Lakshadweep tourism: Does Modi govt’s plans consider the fragile ecosystem?

Islanders say that they are not against development and tourism, but want to be stakeholders and partners in these developments. The interests of the islanders and the preservation of the ecosystem must be given priority.
Kavaratti Island
Kavaratti IslandSomesh S Menon
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Lakshadweep recently made headlines in India and abroad after Prime Minister Narendra Modi released pictures from his trip to the islands. A few decades back, in the late 80s, Lakshadweep had similarly headlined newspapers when prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and family spent New Years at the Bangaram island in the archipelago. Articles spoke about his list of guests, security measures, transport arrangements, delicacies served, and even a reported attempt at rescuing a beached whale. 

More than three decades later, Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the coral paradise of India was presented as an attempt to boost tourism in the islands, even triggering a diplomatic standoff between India and Maldives. He announced several development projects to promote the archipelago as the next big tourist destination in the country. Currently it is projected to be one of the 57 destinations earmarked for development under the Tourism Ministry’s Swadesh Darshan 2.0 for sustainable and responsible tourism.

Hailed as the destination of tomorrow, Lakshadweep was a prime example of planned tourism in India in the 80s. The concept of the “day tourist” was introduced keeping in mind the limited carrying capacity of the islands and also for the protection and preservation of the fragile bio-ecological system of the islands. Day tourism allowed tourists to enjoy sightseeing in the islands during the day and offered  luxurious accommodation and service on board the ship anchoring near an island, as well as transportation to the islands.

The local administration has been promoting cruise tourism through Society for the Promotion of Recreational Tourism and Sports (SPORTS), a nodal agency of the Lakshadweep Administration constituted for the promotion of tourism in Lakshadweep.

Ranjan Abraham, the managing director of Clipper Holidays, says, “Through cruise packages, tourists get the best of both worlds — transportation as well as luxurious accommodation and service on board the ship anchored near an island.” 

However, this travel agent who has been promoting Lakshadweep for more than 30 years, calls ship connectivity to the islands a “nightmare”. Ranjan says, “Regular package tours like Samudrum covering Kalpeni, Minicoy, and Kavaratti islands were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was resumed in 2022. Recently, between December 2023 and February 2024, shipping services were not operational for two months, which affected the tourist flow to the islands. Services were resumed in March.” 

Other travel agents involved in the promotion of these package tours also face several problems due to lack of communication and irregular shipping services.

Several plans are underway to bolster the tourism sector in Lakshadweep. The administration has given the nod to the Tata Group to build resorts on Suheli and Kadmat islands. Luxury tented accommodation akin to the one in Varanasi by Praveg is also being planned on Agatti, Thinnakara, and Bangaram islands to cater to the increasing number of visitors. Initially these tourism initiatives were lauded as it would open up employment opportunities for the islanders who depend mainly on fishing.

Boats anchored in a lagoon
Boats anchored in a lagoonSomesh S Menon

However, the euphoria waned when the islanders realised that high-end tourism was being planned by taking over Pandaram land in Lakshadweep without any compensation to the islanders. Pandaram lands are uninhabited areas of the islands that are owned and cultivated by local families, without title deeds. 

Islanders say that the development plans are not only anti-people, but also ignore their social, economic, and cultural realities. Even though the Integrated Island Management Plans (IIMP) stipulate that all developments envisaged shall be implemented in consultation with the elected local self-governments, the latest plans have allegedly been announced without proactively publicising them or soliciting the participation of islanders. The multi-crore tourism project proposed to make Lakshadweep a high-end destination is not in consonance with the larger vision statement of sustainable development of IIMP.

There are problems galore in this coral paradise of India. “The contentious administrative reforms introduced by Praful Khoda Patel – the first non-bureaucratic, political administrator of Lakshadweep in 2020 – like the land acquisition rules, ban on cow slaughter, preventive detention law in a place without crime, proposal for two-child norm for eligibility to contest Panchayat polls, relaxation of prohibition are awaiting the Union Home Ministry’s approval,” says Dr Muneer Malikfan, vice chairperson of Minicoy panchayat. According to him, “The controversial regulations are not people-centric and are an assault on the island’s ecological, democratic, and social frameworks.”

“Another issue relates to the proposed military and civil airport in Minicoy, which was first planned to be set up in the northern strip of the island, but later shifted to the south. This shift gives rise to concerns about the centuries old lighthouse in the southern strip. The northern strip is barren, while the southern pandaram land strip is the only area on the island where the residents have some cultivation,” adds Muneer.

The proposed water villas are hazardous to the coral reef as the pillars for the villa construction will be driven through coral rock, destroying the very resource that people are visiting the island for.

Lighthouse in Minicoy
Lighthouse in MinicoySusheela Nair

“The latest threat comes from the proposed tent city in Agati. To implement this, eviction notices have been issued to several residents. Tent tourism should not be implemented in densely populated areas. The islanders have been asked to remove their canoes, sheds, and equipment used for drying fish. Around 40% of the residents in Agati are dependent on fishing. Their apprehension is that they may have to abandon fishing itself if they lose the space used to dry fish, and keep their boats and equipment safe,” says Sabith PK, a Youth Congress member. 

“Islanders are not against development and tourism but want to be stakeholders and partners in these developments. The interests of the islanders and the preservation of the ecosystem must be given priority,” asserts Sabith.

Environmental experts are wary that a spurt in tourist footfall would prove disastrous for the ecologically fragile islands.

Unbridled tourism would bring with it concerns about waste disposal, strain on freshwater, coral reef damage, and other issues. The scarcity of potable water and the delicate water table would lead to depletion of potable water for the islanders. The development proposals in a fragile ecosystem with limited freshwater resources and absence of surface water bodies such as streams, lakes, and rivers have added to the woes of the islanders.

Currently, climate change is the biggest environmental threat facing Lakshadweep. Studies have shown the ecological consequences of climate change on the island’s reefs. Rising sea surface temperatures and frequent El Nino-related coral mortalities have resulted in dramatic losses to the reefs. Research has shown that with the death of coral, fish and other creatures that depend on them also decline. With each subsequent catastrophic coral mortality, the ability of the reef to recover reduces drastically.

Tuna cleaning in Minicoy
Tuna cleaning in MinicoySusheela Nair

The main reason why Lakshadweep remains habitable is a ring of corals that protect it. The loss of coral signals a loss of physical integrity of the atoll structure that protects islands from storms, reduces coastal erosion, and ensures precious freshwater resources are preserved. Another threat to the ecological balance is the increase in the reef fisheries in the islands over the past decade. This has resulted in the removal of key fish species that are crucial for reef recovery.

Erosion is another major problem in many of Lakshadweep’s beaches. Earlier, Lakshadweep had 36 islands but due to coastal erosion, at present there are only 11 inhabited islands and 15 uninhabited islands. The island of Parali I, part of Bangaram atoll, one of the biodiversity-rich islands of Lakshadweep, has vanished due to soil erosion. Some other such territories are also fast shrinking. Apart from the islands, there are an assortment of open and submerged reefs and sandbanks.

It is hence imperative that studies on the carrying capacity of the islands should be conducted before venturing into new projects. 

Private players should emulate the example of the CGH group that ran the Bangaram Island Resort for 22 years without causing any damage to the environment. In an interview with ET Hospitality, Jose Dominic who operated the Bangaram resort said that when their resort was set up decades ago, a carrying capacity study had found that the island could hold 100 persons at a time, including the resort staff. “Now they are talking about building 200 rooms plus 50 water villas, etc. What kind of scientific study has gone into before fixing the carrying capacity, nobody knows,” he had said. 

Sabith says that despite the announcements and enquiries regarding them, no headway has been made in the implementation of the tourism projects. With land acquisition, compensation, and related legal issues, investors are apprehensive of investing in Lakshadweep. Sustainable and responsible tourism with community participation should be encouraged with a view to protect and preserve the fragile ecological system of the islands.

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 that includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books.

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