Updated: May 27, 2021 7:44:46 am
Lakshadweep, an archipelago to the west of Kerala in the Arabian Sea, has turned restive following Administrator Praful Khoda Patel’s misdirected interventions. The unease has found resonance in Kerala, triggering solidarity campaigns on social media urging MPs to petition the President against Patel. Even several BJP functionaries in Lakshadweep (Dweep in local parlance) have quit the party, as a response to the building pressure from the local community. Ever since his appointment as administrator of India’s least populated Union Territory — the 10 inhabited islands in the archipelago have a population of 64,000 — Patel has riled the residents with his unilateral plans for “development”. The administration has also sought to ban the slaughter, sale and consumption of beef and has mooted a new overarching law, Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation, to control crime in a place where crime statistics are among the lowest in India. The local population, overwhelmingly Muslim, fears that Patel’s interventions are part of a larger plan that shows disregard of their social, cultural and economic life. These concerns need to be addressed. The first step towards that could be for the government to withdraw the Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR) —which is at the centre of the gathering insecurities — and start a dialogue with the local population, the primary stakeholders in the island’s development.
The LDAR has reportedly stoked fears in the local population that it is aimed at facilitating the entry of capital from outside the islands for acquisition of land. The regulation vests complete authority in the administrator to acquire, plan and develop land as per his whim or vision. The regulation talks about building and expanding “existing and proposed national highways, major streets, ring roads, railways, tram-ways, airports and canals”, ignoring the geographic reality of the region and the long-standing demands of people. For instance, a major concern of the island people is transport connectivity between the islands and the Indian mainland. What is needed is more ships and boats and better management of the facilities, not trains and trams. This anomaly between the needs of the residents and the vision of the administration stems from a heavy-handed and top-down approach that refuses to engage with local concerns and needs. Lakshadweep residents have periodically articulated their demands through public action such as strikes and petitions — the absence of educational infrastructure including shortage of teachers and study material, healthcare facilities, fuel, and even basic construction material have been flagged multiple times, to no avail.
But Patel’s missteps cannot be seen in isolation. The office of Governor, LG and administrator has increasingly become an instrument for the Centre to impose its will on people in states and Union territories. The Administrator’s interventions in Lakshadweep, including the attempt to crack down on dissenters, can be seen as part of a disturbing pattern that is visible across the country — it invited the spotlight most recently in West Bengal. This unhappy pattern risks undermining the principle of decentralisation of power that is vital to the healthy functioning of a federal system.
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