Since a few months, the days have been special and strange for me – not special like a birthday or festival celebration. But special and strange because for the first time in the 14 years of my life I saw my grandparents, parents and many others sitting inside homes and fasting. So many “ firsts” for me since 2-3 months ,especially with schools closed you tend to see things happening at home closely. I saw that my usually calm and happy grandfather , quick to laugh and play had become quiet and worried. My grandmother and her neighbouring friends were seen to always talk about how unfair and cruel the situation is – normally when they meet every forenoon to share household chores like cutting fish, they would be talking about their knee pain or how mischievous their grand children are.But off late the talk has been with anger and indignation about how “he” can bring in the Goonda Act, abolish Ban on liquor and so on. I was quick to know that this “ he” is the New Administrator who has been in the islands since December 2020 and who in a short span of a few months has created so much of resentment and anger. I have seen one Administrator- the previous one- who came to our school to address us. The people were eager to receive him and hear his speech. For the “first “ time, I heard my grandfather swear he does not want to ever set his eyes on him!
For the first time I heard my usually gentle soft spoken grandmother raise her voice in anger “ How could he?” when she heard that the islanders are not allowed to keep coconut fronds and such materials in their yard. What would life be without all that make with the dry easily burning parts of coconut? How would my aunt make her special tuna curry on slow fire or the tasty octopus rice if she has no access to firewood? I heard for the “ first” time my father take on a loud advisorial tone with my mother for writing strongly about intrusion into the kitchen by banning slaughter of cows and beef eating. Being a teacher in the nearby school she knows the value of the fresh hot midday meal that is given to all students with protein component whenever possible. Yes, for the “first” time I sensed fear and anxiety in all those near me.
An important and most dangerous of moves is to take away the already scarce land from us. We have the concept of common lands in each island where trees and vegetation will be belonging to families. There is mutual trust and understanding along with sharing of resources.Breaking this delicate social fabric is criminal and unjust .
It was equally scary when the number of Covid cases started rising as “ he “ lifted the lockdown and opened up the islands for travel. Obviously this made it convenient for him to go to and fro from the mainland to the islands. With minimum medical facilities, the depth of the anxiety that elders face each day are not misplaced . Many of the elders have not been able to go to mainland (Kochi) for their periodic medical check up.
The other day I met with some friends and we spoke about what improvements we would like in our island life. What we felt most was the need to have efficient and reliable transportation facilities to the mainland. Now travel has become so cumbersome and stressful especially the difficulty to get a ticket in the ship. With most of us aiming to go for higher studies in a year or two and having seen the difficulty of our elder sisters and brothers in travelling we feel this has to be improved. Another important area where the Administration can bring in changes for our welfare is access to proper and timely medical care. This also creates a lot of stress for us as many fall sick.
We felt it absurd to have wide roads and highway concept here. The concrete roads in most of the islands are good enough for our cycles and two wheelers. We do not have to rush at high speed anywhere in a small island .We are sceptical of opening up the islands to high volume tourism – the low volume , high value tourism that is being practised here has to be improved with focus on the unique cultural and ecological value of the islands.
We feel the development in the islands should focus on reaching uninterrupted fresh water and power to us. But this should not be at the cost of our fragile environmental balance. We are aware of the deleterious impacts of diesel power plants and desalination plants. Can we not try solar energy and rain water harvesting in an efficient user friendly economically viable way? There is need to focus on energy and water conservation too.
How can we not include waste management in the list of areas where immediate intervention is needed? The amount of non-biodegradable waste that is discarded in the island, lagoon and sea is reaching astronomical levels. A lot of awareness campaigns are underway but the public considers any available space as waste dumping sight. There are observations that this has started affecting fish populations, especially in the lagoon.
We do not want our brothers and family to fall into the liquor trap that is the bane of the mainland and many ethnic communities. We also want total freedom to eat what we like and to walk free. We discussed with resentment the undemocratic way in which decisions are being taken and imposed up on us . The Dweep Panchayats are made silent spectators as major decisions regarding the life of the community are being taken .
My grandmother who retired as a Biology teacher showed us a picture drawn by an artist colleague of hers. It shows the magical and colourful underwater coral reef world. We all would like to study and understand more about this amazing ecosystem that sustains us. How does the absolutely still and immobile sea cucumber fit into the food web- why did one Administrator issue an order to stop its collection way back in early 1990s? What are the plants and trees that protect the eastern shores? We have many questions and at times one wishes that our syllabus included more such information that we can just walk out of the school and see….
Small attempts are being made to reverse the changes .For instance the move by “him” to depute one government officer in each fishing boat was thwarted by the officials themselves. Imagine an officer with no exposure to the intense sun and waves, with minimum food and water being on a 4 hour long fishing expedition. The purpose being to follow our activities and ensure we are not up to any anti-national crimes! As if anyone will do it with an officer around ! We are proud to mention that in the islands 3 festivities are celebrated by all – one our own religious festivals, then Independence and Republic Days …..
One decision that has been implemented without any consideration to us has been the abrupt firing of employees especially in Agriculture sector. A friend of mine in Kadamat island had called devastated by the loss of job of her father who has been working as casual labourer in Agriculture Department.It is understood that 85% trimming of jobs will be done – for “him” and others this trimming may be a sign of their management efficiency but for us it is loss of life and livelihood. We are relieved that the Lakshadweep Government Employees Union and the Lakshadweep Employees Parishad have submitted a strong memorandum against this perilious move.
The move to increase productivity of coconut by removing low yielding coconut trees is also in the offing. More than 2000 trees have been marked to be cut. The people who lose their trees will be given a compensation of Rs 400/tree. For us coconut tree is a Kalpavriksh – we do not grow it just for the coconuts.Every part of the tree is useful to our life. So how can rs 400 compensate for the benefits we derive from a tree? Who decides about the productivity of a tree? The microclimate and water table in the islands will be disrupted if we lose the coconut canopy .
There are some silver linings in the dark cloud surrounding us –the Kerala High Court ordered a stop to Lakshadweep Administration’s move to close down diary farms and providing meat in mid day meals of children. It is a great relief to us that so many people and organisations from the mainland are rising up in support for us and our identity and freedom as islanders.
We remember with gratitude the visionary reforms made by erstwhile Administrators like late Murkot Ramunni, Sri.Wajahat Habeebullah, Omesh Saigal and Rajeev Thalwar. We know that all of them who have been in charge of the islands and felt the pulse of the community are writing for us. A whole batch of scientists who have worked in the island, especially on the ecology and environment of the unique coral world have come together to express their anguish and protest against the development mode adopted by the Administrator that will spell doom for the fragile ecosystem.
We feel we are in the midst of a terrible nightmare marked by many “firsts”..we feel we will wake up soon, will be pinched back to reality in which our slow and peaceful island life will be the reality , where we will live not in fear and anger but in mutual harmony and trust, sharing and caring, where decisions and reforms will be for the common good and taken with our consent and involvement
We request you to help us wake up to that real, beautiful, harmonious , just world
Thanking you all
From the sisters in Lakshadweep
Anitha.S in conversation with friends, leaders of Save Lakshadweep Forum and activists across the country .
Anitha.S, an ecologist and educator has had two decades of experience in Lakshadweep since 1994. She can be contacted at email@example.com