Caught in India-Maldives spat, Lakshadweep islands want jobs, then tourists

India’s PM Modi campaigned for tourists to visit the idyllic archipelago. But people there have more basic demands.

Fisherfolk on boats in Lakshadweep, which is caught in a diplomatic tiff
People going on boats to an anchored ship in Lakshadweep, which is caught in a diplomatic tiff between India and the Maldives [Salahuddin/Al Jazeera]

Kalpeni Island, Lakshadweep, India — Sitting on a cane chair at the edge of the Indian Ocean, then strolling on the pristine white sand of a Lakshadweep beach, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi advertised in late December for the federally governed archipelago.

“Those who want to visit different beaches around the world, and are enamoured by them — I request them to first come to Lakshadweep and take a look,” Modi said, in a video widely shared on social media platforms.

That message has triggered a diplomatic crisis between India and the Maldives, South Asia’s smallest nation and a tourist paradise where some ministers hit back in coarse language on social media at what they perceived as an Indian attempt to woo tourists away from their resorts. In turn, Indian social media influencers — including Bollywood stars and ex-cricketers — went into overdrive, pitching Lakshadweep islands as tourist destinations, and others criticising the Maldives.

The Maldives suspended the ministers who had badmouthed India and Modi in the wake of the advertisement. But when President Mohammed Muizzu, who was visiting Beijing — New Delhi’s archrival — at the time, returned to the Maldives, he had a warning for his giant neighbour on his lips. “We may be small, but that doesn’t give you the licence to bully us,” he said on Saturday.

But back in Lakshadweep, many people do not want their islands caught up in a tourism tussle between India and the Maldives. They have more fundamental questions for their government — and for Modi.

Lakshadweep has 36 islands, 10 of which are inhabited. Once served by seven ships, its population of 64,000 people must now make do with just two ships that ferry them between their islands and the mainland once every week or 10 days.

“The prime minister wants to invite everyone to Lakshadweep, but if the people of Lakshadweep want to go outside, we have no ship tickets to the mainland,” said Ayisha Sultana, an activist and film director.

“Improve that first, then talk about big plans.”

It is just one of the many concerns shaping the popular response in Lakshadweep to the prospect of tourists from India and beyond flooding their islands.

Lakshadweep's youth mostly pursue higher education in the closest mainland state, Kerala. But with just two ships plying every week, traveling between college and home is a challenge [Salahuddin/Al Jazeera]
Lakshadweep’s youth mostly pursue higher education in the closest mainland state, Kerala. But with just two ships plying every week, travelling between college and home is a challenge [Salahuddin/Al Jazeera]

Limited representation

Unlike states and many federally governed territories, Lakshadweep has no democratically elected government. It elects a legislator to parliament and is governed by an administrator appointed by the federal government.

The current Lakshadweep administrator, Praful K Patel, has been accused by many locals of riding roughshod over their concerns. Under him, the local administration demolished fishermen’s sheds in capital Kavaratti as part of a process to beautify beaches. The fishermen’s union contested this move in the High Court of Kerala, the nearest mainland state, and the case remains unresolved.

“We are not against the development of tourism, especially in the uninhabited islands. But if they are considering tourism in inhabited islands like Kavaratti, will the authorities be ready to share the beaches with us,” asked Nijamudheen, the president of the Lakshadweep Fisheries Association, who goes by a single name. “Tourism must be restricted to small areas in the inhabited islands and uninhabited islands; otherwise, it will be a potential threat to the fishermen.”

Most Lakshadweep youth go to college on the mainland, predominantly in Kerala. But travelling back and forth is a challenge.

“Even we students can’t reach the islands on time,” said Sayed Mohammed Anees, a 28-year-old from Androth Island who is contemplating enrolling for a PhD after completing his master’s degree in education from Kerala. “Getting tickets and all is a Himalayan task in all the vocations. How will they turn this place into the Maldives? That is not an easy task.”

A man works with copra, traditionally one of Lakshadweep's big sources of revenue. The copra is sold on the mainland [Salahuddin/ Al Jazeera]
A man works with copra, traditionally one of Lakshadweep’s big sources of revenue. It is sold on the mainland [Salahuddin/Al Jazeera]

‘Easy to implement their agendas’

Any contest over tourists is also complicated for Lakshadweep by the fact that one of its islands, Minicoy, is geographically and culturally very close to the Maldives. They speak the same language — the ancestors of Minicoy locals came from the Maldives, which is closer than any other Lakshadweep island.

Still, tourism could help bring jobs and much-needed cash. At the moment, though, Lakshadweep is in no position to compete.

Traditionally, the economy of Lakshadweep relied on copra and dry tuna exports to other parts of the country. Post-Independence, modern education was introduced by teachers from nearby Kerala. Literacy rates have significantly increased, now ranking second in the country.

Yet the pinnacle of ambition for many young women and men is to secure a government job.

Currently, there are approximately 5,000 permanent government employees in Lakshadweep. Despite its geography, tourism does not figure among its top revenue sources.

Tourism in Lakshadweep is managed by a society named SPORTS, owned by the Lakshadweep administration. Currently, tourism operations are active in inhabited islands such as Agatti, Kalpeni, Kavaratti, Kadmat, Minicoy, and the uninhabited island of Bangaram. Agatti has the only airport, where a daily flight carrying up to 68 passengers lands and takes off.

Shipping-based tourism is minimal: one government-run initiative, Samudram, accommodates 180 tourists weekly on a ship. The itinerary covers three islands during the day, with passengers spending nights on the ship.

All of Lakshadweep has only about 100 hotel rooms. The Maldives, on the other hand, has more than 1,000 resorts and hotels, many of them among the most exclusive holiday destinations in the world.

Plans for resorts by luxury hotel groups like the Taj, one of India’s most prominent chains, remain on paper. A project on developing water villas — hotel rooms perched on stilts in the shallow water — is also in the works, despite more than 100 scientists signing a petition cautioning of damage to fragile coral reefs.

Construction in Lakshadweep must subscribe to what is known as the Integrated Islands Management Plan (IIMP), which emphasises sustainable development and local interests, including livelihood.

But the administrator and his team could try to bypass the IIMP, alleged M Ali Akbar, the Lakshadweep president of the Youth Congress, the youth wing of India’s biggest opposition party. “This is a union territory, and we have no elected government; hence it is very easy to implement their agendas,” he said.

Women and children on the beach of a Lakshadweep island. Prime Minister Modi wants more tourists to visit the islands, but locals have concerns [Salahuddin/Al Jazeera]
Women and children on the beach of a Lakshadweep island. Prime Minister Modi wants more tourists to visit the islands, but locals have concerns [Salahuddin/Al Jazeera]

‘How can he clean beaches by firing cleaners?’

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, SPORTS fired more than 800 contractual workers. Currently, less than 100 people are employed in SPORTS.

The Lakshadweep administration has terminated more than 3,000 employees since December 2020, when Patel took office. Ajmeer Khan, a former employee under the Lakshadweep administration, said he had no hope that he and his fired colleagues would be hired again. “If they have such intentions, they would have rolled out a tourism policy that promotes employability,” he said.

But the retrenchments have also affected Lakshadweep’s tourism potential.

Under Patel’s rule, more than 450 sanitation workers who collected waste from inhabited parts of the islands and brought it to incinerators were let go. Today, visible hills of plastic waste dot every island. Incinerators that were installed on all islands no longer work. Many are partially covered by plastic waste.

“Even though the administrator is saying that he is cleaning the islands, it is not true,” said Abdul Salam from Kiltan island, who coordinated the legal fight for the payment of pending wages to the fired sanitation workers. “How can he clean the islands by disengaging the people who are actually cleaning them?”

Source: Al Jazeera