All this past week, as India’s smallest Union territory kept trending on Twitter, the plaintive kicker of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 environmentalism-themed anthem Big Yellow Taxi played on loop in my mind: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” The fact is almost no one has ever paid attention to Lakshadweep – and now it’s probably too late.

The proximate cause for the recent notoriety is the ire and anxiety stirred up by a bludgeoning slew of new legislation that has targeted the tiny Arabian Sea archipelago (it comprises 35 widely scattered islands, with the total surface area of just 19 square kilometres) after Praful Khoda Patel – who was home minister of Gujarat during Narendra Modi’s tenure as chief minister – took over its administration in December.

One after another in rapid fire, Patel has volleyed drastic new bills, orders and draft laws to keep the islanders reeling. There were already protests, but something like the final straw came on May 21, when he ordered all dairy farms run by the state department of animal husbandry – the source of over 2.5 million litres of fresh milk per year – to be closed, with the cattle sold off by the end of the month.

Less than 48 hours later on May 23, Elamaram Kareem, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP, wrote directly to President Ram Nath Kovind to demand Patel’s removal for “anti-people policies”.

“It can be seen that all of [Patel’s] orders and promulgations are issued with an ulterior motive to destroy the traditional life and cultural diversity of the people of Lakshadweep,” argued Kareem. “Many of the existing laws are being amended unilaterally and new legislations are being drafted without any consultation with the people or their elected representatives. All these unilateral, undemocratic and anti-people decisions have created very huge unrest [and] the whole Lakshadweep wants this Administrator and his policies to leave.”

At almost exactly the same moment, on his own Facebook timeline, another senior Kerala politician, VT Balram (he belongs to the Congress Party) theorised, “The Sangh Parivar is trying to make Lakshadweep into another Kashmir.” He said the Modi government is trying “to chase away the locals in order to make room for huge tourism projects of monopolists like Ambani, Adani. The ruling class had such a target in Kashmir too.”

These messages and others like them ignited nation-wide furore, and by the next morning, in an unending flood of angry reactions, #SaveLakshadweep shot to the lead position in Twitter’s India mentions. The issue has stayed hovering near the top ever since.

That is how, all of a sudden, after decades of being ignored by the mainland, this sprinkling of postcard-perfect atolls became embroiled in an increasingly nasty political free-for-all. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi weighed in: “Lakshadweep is India’s jewel in the ocean. The ignorant bigots in power are destroying it.” And so has Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen: “@PMOIndia’s govt is causing irreversible destruction.”

On May 27, adding to the cacophony of outrage, The Hindu editorialised that Patel “has demonstrated a unique disregard for the people’s concerns and priorities. In the absence of any administrative rationale or public good in these blatantly arbitrary measures, there are fears of other motivations.” It concluded, “The Centre is inverting its responsibility to protect into a license to interfere. It must recall the Administrator and reassure the islanders.”

Overthrowing the status quo

The opprobrium is justified. As Muhammed Sabith summarised the situation in detail for, Patel is attempting nothing less than wholesale overthrow of the status quo. One of his proposed laws will bar anyone with more than two children from contesting local elections (thus disqualifying many existing office-holders). Another aims to jail “goondas” indefinitely without charges (in a society which has been almost entirely crime-free for generations).

Even more than these crudely conceived – and most likely abortive – machinations to scuttle the existing political and social order, it is the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 that has drawn the most righteous fury.

For example, in an editorial, the Indian Express thundered, “The regulation vests complete authority in the administrator to acquire, plan and develop land as per his whim or vision [while] ignoring the geographic reality of the region and the long-standing demands of people. 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.”

But as any of the 65,000 native islanders could easily attest, none of this pattern of behaviour is actually new. Maladroit paternalism in an overtly colonial mould has always been India’s modus operandi in Lakshadweep. While the new administrator has been exceptionally ham-fisted about it, his agenda has been on the cards for years.

Ever since 2019, for example, the government’s NITI Aayog think tank has been hard-selling its plans to blanket Lakshadweep (and, separately, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union territory in the Bay of Bengal) with hundreds of “water villas” and other hotel complexes. All the relevant clearances and permissions were granted long ago. NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant is on record promising prospective investors, “Now we are opening up 10 islands, in the next 12 months we should be opening close to 100 islands.”

Make no mistake, these are massively disruptive numbers. Anyone who knows Lakshadweep will realise that the NITI Aayog’s presumptive scale of operations will permanently alter the physical, social, cultural, and environmental character of the islands.

So, what’s the difference between Kant and Patel? None that is meaningful. One is clearly more sophisticated but their intentions are identical. Both mean to arrive at the same highly unsustainable, anti-environmental and people-unfriendly end results.

A developmental agenda

“The Lakshadweep administration has been pursuing a strong developmental agenda for several decades on the islands, going back all the way to Indian independence,” said Rohan Arthur, the experienced marine biologist and founder-trustee of the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation. He has been closely involved with the islands for well over two decades. Since 1998, he has devoted much of his research to tracking long-term ecological trends in their coral reefs.

“Over the last six or seven decades, the emphasis has been on self-sufficiency and making Lakshadweep a fully contributing member of the larger Indian economy [but] more recently, there has been a shift away from self-sufficiency to market integration,” Arthur said. “The primary thrust has had to do with promoting high-end tourism, working with the assumption that the astounding beauty of the islands is an eminently marketable commodity. The packaging and sale of a certain unspoilt tropical island experience has been what some sections of the government have been focused on, regardless of how far that vision is from the messy ecological and cultural reality on the ground.”

This is a crucial insight because there’s no doubt that Patel, Kant and the rest of their ilk are fixated on the pricey, exclusionary tourism model pursued by some other Indian Ocean resort destinations, most specifically the Maldives. It is the root of Kant’s disproportionately sized clusters of water-villas. Patel himself admits so: “Why is it that people are waiting to go to Maldives, but are not even willing to come to Lakshadweep? It is to develop tourism and for long term benefits that we are introducing the LDAR” or Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021.

There are huge problems with these aspirations. For one thing, right into the 1970s, the Maldives was one of the handful of poorest countries in the world, and had no real choice other than tourism to make a change. This is not the case with India. In addition, there are over 1,000 islands in the Maldives, and its 150-odd resorts are largely restricted to historically uninhabited spits of sand where every possible item (including most workers) is imported en bloc from abroad.

Besides being the very opposite of sustainable, the Maldives model has engendered immense corruption, which has seeded grave political instability.

Asked whether Kant and Patel’s aspirations make any sense, Arthur responded, “Quite simply, no. Lakshadweep’s population density is twice that of the Maldives (apart from the island of Male where much of the country’s population is crammed). Land area is very limited, and freshwater even more limiting. Given these realities, it makes very little sense to pursue a Maldives-style model of tourism and development. The larger question to ask is, to what end? Who stands to benefit from these developments, and if not local communities, what justifies such a developmental trajectory when the costs to culture and ecology are so large?”

These are pivotal questions in 21st century India, where an unholy nexus of government and corporate interests continues to rampage ahead with their opaquely conceived “development agenda” while ostentatiously ignoring social, cultural and environmental concerns. The kind of devastation wrought by this relentless bulldozing is especially apparent in my home state of Goa, which has borne the brunt of tourism for decades. It’s nothing to wish for in any place, let alone one as exquisite, unique and fragile as Lakshadweep.

No due process

Arthur says he is worried because the Lakshadweep administration under Patel is trying to proceed “without the regular rituals of due process or public consultation.”

“Even if we do not ascribe mischievous motive to the most instigative moves, the outcome of some of these policies could change the way space is used, owned and perceived in the islands,” he said. “Additionally, it will radically tilt the power arrangements to significantly disenfranchise local islanders [and] completely shift the way local communities view the government from being a beneficent supporter of local wellbeing to an oppressive authority bent on pursuing its own agendas at all costs.”

That is precisely what has played out in Goa, and also Kashmir, as well as the entire swathe of states across the North East, with the country’s coral islands possibly next to the guillotine. In all these places, an unshakeable conviction grows: the rest of India wants our land, but not the people. The big difference in Lakshadweep may be that the country risks losing both.

Rohan Arthur says it’s an unquestionably existential threat. “Buffering the islands and its people against ongoing climate change should undoubtedly be the centre-most concern, and it is frustrating that very few development policies even make mention of it except in hand-waving gestures,” he said. “What’s at stake is the very habitability of the islands, which, our studies indicate, are very much at risk in the medium term. The next decade or so is going to be critical if we do not want the people of Lakshadweep to be India’s first climate migrants.”

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.