The central government is committed to the development of Lakshadweep, which could emerge as a bustling tourism hub, says Praful Patel, the administrator of the tiny Union Territory (UT), rejecting criticism that steps taken by him are detrimental to the traditional life, culture and peace there.
Patel has been facing criticism by political rivals of the Centre’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — especially the Congress, Left parties and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) — over a slew of controversial measures, including banning beef, allowing liquor sales, invoking the Goonda Act for public order, and bringing in a two-child policy for contestants in panchayat elections.
Patel, who took charge as the Lakshadweep administrator in December, alleges that most of those who ruled the UT played the minority card and neglected development. Muslims account for about 99% of Lakshadweep’s total population of 70,000.
Patel, a former legislator from Gujarat who has worked with Narendra Modi as his minister of state for home in the western state’s cabinet, stresses that he has no “communal agenda”, responding to four main allegations against him with a point-by-point rebuttal.
On banning beef, he says most Indian states do not allow the sale of cow meat. “If this is implemented in Lakshadweep too, what’s the harm?” Patel asks.
He says the new panchayat election rules will strengthen women’s empowerment in the long run, underlining that only a draft of the law has been issued as of now in order to seek public opinion.
“This law has provision of reserving 50% of all panchayat seats for women candidates…Their participation in democratic process will increase,” Patel says.
The law also bars those with more than two children from contesting panchayat elections. Patel says this will not apply to those who already have two children, before the law coming into effect.
“As far as the disqualification criterion of having more than two children is concerned, such a provision is already in place in Gujarat and elsewhere,” he adds.
Patel also says the Anti-Social Activities Regulation Bill 2021, or the Goonda Act, is necessary to check criminal activities, especially large-scale smuggling of cannabis and illegal liquor trade. “Those who say there is no crime in Lakshadweep are not telling the truth,” he says.
In the same breath, he adds allowing sale of liquor will stop the illegal trade, and help in revenue generation and tourism.
Patel says those opposing the moves are “the same people who have not been able to carry out any development in the UT in last 70 years”. “They do not want development here, as they think their interest will not be served,” he says.
But PM Narendra Modi’s government at the Centre is dedicated to changing the face of Lakshadweep, stresses Patel, who is also the administrator of Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
Lakshadweep, which is spread across 32.5 square kilometres, is made up of 32 islands; only 10 of them have human population. Its capital is Kavaratti, with Agatti and Minicoy being the other main islands.
Flights are available from Kerala’s Kochi to Agatti, which has the only airport in Lakshadweep. From Agatti, Kavaratti could be reached on helicopter. Maldives, a popular tourism hub, is just over 700 kilometres from the UT.
“We should hope that soon tourists from all over the world will head for Lakshadweep to enjoy the nature, and it will become the Maldives of India,” Patel says.
The government is the most significant employment provider in this UT. The number of permanent, non-permanent and contractual public sector employees stand at 9,000, about 13% of the population. In other states, the corresponding number is about 1% of the population. Fisheries and coconut plantation are other avenues of employment.
Patel says the central government is scripting a turnaround story for Lakshadweep. Importance will be given to women, youngsters and the poor, he adds. The Agatti airport will be modernised, water villas will be developed, and tourism will be encouraged.
Fisheries and coconut plantation
Fishermen catch tuna that is found in abundance in the sea. But the islands don’t have proper arrangement to preserve fish. Also, fishermen do not get a good price for their catch.
Patel says he has taken steps to improve electricity supply in the UT. He has also planned insulated fish boxes and frozen fish units for storage.
The Lakshadweep administration is entering into a contract with the Coconut Board of Kerala to market the fruit and its products properly. The whole of Lakshadweep has over one million coconut trees.
Education and health
Steps are also being taken to improve education and health sectors, Patel says. Nursing and paramedical colleges are being opened, and students can study electrical, mechanical and marine engineering at polytechnic institutes.
Self-help groups of women are being created and they are encouraged to collect sea weeds, which have medicinal values and are much in demand.
Modern hospitals have been planned in Kavaratti, Agatti and Minicoy, and work has started in the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. Also, an oxygen generation plant will start functioning in the UT.
‘Politics, but no development’
The late PM Sayeed, the energy minister in the Congress-ruled United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, had represented the UT in Parliament from 1967 to 2004. The incumbent, Mohammad Faisal, is from the NCP. He won the seat in 2014 and 2019.
Patel says people’s representatives in Lakshadweep have thrived, while commoners have remained poor. The implementation of a development agenda and curbing illegal activities are making many uncomfortable, he adds.