A severe transportation crisis in Lakshadweep has spiralled into protests and mass arrests by the administration, feeding into existing resentment against the Union territory administration led by Praful Khodabhai Patel.
On Thursday, following controversy over the arrests, the administration issued a statement saying these had primarily been carried out on account of violation of prohibitory orders, and to ensure peace. Blaming “false” and “fabricated” media reports, the statement said the administration “has been taking steps for the all-round development of islands by initiating various schemes, policies, projects etc”.
The protests stem from a gradual easing out of ships running between the islands and mainland over the past couple of years, leading to a fall in their number from seven to two. Lakshadweep is an archipelago of 36 islands, 10 of which are inhabited. A large majority of its 65,000 population study or work on the mainland (mostly Kerala), or depend on it for essentials, requiring frequent travel.
The phasing out of ships happened due to various reasons, such as decommissioning, maintenance and repair. For instance, M V Minicoy and M V Amindivi, which used to operate to Beypore harbour in Calicut, were decommissioned, and services on this route are yet to be restored.
The move has resulted in travel snarls in what is the busiest time of the year, with many students headed out to join institutions.
Because of the rainy season, smaller boats are anyway not operational, leaving the islanders entirely dependent on ships.
On Thursday, there was a march to the Secretariat in Kavaratti, the capital, by protesters demanding resumption of ship services connecting the islands to Kochi.
Administrator Patel, a former Gujarat minister, is seen as indifferent to the sensitivities of the almost entirely Muslim-inhabited UT. In 2021, he was caught in controversy over a proposed cow slaughter ban, a decision to remove meat and chicken from mid-day meals and the closure of dairy farms citing financial loss. The matter is pending in the Supreme Court.
Rejecting the charges, Patel told The Indian Express that while the people of Lakshadweep are “most peace-loving”, the protesters were “misguided” and “encouraged by certain organisations”.
Saying he could not “discuss politics” as he occupied a constitutional post, Patel added: “But what is taking place in the name of protests is a political stunt. Similar to the high rush of passengers in trains during peak seasons, the vacation season is to blame for the increased demand for services and the associated difficulties.”
The Administrator said they had already taken steps to resolve the issue. “The Shipping Corporation of India is now repairing a major ship (M V Kavaratti) after it caught fire. We managed to efficiently facilitate the journey of people by prioritising travel of students and senior citizens,” he said.
Patel added that his administration was trying to bring progress to an island that had “remained underdeveloped since Independence”. “There weren’t many options, even for drinking water. We have been taking aggressive steps to improve the island in my last one-and-a-half years in office,” Patel said, adding that they had built schools, colleges, a polytechnic, a nursing institution, so that the youth didn’t have to travel to Kerala for studies.
“In this brief amount of time, we have also begun admissions. Along with this, we have taken significant initiatives for tourism, sea protection walls, ice factories, and other things. Two significant airport expansion projects are now underway,” Patel said.
In its statement Thursday, the administration said the protests were meant to “create a fear psychosis against the government machinery”.