Is the Lakshadweep Administration turning a blind eye to the local protests?
For the past few weeks, the current administration situation in Lakshadweep has been causing public backlash against the administration and the central government. The matter sparked off a huge political row after the hashtag, '#savelakshadweep', was made trending on social media platforms by Indian netizens. Now, it has triggered various protests all over the country against the administrator Praful Khoda Patel, with a large number of protesters in Kerala.
But what has caused this sudden turmoil among the locals and the administration on the island? And will the administration eventually pull back from launching the reforms? Lakshadweep, being one of India's smallest union territory, consists of 36 islands adjacent to the coast of Kerala. About 97% of its population comprises the Muslim community, the majority depending on fishing and animal husbandry for their livelihood. Lakshadweep was also one of those places in India with the lowest crime rates and had zero COVID-19 cases throughout 2020.
However, the situation at Lakshadweep seemed to change when Praful Khoda Patel, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, took over as the administrator of the UT. Patel was appointed to the post of head administrator of Lakshadweep Islands in December 2020, following the demise of former administrator Dineshwar Sharma in December 2020. After his appointment, he became the first non-bureaucrat administrator of the Lakshadweep Islands. He is also the administrator of Dadra, Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu islands.
Following his appointment as the administrator of Lakshadweep, Praful Patel has brought up a couple of reforms and rules that were not well-received by the residents. Some of the latest reforms include the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021, the Goonda Act, beef ban and supply of liquor on the island. These new norms, if authorized, would entirely transform the economic and social condition of the locals. Reforms that prohibit residents from buying, selling, or storing beef products and the opening of bars and liquor shops are some of the norms against which the residents protest. Moreover, the draft Development Authority Regulation 2021 would also deny land rights and ownership of the locals to their property.
According to recent reports, locals of Lakshadweep are strengthening their protests against the administration by holding a hunger strike at their residences in the coming days, led by the Save Lakshadweep Forum. Meanwhile, various political activists and leaders in the Kiltan Island rallied against the Lakshadweep Collector's controversial remarks on the issue. More than 20 Youth Congress members, who took part in the protest, got arrested by the authorities and were released upon the Kerala High Court's official order. Apart from the public backlash, administrator Patel is also facing accusations from among his party members, with eight BJP leaders quitting the party membership in protest.
Protests have also been sparking off widely in its neighbouring state Kerala, with its Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan promising support to the people of Lakshadweep on behalf of the state. The Kerala Assembly recently passed a bipartisan resolution declaring strong support to Lakshadweep and a requisition to withdraw the administrator Praful Patel and urging the central government to look into the matter to safeguard the rights of the locals and their livelihood.
The administration of Lakshadweep has been defending the launch of the new schemes, claiming that they lay a foundation for the upcoming development and infrastructure on the island. But the locals have been relentlessly protesting against the orders, asserting that policies like beef ban and permitting liquor supply at bars intrude on the culture and heritage of the island. Lakshadweep, a large part of it being Muslims, was recognized as a non-alcohol zone with only one of its uninhabited islands, Bangaram, permitting the supply of alcohol. The residents also protested that the development and infrastructure plans under the draft Regulation 2021 would disrupt the fragile ecology and habitat of Lakshadweep.
Another of these latest reforms include the draft Panchayat Regulation 2021, which forbids parents with more than two children from contesting in the local elections in panchayats. Moreover, introducing the Goonda Act 2021 will authorize the government to hold any resident on the island in detention without facing trial for up to one year.
Although official passing of the controversial reform bills is awaiting, Union Home Minister Amit Shah guaranteed the people of Lakshadweep that the reform bills won't make it to official records without checking first with the local representatives of panchayats. According to Shah, the central government plans development norms on the island without disrupting its ecology and culture and only move forward with the schemes in agreement with the locals. For now, the final verdict on the draft reforms to be launched on the island is with the Center.
The public backlash faced by the administration is also centring on the current COVID-19 crisis in the region. Lakshwadeep was the only place in India with zero COVID-19 cases until December 2020 because of its stringent COVID-19 guidelines for anyone entering the island. These measures included a mandatory seven-day quarantine in Kochi for anyone travelling to the island and another seven-day quarantine after the arrival. But the administrator is receiving public backlash for changing the SOP guidelines by removing the mandatory quarantine and replacing it with the requirement of a negative RT-PCR certificate procured 48 hours before their travel. The loosening of restrictions in Lakshadweep has triggered a sudden surge in the COVID-19 cases, going from zero to more than 7,800 active cases in the region, with over 30 deaths.
Recently, the administration of Lakshwadeep enforced a complete lockdown for seven days, till June 7th, in the effect of the surge in the COVID-19 cases in the region. The lockdown has implicitly obstructed the entry of leaders who were planning to visit Lakshadweep to contemplate the ongoing turmoil regarding the new orders. The current unrest regarding the administration schemes is on hold until the Covid-19 situation in the island has dialled down.