The Lakshadweep atolls in the Arabian Sea depend on coral health, which locals and researchers believe have been endangered by new development plans for the islands. Photo: Naveen Namboothri/Carbon Copy
Lakshadweep is on the boil these days. The cause of mass resentment are the newly introduced draft laws – the Animal Preservation Regulation, the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation (popularly known as the Goonda Act) and the Panchayat Regulation. The furore is also targeted at administrator Praful Khoda Patel for initiating these measures and claiming to develop islands on the lines of Maldives under Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR) 2021. Marine biologists and environmentalists have vehemently opposed the new plans and expressed grave concern over their possible impact to the fragile ecology.
An archipelago of 12 atolls (ring shaped coral reefs surrounding a body of water called a lagoon) and 36 islands, of which only 10 are currently inhabited, Lakshadweep is the smallest among India’s eight Union Territories. It is spread over a 32 sqkm area in the Arabian sea, about 200 km off the southwestern coast of the Indian Peninsula. While about 97% of the 70,000 residents of Lakshadweep are Muslim, the islanders are a matrilineal society who share ethnic links with the Malayalam speaking people of Kerala but there is significant Arabic, Tamil and Kannada influence on their culture. Patel, the first non-bureaucratic administrator of the region, took over in December last year.
Altaf Hussain, former president of Androth island panchayat, told Carbon Copy, “We fail to understand what kind of development Patel [the new administration] is thinking of bringing into Lakshadweep by expelling people from tourism and various other departments, invading our culture by banning beef, imposing Goonda Act to threaten us against any rebellion and, incorporating provisions in LDAR to acquire our land for its ambitious projects.”
Voices against tourism plans rising
Residents of Lakshadweep held a 12-hour hunger strike and jal satyagraha (demonstrations while partially submerged) on June 7 to register their protest against a slew of decisions taken by the administration which include drafts of the LDAR. They demanded a full recall of the new policies, which they termed ‘anti-people’.
Minicoy is one of the three islands, besides Kadmat and Suheli, where ambitious plans for tourism along the lines of neighbouring island nation Maldives have been laid out.
Fousiya AA, a member of the newly floated Save Lakshadweep Forum (SLF) said, “Lakshadweep is so small in size that its largest island, Andrott, is just 4.90 sqkm. So it is not pragmatic to compare it with Maldives, which has hundreds of islands. Local people don’t want this kind of development because they are content earning their livelihood through sustainable tourism, fishing and coconut cultivation.”
Potential impacts on the ecology
According to Muneer Manikfan, a diabetologist and the vice-chairman of the council of Minicoy, multiple episodes of dying coral reefs have already endangered the safety network of atolls, livelihood of local people and survival of marine ecosystems. Other threats such as cyclones and thunderstorms have also been steadily on the rise. “We request the district administration to carry out infrastructure development while keeping the necessity, availability of land and ecology in consideration,” he told Carbon Copy.
According to the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, the average rate of sea level rise over the 20th century was registered between 1.3mm and 1.7mm per year, but it has doubled since 1993. It is a matter of concern in regions such as Lakshadweep, where the distance from shore to shore is less than 500m. With practically no elevated land, there is little safety from the ominous prospects of a continued sea level rise.
Naveen Namboothri, director of NGO Dakshin Foundation told Carbon Copy, “The coral atolls of Lakshadweep are the only ones in the country and are a national heritage. Barely spanning 32 sqkm, these islands are basically uplifted corals that are a metre or two above sea level, making them extremely vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise and climate change.” He further added, “The islands have the highest population densities in India, and resources such as freshwater are severely limited. The islands provide limited opportunities for development, and any development plan needs to consider the social and environmental fragility of these islands and their carrying capacities.”
He further explains that many government and non-government institutions have recommended development frameworks that are based on precautionary principles with sufficient environmental and social safeguards. Of particular significance are the recommendations of the Justice Raveendran committee report, he said.
The Justice Raveendran Committee Report of 2014 made recommendations to prioritise protection of corals, sea grass and other ecosystems from anthropogenic activities such as waste disposal, dredging of navigational channels, port development, tourism activities, sand mining, and intensive fishing. Since the committee was formed to evaluate an Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP), these recommendations are now part of this plan.
“The draft LDAR, in its current form, is not specific to Lakshadweep’s topography, ecology, cultural practices and livelihood needs and completely ignores all the existing regulatory frameworks and safeguards that have been painstakingly put in place. It will severely threaten the future survival of these beautiful atolls and its inhabitants,” Namboothri warns.
The Lakshadweep Research Collective (LRC), along with 60 other signatories from the scientific community, have written to the President of India, requesting him to intervene and withdraw the LDAR, implement and monitor the Justice Raveendran committee recommendations, and establish a panel of scientists, policy makers and local representatives to re-evaluate LDAR in the context of Lakshadweep’s unique culture, ecological fragility and climate vulnerability.
Problems with the existing draft plan
The LRC is of the view that the LDAR draft is not in consonance with existing laws, such as the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, the Biological Diversity Act 2002, The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, recommendations of the Justice Raveendran committee and the Lakshadweep Panchayats Regulation, 1994. The LDAR also does not address India’s commitments towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, marine protection goals under the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Ecotourism Guidelines, 2019.
Although there is always a balancing act of land erosion on one part and accretion (land accumulation) on the other–which occur simultaneously in coastal or island areas–the problem arises when the erosion rate rises. The island area is then likely to get smaller and, in an extreme situation, it may disappear, too. The complete erosion and disappearance of Parali I island, with an area of 0.032 sqkm in Lakshadweep is one such proven example.
According to Mohammad Iqbal, a Lakshadweep local, “The district administration has failed to keep a record of the land added and lost during the process of erosion and accretion in the archipelago.”
“Things were never the same after the Tsunami hit our islands in 2014, followed by the Okchi cyclone three years later which, destroyed many houses, uprooted coconut trees and decimated a big chunk of Minicoy island,” Mohammad Auge, president of Lakshdweep Muslim Association and a retired banker, tells Carbon Copy. “Natural calamities such as storms have become more frequent, and are pushing up erosion rates. In such a scenario, human interventions by way of building resorts and villas may result in Lakshadweep vanishing from India’s map.”
According to Sajan John, marine biologist at Wildlife Trust of India, the problem of poorly suited development plans stems from a basic lack of understanding of local thresholds at the decision-making levels. “Bureaucrats who are delineating and developing plans for Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) and Lakshadweep do not understand the difference of morphology and ecology between them. A&N is borne out of tectonic and volcanic activity while Lakshadweep consists of coral reef islands. There are lots of water, trees, mountains and plains in A&N, which provides scope for development. This is not the case with Lakshadweep because these do not rest on hard rocks, but rather on fragile coral reefs made of calcium carbonate, and are easily destructible,” he says.
According to John, since lagoons cannot accommodate big ships, which would be required for the development plans, a lot of excavation will likely be done to make way for channels and harbouring. The removal of coral reefs for this would result in irreversible damage to the ecology of the region, he fears.
Atolls provide safety walls to the islands from the sea as these islands are situated just two-three metres above the sea, which make them more susceptible to waves and thunderstorms. Atolls are living and self-repairing natural formations, almost completely dependent on underlying coral reefs for ecosystem sustenance. The ability, however, of the island repair itself has been decreasing as the health of Lakshadweep’s coral reefs continues to suffer from rising ocean temperatures. This straightway poses a threat to the safety of the islands.
Neha Sinha, a conservation biologist at the Bombay Natural History Society and a member of the Lakshadweep Research Collective, told Carbon Copy, “The impacts of climate change are already being felt as Kavarati is eroding faster. Therefore, it is important to keep climate change in consideration for any future development plans.”
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas almost all coral reefs are likely to be wiped out if the 2°C warming limit is breached.
What lies ahead
Marine scientists studying the region have sounded the alarm that Lakshadweep may not be habitable by the end of the century and the residents may become the first internally displaced climate refugees in the country.
“In my research carried out from 2001 to 2018 on corals’ response to increasing temperature, it was found that their capacity to recover from bleaching is reducing since 1998 when more than 85% corals had bleached in Lakshadweep,” says Idrees Babu, a scientist working for the Department of Science and Technology of the central government.
The three major bleaching events from 1998, 2010 and 2016 have dealt a severe blow to the coral reefs in Lakshadweep in the past.
Babu says that the health of corals, which is an indicator of climate change, is declining in Lakshadweep. A similar story can be said of the sea grass pastures as well. Sea grass provides habitat, hide out and breeding ground for many of the marine organisms, particularly, herbivorous fish. Habitat degradation also impacts spawning of marine creatures and the entire marine ecosystem.
The study, conducted by the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation in 2017, revealed a mind-boggling 80% reduction in the absolute coral cover in Lakshadweep over 19 years, from 51.6% in 1998 to 11% in 2017.
Development plans could worsen climate change impacts
The environment and forest officials, who chalked out the Lakshadweep Action Plan on Climate Change in 2012, too, presented a sorry state of affairs with regard to the impact of climate change in island clusters.
“The open sea coral islands of Lakshadweep are one of the low-lying small groups of islands in the world. The low level of the islands of Lakshadweep makes them very sensitive to sea level rise. The IPCC Report  predicts a global sea level rise of at least 40 cm by 2100 that shall inundate vast areas on the coast, and up to 88% of the coral reefs, termed the ‘rainforests of the ocean’, may be lost,” says the report.
About 114 scientists from more than 30 universities and research institutes wrote a joint letter in January to the Lakshadweep administration to reconsider the new projects.
“It (the draft LDAR) will severely threaten the future survival of these beautiful atolls and its inhabitants… All these inshore reefs and underwater grasslands may be in deep peril if an ambitious tourism project – involving the construction of beach and water villas offering 370 rooms – becomes a reality,” the petition reads.
Rajkumar Rajan, scientist, marine biology at the Regional Centre Zoological Survey of India, Chennai, who is running a long-term coral reef programme, told Carbon Copy, “Enhanced anthropogenic pressures due to increase in construction, lack of proper sewage disposal, unsustainable developmental activities, uncontrolled resources extraction may all worsen the climate change impacts in Lakshadweep.”
The issues of scarcity of drinking water, electricity and waste disposal management, and sanitation are looming large in the wake of the tourism expansion scenario in Lakshadweep.
“There are desalination plants operating at three islands – Kavaratti, Agatti and Androth – in Lakshadweep, which make sea saline water potable. In the rest of the islands, the residents are dependent on groundwater. After two to three meters below the ground, the water turns brackish. This is the reason why the water is more saline in many of the islands. With this low level of ground water, there is always fear of faecal bacteria abounding in the water,” said a scientist with the department of Science and Technology.
To deal with this, he said new bio toilets have been provided in Androth island, while Kavaratti and Bitra islands have been half covered till date. The facility is yet to be taken up on other islands.
Asker Ali, district collector and nodal officer for the tourism project in Lakshadweep, told Carbon Copy, “The home ministry has been apprised about the feedback from the people of Lakshadweep with regards to the new proposals. Some people also moved the high court, which refused to impose a stay order and clarified that only the administration will look into the matter.”
Ali was of the view that protests are now coming down. About new proposals, he said, “We have taken consent of the Panchayat president of all the three islands where projects are to be implemented. People have the right to live a better life, access better education, amenities and development.”
He assured that all environmental concerns are being taken care of. “We are taking the carrying capacity of the islands into consideration and complying with all the environmental and Coastal Regulation Zone modalities.”
Reacting to the misgivings of conservationists, he said, “We welcome all criticism and suggestions of our scientists and conservationists , as it will only help us to improve. However, we want to assure we are sensitive towards coral reefs, which are a paradise for tourists and means of livelihood for local people. Why would we destroy that?”
While the administration may be talking the talk, wariness among locals is clearly growing. Any plans for development, therefore, should consider their concerns. The survival of Lakshadweep depends on it.
This article was originally published by Carbon Copy and has been republished here with permission.