, about 90 contract nurses went on an indefinite strike, demanding a hike in the base salary from Rs 12,500 to Rs 18,000. Lakshadweep has at least 120 nurses, of which around 90 were employed under the state administration, National Health Mission and public-private partnership (PPP) on a contract basis. Speaking to TNM, 34-year-old Irshad, who was one of the nurses on the indefinite strike, said, “Our strike led to an acute shortage of nursing staff and adversely affected Lakshadweep’s health care system. The political parties and people of Lakshadweep requested us to call off the strike.”

Although they called off the strike the next day, many of them were allegedly served a show-cause notice, stating that they will be arrested under the Disaster Management Act, as nursing service falls under an ‘essential service’ during the pandemic, said Irshad. “After the strike, the nurses working under the state health got an extension of three months. A total of 44 nurses employed under the PPP scheme were not allowed to join as the administrator did not give them an extension,” Irshad said. However, since the nurses fall under essential services, they got an extension under the Disaster Management Act, while continuing to work with the same salary of Rs 12,500.

Shaheed, the DYFI member, alleged that the administration has cited cost-cutting and effective management of the grants from the Union government for the termination of employment. “On May 27, our Collector flew at least 380 kilometres to Kochi in a helicopter to conduct a press conference there. Instead of the government quarters, he is staying in a rented house and using a sedan vehicle to commute. The administrator is planning to spend crores for the construction of his bungalow,” he alleged.

As their future remains uncertain, Ashkar and other anti-poaching marine watchers face another crisis too. “We are even getting threats after busting the poaching racket. We were of the hope that this uniform would protect us. Now, we lost that and our life is in danger,” said Ashkar.

A senior official at the Department of Environment and Forest Lakshadweep told TNM, “During monsoon, we cannot run our anti-poaching services as transportation via boat will be difficult. Marine watchers were employed under a Central government scheme to protect marine wildlife. The Union government had allotted approximately Rs 2.76 crore for them, and the administration has limited power on their appointment. After September 15, all marine watchers will be engaged again for another eight months as the cases of poaching are increasing in Lakshadweep.”

The News Minute made multiple attempts to contact Lakshadweep Collector Askar Ali, the tourism secretary and the Lakshadweep administrator office on May 26 and 27, but all calls went unanswered. The story will be updated if they respond.