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Lakshadweep Residents Stranded as Praful Patel Administration Drastically Reduces Ships

Ships are the lifeline of about 64,000 Islanders who depend heavily on Kerala for jobs, education and healthcare.
A beach at Kavaratti, Lakshadweep

A beach at Kavaratti, Lakshadweep. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Among an array of controversial decisions taken by the Lakshadweep administration, the massive depletion of ships running between the island and the mainland has hit the islanders hard.

The ships are the lifeline of about 64,000 Islanders who depend heavily on Kerala for jobs, education and healthcare. However, with the depletion of the fleet from seven to three and seats decreasing from around 3000 to 600, they are struggling to get tickets, according to reports.

Article 14 reported that former cleaner Thangal Koya, 51, and his wife Fathima who came to Kerala for Koya’s liver disease treatment, were stranded in the southern state for a month because tickets for the ship back to Lakshadweep were not available. Koya, who lost his livelihood after the UT administration reportedly terminated 500 contract employees last year, is now in debt because of his medical expenses and money he borrowed from relatives and friends to spend the extra month in Kerala stranded.

There were seven ships that used to sail between Lakshadweep and Kerala--five all-weather ships and two fair-weather ships (they don’t operate during the monsoon). However, only three ships are available now. Further, there were only two ships available between December 2021 and July 2022.

MV Kavaratti, one of the five ships that were absent from service for seven months, had an accident in December 2021 and was stranded on the high seas before rescue, the Article 14 report said. The other four ships were withdrawn before the Kavaratti incident.

In total, three of the five large ships remained unavailable for seven months. One of them, MV Lagoons, returned to service on 15 July, the report said.

Many controversial “reforms”, including the ship depletion, have taken place under the administration of Praful Patel, a confidant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Gujarat and the first politician to hold the post that was traditionally held by bureaucrats.

Mohammed Faisal of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) told Article 14 that Patel discarded the 'Perspective Plan', which was prepared by the union territory administration in 2015-16 and approved by the Union government, aimed to introduce six new ships.

Under his administration, protests against the “reforms” and policies also saw suppression. The Lakshadweep police have arrested many during protests against the transport crisis.

Moreover, Hussain Manikfan, Assistant Director of Lakshadweep Tourism, was arrested last December following a Facebook post that said only two of the seven ships were operating at that time, resulting in the islanders “going through hell”. He was later granted bail by a local court which termed the arrest as a “misuse of power”, The Hindu reported.

Locals have also alleged in several instances that they were being discriminated against for being Muslims. Around 96% of the island’s population is Muslim.

At a protest last month against the drastic depletion of the fleet, NCP State president P.C. Chacko alleged that the move was a vindictive action aimed at isolating the people of Lakshadweep, The Hindu reported.

K. I. Nizamuddin, the Kavaratti panchayat member, said even with the reduced movement of people during the monsoons, the drop in the number of vessels has hit the movement of people from all sections, including students and patients.

Moreover, the situation has also affected inter-island travel in the archipelago, especially impacting students. During the monsoon, the services of small motorised craft that locals use are suspended as the sea is rough. Hence, they depend instead on the island-mainland all-weather ships for inter-island journeys as well between 15 May to 15 September, according to the Article 14 report.

The reduction in ships has also crippled the island’s economy. Shopkeepers told The Caravan that they have seen a drastic drop in sales due to the administration’s policies. The report also said that the administration reduced budgetary support to panchayats and cooperative societies, which hit the locals hard.

A petition filed by Mohammed Sadique, the Janata Dal (United) president, under Constitutional provisions, appealed to the Kerala High Court to order the Lakshadweep administration to provide financial assistance to the locals “who are stranded in Kochi, Calicut and Mangalore, due to the non-availability of ship tickets”.

However, on June 14, the court passed a judgement refusing to intervene, while accepting the promises made by the administration before the court, Article 14 reported. The bench said the administration made “every effort” to transport the passengers between the islands and the mainland.

The residents of the archipelago have been protesting against the Patel administration’s decisions stating those will affect the unique culture and identity of a group of islands, inhabited mainly by Muslims who fall under the protected Scheduled Tribes (STs).

The administration has been accused of suppressing both protests and political opposition. In the more recent instances, according to Article 14, the Lakshadweep police arrested senior leaders of the NCP in the last week of May when they came to discuss the issue with Anbarasu, the IAS officer who works as Patel’s advisor. Other political activists, including the NCP’s state general secretary Muhsin P and village panchayat member Naseer A P, were similarly arrested after they went to discuss the lack of adequate passenger ships and other concerns about the UT. The arrests were made under section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which allows the arrest of a person without a magistrate’s order or warrant to “prevent the commission of cognizable offences”. The activists were granted bail by the Kerala High Court after four days and three nights in custody. The arrests ignited further protests in the islands, the report said.

The locals are up in arms against regulations being brought by the Patel administration, including a cow-slaughter ban, the removal of meat from school meals and closing of dairy farms (both rescinded by the Supreme Court in May 2022), the goonda act, plans to develop the island as a major tourist destination and allowing of liquor sales after nearly half a century, among others.

The opposition to the administrative decisions last year spilt over to the Bharatiya Janata Party unit in the archipelago itself. A letter sent by the BJP’s Lakshadweep general secretary HK Mohammed Kasim on April 20, 2021 against the island administration surfaced online. The letter urging the PM to recall Patel stated that the administrator had stopped several welfare schemes, shut 15 schools and terminated 500 temporary staff. The party’s youth wing, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha’s state general secretary PP Mohammed Hashim, former state vice-president M C Muthukoya and former state treasurer B Shukkoor also quit the party over the decisions taken by the Patel administration.

Last year, over a dozen BJP members in Lakshadweep also resigned over the sedition case against filmmaker Aisha Sultana, who on a TV channel had termed Patel a bio-weapon launched by the union government.

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