The administrative manoeuvring in Lakshadweep follows efforts in Puducherry and Delhi, exposing the Union government’s centralising agenda.

Lakshadweep Adminstrator Praful Patel against the background of Lakshadweep island and a turquoise seaLenish Namath/Wikimedia Commons
Voices Opinion Saturday, June 12, 2021 - 17:02

Lakshadweep, an archipelago of 36 islands in the Arabian Sea, has been embroiled in a political turmoil for the last few weeks. On June 7, hundreds of residents of the islands observed a 12-hour long hunger-strike and resorted to unique ways of registering dissent including underwater protests, to oppose a set of measures introduced by its new Administrator, Praful K Patel. On Thursday, the Lakshadweep Police booked a case of sedition against filmmaker Aisha Sulthana for characterising the Administrator’s relaxed COVID-19 quarantine rules as a ‘bio-weapon’ against the island in a TV debate. 

Since Patel, a former minister in the Gujarat government, took over as the Administrator of the Union Territory in December last year, the Lakshadweep administration has adopted many controversial decisions and regulations that have upset the islanders. These draft regulations- the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, the Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation, the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, and an Amendment to the Lakshadweep Panchayats Regulation- raise serious concerns regarding the form of development that the government envisages for the islands. 

The most contentious measure introduced by the Administrator is the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR). It proposes the creation of a Planning and Development Authority which will prepare development plans, control land-use and is vested with the authority to acquire the residents’ land for development projects. This Authority, consisting mostly of members nominated by the Administrator, will prepare land-use maps and indicate areas for proposed “national highways, arterial roads, ring roads” and other infrastructural projects. Residents have questioned the need for building wide national highways in the tiny islands of Lakshadweep, whose largest island, Androth, is just 4.9 sq.km.

The LDAR, which seeks the “orderly” development of land, is modelled on the Town and Country Planning legislations and Development Authority legislations that operate in various states. These laws are themselves deeply flawed as they create planning authorities without local democratic accountability, provide for top-down planning processes with limited avenues for public participation and institute rigid land-use based master plans that do not reflect the diverse uses of land on the ground. The pathologies of India’s urban planning system that afflict its megacities are now sought to be reproduced in the ecologically sensitive archipelago of Lakshadweep. 

Most worryingly, the LDAR provides for forcible eviction and relocation of residents if they are not in compliance with the zoning regulations and imposes heavy penalties for any irregularity. It seeks to override the provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, which has stringent protections like requiring Social Impact Assessment and consultations with the Gram Sabha before land acquisition. However, LDAR declares that land reserved under the Development Plan is deemed to be for “public purpose”.  

The introduction of such a regulation that seeks to further “development” poses a serious threat to the fragile ecosystem of the island. The islanders, predominantly Scheduled Tribe Muslims engaged in fishing, are rightfully apprehensive of these regulations since the administration has already razed many of their huts, boats, and fishing equipments. With the Administrator declaring his wish to transform Lakshadweep into a global tourist hub like Maldives, the worry is that real estate interests will engulf the need to protect the ecology of the island and the livelihood of its inhabitants. Adding to this are draft regulations that impose preventive detention measures for “anti-social” activities; restrict those with more than two children from contesting panchayat elections; and ban the sale and consumption of cattle. Seen together, these measures signify the imposition of an alien development regime that threatens the ways of life of the islanders.

Federalism in Union Territories

The proposed regulations also raise larger questions about democracy, decision-making, and federalism in Union Territories (UTs). Legislation of UTs fall under the purview of the Union Home Ministry which finalises and notifies the draft regulations issued by the Administrator. All legislative proposals and development issues regarding the UT are supposed to be discussed with a Home Ministry Advisory Committee which consist of the Administrator, the Lok Sabha member, President and opposition leader of the District Panchayat and civil society members. However, Lakshadweep does not presently have this committee as it has not been re-constituted since the tenure of the previous HMAC expired in 2018. 

The unilateral decision-making by the Administrator points to the fundamental weakness of the governance system of UTs. Lakshadweep has a two-tier Panchayat system with 10 Village/Dweep Panchayats and a District Panchayath. The Lakshadweep Panchayats Regulation, 1994 also requires the constitution of a District Planning Committee, majority of whom are elected members of the District Panchayat, to prepare a development plan. However, this committee has not been functional and even key departments under the District Panchayat, like education, health, agriculture, and fisheries, have been taken away from their purview according to its members. The Lakshadweep Panchayats Regulation also state that the President of the District Panchayat “may” be consulted for legislative proposals on matters that fall under the state or concurrent list, however such consultation was not carried out for these regulations. 

The administrative manoeuvring in Lakshadweep follows efforts in Puducherry and Delhi where the Union government sought to empower the appointed Lieutenant Governor over the elected government. UTs like Lakshadweep without legislative assemblies are even more prone to the diktats of the Union government, especially if it appoints politicians like Patel as Administrators, defying the decades-old convention of appointing former civil servants. In the absence of a legislature, the Panchayats should be strengthened as they are the only democratically accountable institutions in such UTs.  As the Union government’s centralising agenda targets even UTs, the fight for upholding federalism and democracy should not be restricted to states, but its principles should also extend to UTs and local governments. 

Mathew Idiculla is a legal and policy consultant based in Bengaluru and a visiting faculty at Azim Premji University.

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