Kochi: The proposed Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation of 2021 (LDAR) is highly problematic and will work against existing legal provisions that safeguard the resilience of Lakshadweep's ecology, livelihood and culture, say a group of scientists from different institutions who have worked on the islands for years.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the Lakshadweep Research Collective said it, along with 60 other signatories from the scientific community, has written to President Ram Nath Kovind seeking his intervention to withdraw the "incautious draft" Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation of 2021.
A collective of scientists and citizens, the Lakshadweep Research Collective, said they have done a thorough review of the implications of the LDAR.
"In enabling take-over of local land, we find this draft regulation is not in consonance with existing laws, such as the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, the Biological Diversity Act 2002, The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986," the statement said.
It is also against the suggestions of the Justice Raveendran Committee recommendations set up by the Supreme Court (as approved and notified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, in its Notification No.19011/16/91-IA. III dated 23 October 2015, and the Lakshadweep Panchayats Regulation 1994), the collective said.
"The LDAR does not address India's commitments towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, marine protection goals under the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Ecotourism Guidelines 2019," it said.
Noting that Lakshadweep is a coral atoll, which means the islands are part of a living coral system, the scientists said this island system is facing the impacts of climate change.
"Lakshadweep has experienced catastrophic climate change-related coral mass mortality events, straining the accretion and buffer capacity of the reefs. As just one example, the reefs of the capital, Kavaratti, are already eroding more than they are growing. Lakshadweep is not just ecologically fragile but also socially progressive, and it needs a sustainable development framework," it said.
They said anyone who has lived or worked in Lakshadweep for any length of time will be aware of its special vulnerability.
"Surrounded by the ocean, barely a few metres above sea level, and with only the reef to protect it, it is clear that all development on these islands needs to be very carefully managed. Over the last two decades we have personally witnessed the reefs being battered by repeated bleaching events and intense storms.
"How long it will take for these ecosystems to recover is anyone's guess. Given how linked land, lagoon and reef are in Lakshadweep, the development envisioned in the draft LDAR would be nothing short of disastrous," says Rohan Arthur, Senior Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation.
In its current form, the LDAR keeps local islanders out of decision-making processes.
The LDAR embraces a questionable vision of development that is neither sustainable in design nor likely to improve local wellbeing or safeguard the future habitability of the archipelago.
Dr Naveen Namboothri, Director, Dakshin Foundation, said the communities of the Lakshadweep Islands practice forms of social living and collective action that has served them well against external adversity.
"It is materially evident in their stewardship of the pole-and-line tuna fishing and coconut farming industry that provide livelihood support for more than half the population.
Islanders' historical relations with land and lagoon commons are closely tied to their identity and cultural practices.
Development on the islands need to see people and these ecological spaces as one unit, rather than severing their fragile ties," Namboothiri said.
According to Dipani Sutaria, an ecologist studying marine mammals in Lakshadweep with Divya Panicker and a team of islanders, Lakshadweep is a model for people-biodiversity coexistence.
"In 23 years of my working in the marine landscape, I have made field homes in several places, both in India and abroad. But nowhere before have I felt more at home, with food, people, weather, boats and the sea than in Lakshadweep.
Nowhere before have I thought: "Here is the place where we can actually try to recover coral reefs, sea grass beds and their communities, and yet operate a local commercial fishery," Sutaria said.
"My time spent with tuna fishers is full of stories of how tuna & dolphins behave around boats. Listening to the experiences of fishers at sea over numerous cups of tea, is the best way to end our days on the islands.
"Nowhere before have I felt, "it is not late yet; here is a biodiversity refugia, where people, culture and nature, actually co-exist. Any drastic changes proposed for the islands without sensitivity towards the delicate balance between sea-people-land, need to be withdrawn," Sutaria said.
Rucha Karkarey, Royal Society Newton International Research Fellow, Lancaster Environment Centre, said the LDAR envisages tourism in uninhabited islands with scant regard for biodiversity.
"Lakshadweep is home to ecological marvels that are unique to India and the world. It is a global 'bright spot' where high biodiversity persists alongside high human population density and well-being. It is a testament to a community that has for generations sustainably managed its atolls.
"By dismantling customary resource use patterns, especially around uninhabited atolls like Suheli and Cheriyam, now earmarked for tourism development, the LDAR threatens biodiversity and has negative implications for human well- being," Karkarey said.
The Collective appealed to the President to restore and reinvigorate the Justice Raveendran Committee recommendations set up by the Supreme Court and ensure that they are robustly implemented and monitored.
It also appealed to establish a committee of scientists, policy makers and local representatives to re- evaluate the broader development plans and directions of which the LDAR is a part, in the context of Lakshadweep's unique culture, ecological fragility and climate vulnerability.