Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Lakshadweep in the eye of the storm

Aggrieved over the Regulation, members of the scientific community have written to the president as it will jeopardise a way of life and the entire economy of these fragile islands.

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On June 23, the Lakshadweep Research Collective, along with 60 signatories from the scientific community, wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind seeking his intervention to withdraw the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR) 2021.

According to the letter, the LDAR ignores a scientific understanding of Lakshadweep’s unique geography, ecology and culture, which places clear limits on developmental possibilities on the islands, lagoons and reefs, already constrained by climate change.

Local livelihoods and well-being are embedded in current land use, and ocean practices and environmental stewardship will be endangered by the provisions of LDAR, it said. The draft was formulated without consulting local communities of these consequences.

The LDAR violates several regulations as well as international commitments that ensure sustainable development across this fragile archipelago. It embraces a questionable vision of development that is neither sustainable in design nor likely to improve local well-being or safeguard the future habitability of the archipelago, the letter alleged.

Lakshadweep is home to 70,000 people. Population densities are among the highest in the country and basic land and water resources are extremely limited. Between these pressures and the rising threat of climate change, the archipelago and its people face serious existential threats. The plans for development which the LDAR proposes are strangely unheeding of these realities. Any further large-scale infrastructural development will have an ecological and social footprint much too large to sustain and will accelerate the rates of decline.

The letter stated that by granting authorities unqualified rights to appropriate land, beach and lagoon resources, the LDAR jeopardised a way of life and an entire economy. “The proposed regulation imperils India’s international commitments in meeting SDG goals, the CBD convention, CMS convention, UN Framework convention on Climate Change, among others. It also works against India’s own laws like the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, the Biological Diversity Act 2002, The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Ecotourism Guidelines 2019 among others,” the letter added.

Of greater concern, the LDAR ignores existing regulations in Lakshadweep itself, which take special pains to ensure that the boundary conditions established by its ecology are not breached by unsustainable development.

The researchers argued that Lakshadweep requires a more prudent, less invasive approach to development based on securing and enhancing critical ecological infrastructure. And it should celebrate Lakshadweep as a vital and vibrant contributor to India’s diverse culture and history.

It also appealed for the establishment of a committee of scientists, policy makers and local representatives to re-evaluate the broader development plans and directions of which the LDAR is a part.

A group of 93 former civil servants also wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month, stating that the LDAR envisages land use which can destroy the islands.

The draft proposes to change the existing land ownership on the island and provide for the development of towns in Lakshadweep. It empowers the government, identified as the administrator, to constitute Planning and Development Authorities which can plan the development of any area identified as having bad layout or obsolete development.

According to the draft, development would include “building, engineering, mining, quarrying or other operations in, on, over or under, land, the cutting of a hill or any portion or the making of any material change in any building or land, or in the use of any building or land, and includes sub-division of any land”. As per the regulation, the development plan would not be questioned by anyone, in any legal proceedings too.

It allows the administrator authority to forcibly remove or relocate residents from their property for any developmental activity. This could be a violation of the fundamental rights of the residents of Lakshadweep guaranteed by Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

It establishes penalties such as imprisonment for obstructing the development plan’s work or workers. It stipulates that islanders must pay a processing fee for zone changes. It implies that localities would be required to pay fees to gain approval to alter zones as per the development plan, as well as fees for permission to develop their own land.

Section 122 empowers a magistrate to impose enhanced penalties and every Planning and Development Authority shall carry out such directions as may be issued from time to time by the government for efficient administration.

In addition, the draft Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021, bans anyone who has more than two children from contesting elections. Then, there is the draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation 2021, the violation of which could result in life imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh. This drew sharp criticism from the inhabitants of the island.

LDAR is to be enacted by exercising powers conferred by Article 240 of the Constitution, under which the president has the power to make regulations for the peace, progress, and good government of Lakshadweep.

Many islanders also suspect that the Regulations might have been issued for seeking real estate interests to take over small holdings of property owned by islanders. The provisions that give the Authority unbridled power to relocate people have raised concerns of forcible eviction.

A PIL challenging the Lakshadweep administration’s reform measures, including the move to introduce Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021, and the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act was dismissed by the Kerala High Court on June 17.

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The Bench of Justices Vinod Chandran and MR Anitha passed this order while hearing the petition moved by KP Noushad Ali, secretary of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, who contended that various measures were introduced by the Administration with the ulterior motive of destroying the traditional life and culture of the island.

However, another bench of the Kerala High Court on June 23 stayed two orders of administration—one pertaining to closure of dairy farms and the other on change in the menu of mid-day meals for school children in the islands. This prompted Ajmal Ahamed, a native of Lakshadweep, to file a PIL in the High Court.

Lakshadweep is one of India’s eight Union Territories. The islands constitute a single Indian district, and are governed by an administrator appointed by the president under Article 239 of the Constitution. The current administrator is Praful Khoda Patel.

—By Shivam Sharma and India Legal News Service

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