With the administration planning to 'develop' the island like the Maldives, Lakshadweep's fragile ecosystem is likely to suffer, say environmentalists.

The Kavaratti Lighthouse in Lakshadweep on a claer day in front of the blue oceanNCF
Features Tourism Monday, June 21, 2021 - 12:46

With its glistening lagoons enclosed by an almost continuous line of palm fringed beaches and vibrant coral reefs, Lakshadweep, an archipelago of 26 (earlier 36) islands off India’s south-west coast, is a veritable underwater paradise teeming with myriad species of marine life. “One can enjoy the delights of the submarine world, see a wall of soft coral in a multitude of hues and fish in all colours and shapes in Bangaram and Kavaratti, the best dive sites in Lakshadweep. At other dive spots, you can see whitetip reef sharks darting out of coral bed, greenback turtles ambling along, dolphins gliding and flipping,” says Nanda Kumar, a hardcore scuba-diving enthusiast who has clocked more than 100 dives in Lakshadweep.

However, Nanda Kumar and others like him are anxious about the fate of this emerald island, which shelters myriads of endangered marine life. Equally apprehensive and agitated are the islanders, about the proposed controversial regulations announced without prior consultation or soliciting the participation of the residents. In recent times, the island’s Administration has drawn flak for a slew of reforms that were made without the consultation of the residents of Lakshadweep.  

“The recent contentious administrative reforms introduced by Praful Khoda Patel, the first non-bureaucratic, political Administrator of Lakshadweep like the new land acquisition rules, beef ban, preventive detention law where there is no crime, proposal of the two-child norm for (contesting in) Panchayat polls and relaxation of prohibition (of alcohol) are not only anti-people but an onslaught on the island’s ecological, democratic and social frameworks,” says Dr Muneer Malikfan, Vice Chairperson, Minicoy Panchayat.

On the environmental front, there are problems galore in this coral paradise. There is rapid coastal erosion due to many factors such as turbulent seas, storm surges, changing ocean currents, diminished protection from coral reefs due to bleaching (which is a precursor to mass death of corals) and rising temperatures triggered by global warming. These pose serious threats to the coral atolls.

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

Causes and consequences of coastal erosion

“Our studies reveal that rising sea surface temperatures and frequent El Niño-related coral mortalities have resulted in dramatic losses to the reef. With the death of corals, fish and other creatures that depend on them also decline. Our research has shown that with each subsequent coral mortality, the ability of the reef to recover reduces drastically. There has also been a staggering 40% decline in coral cover,” explains Somesh S Menon, Project Associate, Oceans and Coasts Programme, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Mysuru.

The fragile coral reefs near Lakshadweep. Credit: NCF

Another factor for coastal erosion is the unscientific and indiscriminate dumping of concrete tetrapods on the island beaches. This causes erosion in other parts of the islands, and destroys the aesthetics of the beaches and prevents access to them. Hence, the NCF has recommended strengthening of the reefs using eco-friendly methods as a solution to control coastal erosion.

Explaining further, Somesh says that in beaches and islands, land erosion and accretion (land accumulation) normally go hand in hand, as the sea replenishes on another part what it takes away from one part of an island. “When the erosion rate exceeds the accretion rate, islands will diminish in size and eventually disappear. In the case of Lakshadweep, erosion will hasten because of human-induced climate change,” he warns.

An aerial view of a Lakshadweep island

“At present the number of islands in Lakshadweep have dwindled from 36 to 26. There are 11 inhabited islands,15 uninhabited islands and an assortment of open and submerged reefs, sandbanks, etc. Some biodiversity-rich islands have vanished due to coastal erosion and other islands are shrinking fast,” he says.

Commercial reef fishing further threatens the precarious ecology of Lakshadweep. A study has predicted that wave-driven flooding may increase groundwater salinity, thus depleting potable water, which may make the islands uninhabitable in a few decades. 

Read: Lakshadweep contract employees face job cuts, uncertainty amid administrative reforms

Read: Proposed anti-slaughter law in Lakshadweep deters residents from buying cattle 

Tourism in Lakshadweep

Besides sheltering the best dive sites in India, Lakshadweep has other claims to its credit. It has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, according to the 2019 report of the National Crime Records Bureau. 

Interestingly, Lakshadweep was the prime example of planned tourism in India in the 1980s. Tourism was monitored by the Society for the Promotion of Recreational Tourism and Sports (SPORTS), a nodal agency of Lakshadweep Administration in close concert with the Island Development Authority. The concept of the day tourist was introduced there with a view to restrict tourists, prevent overcrowding and consequent environmental damage. Taking into consideration the fragile ecology, limited carrying capacity, transportation facilities and potable water, SPORTS also introduced ship-based tourism packages, in which people stay in luxury ships anchored on the shore. 

“These package tours offer tourists the best of both worlds – luxurious accommodation and service on board the ship anchoring near an island, transportation, the pristine beauty of the islands, and water sports facilities during the day. Besides this, SPORTS operates flight-based and stay packages,” says Ranjan Abraham, MD, Clipper Holidays, a travel agent who has been promoting Lakshadweep for more than 25 years. Certain number of seats are reserved for the tourists in the ships operated by the administration. Foreign tourists were allowed only in Bangaram.

At a time when tour operators are peddling green vacations that focus on sustainable travel to meet visitor’s growing ecological concerns, the administration plans on developing the islands like the Maldives for tourists. Administrator Praful Khoda Patel told The Print, “The islands are similar to Maldives and we want to develop them on similar lines. We want to develop sustainable infrastructure and promote sustainable tourism. You see Maldives…. tourists are waiting in a queue to visit there.”

Watch: Why Lakshadweep residents are up in arms against their new administrator

Though the Maldives and Laksadweep occupy the same geographical zone and share similar natural features, the residents of Lakshadweep have said that the Maldivian model of tourism cannot be replicated here. The water villa is an expensive concept and also hazardous to coral reefs, as villa construction necessitates drilling through coral rock. 

Moreover, the Maldives is largely dependent on tourism for income generation, and thus invests majorly in the industry. Lakshadweep has barely 26 islands, while the Maldives has over 1,190, with over 1,000 of them uninhabited. Hence, the population density there is lower than in Lakshadweep, and the opportunities to promote tourism on the island are more. 

Emulating this model of tourism could prove detrimental to the ecology of Lakshadweep, as increased footfall brings with it concerns of waste disposal, development, strain on freshwater, reef damage and other issues. 

Though the Union government’s Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP) stipulates that all developments envisaged in the IIMP shall be implemented in consultation with the elected local self-government bodies, Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation is a blatant violation of these recommendations in the IIMPs.

“The new mantra for Lakshadweep should be ‘High value, low impact tourism.’ The island should be developed as a unique tourism destination with a key focus on responsible tourism management and sustainable development. The scale of development has to be in tune with the carrying capacity of the islands. The island residents are eco-sensitive people with primary links to all the ecosystems around them. They are aware and sensitive to the web of life and the symbiotic interrelationship that exists. Hence, hoteliers should ensure that their ventures are people-centric and enrich the fragile ecology,” cautions Anitha S, an ecologist and environmental educator who has worked in Lakshadweep.

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several national publications besides organising seminars and photo exhibitions. Her writings span a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books. Photos by Susheela Nair and Nature Conservation Foundation.

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