In Lakshadweep’s Agatti, island fishers face eviction for Gujarat-based firm’s tent city

The Lakshadweep administration has issued eviction notices to several residents in Agatti, a 3 sq km island, to take over coastal land measuring 1.23 acre for Praveg Ltd’s tent city.
Fishers with their catch on a beach in Agatti
Fishers with their catch on a beach in Agatti
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Fishers in Agatti island are facing the threat of livelihood loss following the implementation of a tent tourism project by the Lakshadweep Tourism Department. The tent city in Agatti is being set up by Gujarat-based Praveg Ltd, which has implemented similar projects in Narmada, Varanasi and recently Ayodhya. Praveg has also been given the nod to establish tent cities in the Union Territories of Dadra Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu, where Praful Khoda Patel is the administrator. Tent cities are set up in locations where infrastructure development is not possible due to environmental regulations or if a large number of tourists need to be accommodated during religious festivals like Kumbh Mela.

The Lakshadweep administration has issued eviction notices to several residents and  is forcefully taking over coastal land measuring 5000 sq metre (1.23 acre) that extends northwards from the western jetty from the fisher community. The fishers through an emergency notice, served by the Deputy Collector, Agatti, have been asked to remove "all encroachments" from the coast including boats, canoes, sheds and equipment used for drying fish within three days or face action by the Revenue Department. If the boats and sheds are not voluntarily removed, revenue officials will  remove them and impose the cost on the "encroachers."

The livelihood possibilities of islanders in Lakshadweep, which has a traditional economy, is limited and many are dependent on the island's natural resources. In early days they were mostly dependent on coconut tree produce which later shifted to tuna fishing. In Agatti island (hardly 3 sq km) alone there are 150 boats engaged in fishing. These boats anchor on the lagoons in the stretch between the Senior Secondary School and the Port Tower when the weather is favourable for fishing and also during the monsoon.

The eviction notice served to fishers by Agatti Deputy Collector
The eviction notice served to fishers by Agatti Deputy Collector

On the eastern side of the island one can find small boats and canoes. Around 40% of the inhabitants of Agatti depend on fishing unlike other islands in the coral atoll. One can get a picture of the life of Agatti islanders from the letter sent by Abdul Nazer, president of the Malsolpenna Matsyiabandanopakarana Sahakarana Sangham, a cooperative society of fishers, to the Lakshadweep Coastal Zone Management Authority.

"The beach was used by the islanders even before India attained freedom. It had temporary sheds, chulhas for making tuna mass and fences to dry them. The order is to demolish the sheds and fences for the tent tourism project. When the Deputy Collector of Agatti contacted me we gave an alternate proposal. It's impossible for us to move the boats from an area where the sea is not rough. We suggested that they implement the project in a location where it does not create trouble for us. But the Deputy Collector responded saying he is helpless as the order is from the tourism ministry and he is dutybound to implement it," said Abdul Nazer.

Residents see Praveg Ltd's tent city tourism project as a continuation of the anti-people measures they had to face ever since Praful Khoda Patel became the island’s administrator. They fear that they may have to abandon fishing itself if they lose space to dry fish, keep boats and equipment safe.

"We don't have an option. Where will we keep our boats? Where will we dry our fish? Why are they implementing tent tourism in a densely populated area? Why couldn't they do this in the south side, where there is no fishing or in islands like Bangaram and Thinnakara known for tourism," asks Anvar Sadiq who had to remove boats from the beach due to the threatening notice. (Agatti has a population of 7560 and a population density of 1969).

Abdul Jaleel, an activist who takes up social causes in Agatti, said the beach was their commons for hundreds of years. "When the sea is rough, boats are safely kept on sheds on the beach. It's where the fish is dried and stored. Where will we go if they take away the land from us? This is part of an attempt to usurp all beaches in Lakshadweep. No due process has been followed and we didn't get time even to challenge the notice in court," said Abdul Jaleel.

Misbah, another activist, feels the tent tourism project will not be successful unless it is sensitive towards the culture, livelihood and environment of Lakshadweep.

"Implementing this project in a densely populated area is quite unjust. The Island Integrated Management Plan clearly spells out how tourism in Lakshadweep should be. The Justice Raveendran Committee appointed by the Supreme Court has also several guidelines on tourism in Lakshadweep. Praveg Ltd has been granted permission to set up a tent city here bypassing numerous such guidelines. The space is crucial for islanders as it is the commons and intrinsically linked to livelihood of islanders. This project which does not consider the culture or the best interests of the local residents is undoubtedly anti-people," said Misbah.

Agatti fishers engaged in drying fish
Agatti fishers engaged in drying fish

He also expressed apprehensions over changes in the liquor prohibition policy to facilitate tourism, saying opening bars have an impact on the peaceful life of people. The beaches in Lakshadweep are not conducive for beach tourism because of climate change and frequent gale storms. Can these tents withstand the storms?" asks Misbah.

accreted land is government land

The notice issued by the Agatti Deputy Collector says that all accreted land (land reclaimed from sea) in Lakshadweep is government land. Located between low-tide and high-tide lines it is categorised as CRZ land and has been used for centuries by fishers. The 2011 CRZ notification which amended the 1991 rules has provisions to protect the coast and traditional livelihood of fishers. It also regulates establishment of industries and construction activity. But the land for the tent city is being acquired under Section 15 (1) of the Laccadive Minicoy and Amindivi Islands Land Revenue and Tenancy regulation 1965, and fishers evicted by claiming that it is accreted.

"They are calling it accreted land but this land has been there for long and we have been using it for generations. Traditionally, it belongs to us. There are cases on its ownership in Amini sub-court and High Court in Kerala. The administration is usurping the land even though the courts have not decided on it. There are coconuts on the land which are up to 70 years old. For many years we received agricultural income from the trees. The sheds and land attached to it belongs to us," said Anvar Sadiq.

Alikkoya, a lawyer, who is fighting the case against Lakshadweep administration in Amini sub-court is dismissive of the government claim that it is accreted land. According to him a district court had decreed that the land belongs to the people and when land was acquired for constructing a beach road, land owners were compensated for loss of property and coconut trees.

"This land had been in possession of owners for more than a century. Because of the peculiarities of Lakshadweep most people do not have land documents. According to a commission report there are coconut trees as old as 90 years. Sheds were also part of the property," said Adv Alikkoya, adding that the process of accretion, if any, is quite slow.

He said if the fishers are to be evicted several procedures have to be followed. "They need to issue an order as per 11 C of the Regulation Act, which needs to be challenged within six months in a court of law, which is currently being done. "The emergency notice to forcibly acquire the land has been issued even before the judicial process is over. It's only after the new administrator assumed charge that the government claim on land has been made," he said.

Letter issued by Lakshadweep Coastal Zone Managament Authority which says traditional rights in No Development Zone (NDZ) part of a Coastal Regulation Zone should be protected
Letter issued by Lakshadweep Coastal Zone Managament Authority which says traditional rights in No Development Zone (NDZ) part of a Coastal Regulation Zone should be protected

Abdul Nazer said a beach road was constructed in the area through CRZ land before Covid-19 struck. It was a spot traditionally used by us to keep boats and fishing gear. They built the road saying it would be helpful to move the boats if there is a mishap but they are now asking us to move away for the sake of tourism. We are in a situation where fishing itself needs to be abandoned," he said. The fisher community here used to procure ice from a local factory. "They closed it down. The machinery has not been repaired after it conked out. I think the government wants us to stop fishing," said Nazer.

While the luxury tents set to come up at Agatti would charge tourists up to RS 20,000 for the stay, the fishers are looking at a bleak future as their livelihoods take a hit. Residents fear that the project being implemented in violation of CRZ laws, which protects the rights of traditional fishers, would impact 70% of the island community. There are also fears that heavy inflow of tourists would jeopardise the ecologically sensitive lagoons and marine ecosystem. Apart from Agatti, Praveg Ltd has been extended work orders by the Lakshadweep administration to establish tent cities in Thinnakara and Bangaram.

Fish being dried on a beach in Agatti
Fish being dried on a beach in Agatti

Along with various islands in Lakshadweep, where Praful Khoda Patel is the administrator, Praveg has been given the nod to establish tent cities in Dadra Nagar Haveli and Daman-Diu, where he holds the charge. Praveg tent cities and beach resorts are functioning at Chakratirth, Jampore and Ghoghla beaches in Daman-Diu. It also has permission from the Union Territory administration to set up a tent city in Nagoa beach.

When Praveg's tent city at Varanasi on the banks of Ganga opened, the inauguration was done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adithyanath was the chief guest. Modi visited Lakshadweep on January 2, 2024, shortly after Praveg Ltd won the contract for establishing tent cities in Lakshadweep (December 23, 2023 and made several statements promoting the island as a tourism destination.

In Thinnakara island 200 tents are coming up and in Bangaram another 150. Praveg Ltd has permission to set up a total of 400 tents in Lakshadweep including the 50 in Agatti. The contract is for a period of five years, which can be extended another two years. 

(This story was first published in Keralayeem Web Magazine in Malayalam. Translation by Binu Karunakaran. The original report can be read here.)

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