The development plan that could end up sinking Lakshadweep islands

By K.A. ShajionJun. 14, 2021in Perspectives
Part of a reef near Androth island which remains submerged during high tide. Photos by special arrangement.
  • While India was battling a severe second wave of COVID-19, Lakshadweep islands witnessed a new plan proposed by the local administration that would open it up for large-scale tourism and infrastructure development.
  • Conservationists say that the islands, which are already facing impacts of climate change, could face the brunt of tourism and the local community will have to pay a heavy price for such plans.
  • The island cluster already is facing rapid erosion, a turbulent sea and rising ocean temperatures. But the large-scale human interference could further endanger the islands which consist of reefs, lagoons, beaches, and sand dunes.

A resident of Androth island in Lakshadweep, Muhammed Hambdulla Syed, says that the islands are facing an environmental disaster. “Our forefathers landed here centuries ago but the local community has caused very little damage to the fragile ecosystem of the archipelago as its sustenance is vital to all of us. Recurring climate change events and interference by outsiders like mindless deep-sea fishing are causing irreparable damage to our islands’ highly fragile marine ecosystem,” he said.

Surrounded by the Arabian Sea and located about 200 kilometres off the west coast of Kerala, Lakshadweep is India’s smallest union territory and is hardly two metres above sea level. Coconut groves and regulated tourism are the two main income-generating avenues for the local population of about 64,000. Rearing cows is another livelihood option for the island population. Though the union territory comprises 16 atolls and 32 islands, human presence is limited only to 11 islands.

The islands recently made headlines when reports revealed that the administration is planning to open it up for large-scale beachside tourism and infrastructure development. “The proposed large-scale human interventions would aggravate climate change-related disasters in the coming days apart from eclipsing our livelihood possibilities considerably,” Muhammed Hambdulla Syed told Mongabay-India.

According to Muneer Manikfan, a diabetologist and the vice-chairman of the council of Minicoy, an island in the southern part of Lakshadweep, the alarming loss of coral reefs has already turned fatal for all the atolls in the island cluster. He said the corals formed the backdrop for all the folklore and imagination of the Lakshadweep natives. “So far, they have provided us with livelihoods and a perfect ecosystem. Now climate change is slowly bleaching them away. The island cluster faces rapid erosion, a turbulent sea, and frequently rising ocean temperatures other than the coral bleaching.

“The islands are already victims of climate change, and the cyclone Ockhi of 2017 was just a precursor. If the islands are getting opened for large-scale tourism and large-scale constructions happening in a way violating coastal zone regulations, we will have to pay a heavy price,” he warned.

Climate change is already impacting the islands

According to a study by the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology, and Environment (KSCSTE), Lakshadweep’s coral reefs face threats from pollution, dredging of navigational channels, coral mining, and destructive practices like blast fishing. The sea-level rise triggered by global warming is also heavily impacting the archipelago’s beaches and sand dunes.

“We view the islands with extreme anxiety. The sea is getting turbulent most of the time in a year. Storm surges, changing ocean currents, and diminished protection from coral reefs due to bleaching are posing an existential threat to the tiny island, which has 32 sq. km of surface area. Any large-scale human interference like constructions would worsen further the situation,” warned S. Abhilash of the Department of Atmospheric Science at Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT).

A researcher turned diver exploring the marine wealth near a coral reef in Lakshadweep. Photos by special arrangement.

Explaining further, he said that that in beaches and islands, land erosion and accretion (land accumulation) go hand in hand normally as the sea replenishes on another part what it takes away from one part of an island. “When the erosion rate becomes higher than the accretion rate, islands will start growing smaller and eventually disappear. In the case of Lakshadweep, erosion would hasten soon because of human-induced climate change,” he cautioned.

The survival of the archipelago depends mainly on the marine life and resources spread in over 400,000 square kilometres around it, said Abhilash, who has conducted several studies on atmospheric issues concerning the Arabian sea.

Going by studies, Lakshadweep witnessed mass coral bleaching in 1998, 2010, and 2016.  According to a study conducted by the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in 2018, the coral cover in Lakshadweep islands fell sharply from 51.6 percent in 1998 to 11 percent in 2017, about 20 years.

Environmental scientist R.V.G Menon said, “A swelling population, land-use change, unscientific waste disposal, mining of corals, coastal erosion, and unregulated construction will exert pressure on the Lakshadweep islands, which have a very compassionate coastal environment.”

A. Biju Kumar of the Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries at Kerala University said that Lakshadweep requires a comprehensive database on the islands’ biodiversity. “The government must develop a climate change adaptation and management strategy in place of the controversial projects, he said.

What is the Lakshadweep administration proposing?

The local administration has recently introduced the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation (LAPR), and Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR).

“All these drafts have been introduced without any local consultation. They are now pending before the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India for necessary approvals,” said Mohammed Faizal, who is a member of India’s parliament from Lakshadweep.

The latest plan proposed involves the development of posh resorts, star hotels, and high-profile beachfront modelled after international tourism destinations such as the Maldives. But experts note that the administration is not mindful of the differences between the two island groups in size, population, and the number of islands.

Thiruvananthapuram-based environmental activist Sridhar Radhakrishnan said if the local administration moves ahead, the islands would ultimately become a piece of real estate for tourists and tourism investors from the outside world.

The conservationists and island natives are also concerned about constructing seawalls by the government and destroying several marine fauna habitats.

A view of the Agatti beach in Lakshadweep. Photos by special arrangement.

“Large scale developmental activities like coastal constructions, huge ship traffic, beachside resort tourism along with beachside fishing will cause irreparable damage to the ecology apart from causing large-scale livelihood pressures,” said Smitha P. Kumar, an educationist and writer who taught in Lakshadweep for a long time.

She stressed that the archipelago requires responsible tourism, which is minimum and reasonable with keeping larger interests of the local community in mind.

Lakshadweep needs extensive protection

Kochi-based conservation activist and environmental lawyer Harish Vasudevan advocates that the main agenda now must be the safety of the islanders in the face of extreme weather events.

“Their precarious livelihood and the diverse ecosystems of which they form a part need official patronage. There must be a global movement to protect the biodiversity-rich habitats of the Lakshadweep islands and to keep the lives and livelihoods of the local community,” he said.

Researchers on the islands, mainly those from the Bombay Natural History Society, have stressed the need to safely keep the biological integrity of these pristine islands intact with the active involvement of the local community and applying their traditional knowledge on conservation and perseverance.

Experts often point out that illegal marine wealth trade is a crucial issue the islands are facing, and as a result, the highly endangered sea cucumbers of the coral reef regions face a threat.

Kerala University’s A. Biju Kumar, while highlighting the need of protecting the islands, said that “environmentally, the islands’ water bodies are supplemented with large seagrass beds and numerous algal and coral communities. Together, they provide a safe ecosystem for various fish species, invertebrates, sea turtles, elasmobranchs, and marine mammals.”

In January 2020, 114 scientists hailing from over 30 different universities and research institutes across India had written to the union territory administration to abandon the colossal tourism infrastructure project, keeping in view its possible environmental impact on the region’s highly fragile lagoons and beaches.

Fishes and a turtle is seen in a lagoon near Kavaratti, which is the capital of Lakshadweep. Photos by special arrangement.

But according to sources in the government, the plan is to develop posh tourism villas in at least ten islands in the Lakshadweep archipelagos such as Kadmat, Minicoy, and Suheli. They are being planned to be developed in a private-public partnership model with the union government earmarking Rs. 2.66 billion (Rs. 266 crore) and seeking investments worth Rs. 7.88 crore (Rs. 788 crore) from the private sector.

Many locals and environmentalists also point out that 94.8 percent of the island residents are categorised as Scheduled Tribes, and the union territory’s 97 percent land is under forests/tree cover. They allege that the new guidelines and orders are anti-forests and anti-scheduled tribes as well.

Mohammed Faizal, who is the local parliamentarian, said, “What is happening in Lakshadweep now is a calculated effort to alter the habits of people evolved over generations along with their natural habitat.”

First published by Mongabay India on 11 June 2021

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