A proposed cow slaughter ban, a preventive detention law in a Union territory with one of the lowest crime rates in the country and a draft law proposing sweeping changes in land development regulations – these are some of the initiatives that Praful Khoda Patel has undertaken since he took over as Lakshadweep’s administrator in December.
The former home minister of Gujarat is known to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
Patel’s measures have now led to a growing opposition in Lakshadweep. On Monday, the hashtag #SaveLakshadweep trended on social media as thousands of people took to social media to protest against initiatives that they believe will fundamentally change the society and environment of the group of islands in the Arabian sea.
Adding to the discontent was the fact that Lakshadweep, which had zero Covid-19 cases in all of 2020, recorded 6,611 confirmed cases on Sunday. Many believe that this drastic increase in the Covid-19 load , which has pushed the territory’s health infrastructure to the brink, is a result of the administration’s decision to relax quarantine norms.
Even as the Opposition has now demanded that Patel withdraw these proposals immediately, one MP wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind asking him to remove Patel from his position.
Lakshadweep is a Union territory without an Assembly and is directly under the control of the Centre through an administrator. In December, after the death of former administrator Dineshwar Sharma, the Centre gave Patel additional charge of Lakshadweep. He is also the administrator of Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu.
Lakshadweep is a Muslim-majority region with Malayalam being the dominant language.
Since January, Patel’s decisions have led to protests both on the streets and on social media.
The Opposition has charged that Patel has taken advantage of the worsening Covid-19 situation in the islands to push through drastic regulations that are “anti-democratic and anti-people”.
Perhaps the most controversial of decisions taken by Patel was to introduce draft regulations that seek to bring in sweeping changes to land use patterns in the islands.
Titled the Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, 2021, the document has been criticised for trying to create a land development structure that is arbitrary, given the wide powers it gives the administration to take over private land.
The very definition of “development” has caused concern. The document said development would include “carrying out of building, engineering, mining, quarrying or other operations in, on, over or under land, the cutting of a hill or any portion thereof or the making of any material change in any building or land or in the use of any building or land and includes sub-division of any land”.
According to MH Sayeed, Congress leader and former member of Lok Sabha from Lakshadweep, the regulations make it very easy for the government to take over the land of any person in the garb of development.
He said there are provisions in the regulation that mandate that a land owner has to renew the permission for land use every three years, failing which penalties will be imposed. “If the authority says you have to renew permission for your house every three years and you fail to, you have to pay a fine of Rs 2 lakh and then Rs 10,000 for every additional day of the violation,” he said.
Sayeed said till 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre, administrators were usually former IAS officers or civil servants. “Since 2014, we have had political appointees to this position. In a place where there is no Assembly, people have no forum to express their grievances against such policies,” he added.
A Union territory official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many of the concerns that have been raised by islanders relate to the fear that the environment will be destroyed. “These are fragile islands already susceptible to climate change,” the official said. “If you start allowing all sorts of development activities, some people legitimately feel it could cause immeasurable damage.”
This apart, several petitions that have been sent to the government against the regulations point out that it could pave the way for forcible relocations and even evictions as the responsibility for adhering to the development plan falls squarely on the owner or user of the land.
Beef and cow slaughter ban
Patel has also drawn flak for the draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021, which was put out for public response on February 25.
A reading of the draft regulation shows that if it becomes the law, slaughtering any animal could become very difficult. For example, the regulation mandates that the of fitness of the animal has to be certified for their slaughter. As per Section 5 (2) of the draft regulation, such certification will not be provided if the animal is a cow, a calf of a cow, a bull or a bullock. This apart, any animal other than the four whose slaughter has been explicitly barred will not be given certification if it is useful for agricultural operations, breeding or giving milk and bearing offspring.
In addition, the transport of animals mentioned in Section 5 (2) for slaughter is prohibited. If a person is found transporting such an animal, the burden of proving that it is not for slaughter falls on the person.
Section 8 of the regulation states that “no person shall directly or indirectly sell, keep, store, transport, offer or expose for sell or buy beef or beef products in any form”. Vehicles transporting beef are liable to be confiscated.
The penalty for slaughtering a cow is a minimum of 10 years in prison extending up to life sentence and a fine of Rs 5 lakh. Those violating the beef ban will face a minimum jail term of seven years.
Goondas Act and other decisions
Another major decision by Patel was the introduction of a draft preventive detention law that the Opposition says is just an attempt to intimidate people.
Called the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities, it allowed a person to be detained without public disclosure for up to a year.
In addition, a draft regulation for panchayats included a provision that disqualifies people with more than two children from holding posts.
Islanders have also criticised the Patel administration for its decision in December to relax quarantine norms. This, they say, has led to a steep increase in number of Covid-19 cases on the islands. Sayeed said till December, people wanting to travel to Lakshadweep had to quarantine in Kerala for seven days and then for further 14 days once they reached the island and produced a negative test result.
“The new procedure Patel administration issued did away with the quarantine measures. The administration turned the island from a region with no cases in 2020 to over 6,000 cases now,” he said.
The administration, however, has blamed the rise in Covid-19 cases on the increased movement of people for economic activity and high transmissibility of new variants of the virus.
Elamaram Kareem, Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from Kerala, a state with which Lakshadweep has deep cultural and economic ties, on Sunday wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind asking him to recall Patel for his anti-people policies. “All of the regulations were promulgated without an iota of consideration towards the people or their choice of food or livelihhood,” he said in the letter.
Kareem also pointed out that due to cultural reasons, there were restriction on alcohol sales and use in the Union territory, something that Patel unilaterally lifted. The administration has also destroyed sheds where fishermen keep their nets and other equipment citing the Coast Guard Act.
The MP also said the administration’s decision to ask islanders to use Mangalore in Karnataka instead of Beypore in Kerala for freight transit has led to allegations that it was aimed at severing the islands ties with Kerala.
When contacted, Patel told Scroll.in that he was not aware of any campaign against him and that he had no comment to offer.