Padma Rao Sundarji | Why Lakshadweep cannot become another Maldives

The Asian Age.

Opinion, Columnists

Even Bollywood joined the war-cry: Chalo Lakshadweep instead!

We drive drunk and light firecrackers on car roofs, while zig-zagging at top speed through the traffic. (Visit Goa). (Image: Facebook@Vincent Braganza)

The 36 islands of Lakshadweep lie off the coast of Kerala and are India’s smallest Union territory. They, along with the Republic of Maldives and the British-annexed Chagos archipelago, are part of a volcanic island chain straddling the equator for 2,550 km. They share topography, and Lakshadweep’s Minicoy island even shares a language – Dhivehi -- with the Maldives. And possibly, also the Maldivian belief in “jinnis” -- mischievous daemons of the netherworld.

For every “jinni”, there’s a “fanditha”, a cure offered by a shaman.

It must have been a green-eyed jinni that possessed some Maldivian politicians when Prime Minister Narendra Modi holidayed recently in Lakshadweep. The motormouths who abused him were sacked, but by then it was too late. By the time Mr Modi’s plane had touched down in the First City of Jinnis (New Delhi), Indians on the social media had blown a gasket.

“Influencers” patriotically declared a boycott of the Maldives: there’s be no more pouting selfies in bikinis taken there. Even Bollywood joined the war-cry: Chalo Lakshadweep instead!

The prospect of Lakshadweep being invaded by tourists is terrifying. Be it abroad or in scenic destinations within the country, let’s face it -- we Indians are not the best travellers.

We are pompous perambulators with scant concern for sound or environmental pollution.

We recognise no social mores, other than our own.

We chew paan and leave jet-streams of red spittle everywhere. (Corners of white-washed heritage buildings like New Delhi’s Connaught Place are a favourite).

We urinate wherever we like.

We allow our kids to screech on board planes and in “quiet zones” like museums and libraries, and smile indulgently when they press all ten elevator buttons at once.

We prefer speakerphones on high volume for calls, music and video.

We demand “discounts” and curated menus.

We want undivided attention in group tours.

We drive drunk and light firecrackers on car roofs, while zig-zagging at top speed through the traffic. (Visit Goa).

We crash queues at every opportunity, especially at boarding gates. We occupy every inch of space in overhead bins.

Not greater literacy, nor growing affluence, nor more frequent travel and exposure to other cultures: there is no stopping the ugly Indian tourist.

On the contrary, growing richer and being touted as the Next Big Thing, has only made us worse.

Of course, there are some exceptions. But as a rule, we are hell-bent on destruction, wherever we go. Our lawmakers simply “see and hear no evil”; their greed for revenue, at any cost, is baffling and tragic.

Don’t take my word for it. Visit Kulu, Manali, Mussoorie, Ooty.

Anywhere in the world, there would be sensible urban planning, minimal construction, minimal deforestation, strict restrictions on vehicles, a creative and abundant use of eco-friendly transport alternatives like battery cars and buggies, sustenance of local livelihoods, etc.

We have laws, there’s even a “green” tribunal. But of what use, if action is taken after -- not before -- a man-made disaster?

Islanders build structures in keeping with ancient knowledge, awareness of the vagaries of their environment. Unleash bureaucrats and their “design teams” from landlocked Indian states on Lakshadweep, and devastation is guaranteed. (We won’t even touch on taste, design and aesthetics -- so gloriously evident in antiquities, and so glaringly absent in modern India).

Then there’s garbage. It lines our highways, it fringes our pavements, it chokes our rivers, fouls our oceans. Goa is a case in point. There is not a beach where visitors -- locals and tourists -- do not break beer bottles on the rocks and leave behind the shards. To sully public spaces is our birthright!

Activists say that “behavioural change” is the urgent need of the hour. But there’s a fat chance of that miracle before the first flights land in Lakshadweep.

Endorsing Mr Modi’s innocuous call for Indians to travel to Lakshadweep in a column, a well-known writer declared that “high-end tourism” is what Lakshadweep needs, and that since nature bores such tourists, they must be “entertained”.

Entertainment to our “high-enders” is: diesel-fumes-spewing casino yachts, deafening nightclubs and karaoke bars, beach flea markets, cacophonic raves, psychedelic drugs, strobe lights -- all of which are guaranteed to send marine life into extinction, enrage local people, and give birth to a narcotics underworld. There will be deforestation (tsunami-resisting mangroves, casuarinas will be the first casualties), sand mining, a depletion of ground water to feed swimming pools, discharge of hotel and household waste into, and the buildup of high levels of faecal coliform in water bodies, just like in Goa.

It’s hard to assess whether Lakshadweep can “beat the Maldives”, as many of us are urging, without adopting the same liberal approach to alcohol and various meats on its “resort islands”, while keeping tourists restricted to them in a much-criticised but successful form of “isolationist tourism”.

With several hundred atolls, the Maldives can afford segregation. Smaller Lakshadweep simply cannot.

Meanwhile, there are other rumblings. A former Kavaratti panchayat member told an Indian newspaper that Lakshadweep residents are facing interference in their “livelihoods, food habits (beef was banned from mid-day school meals in the Muslim-majority archipelago by the Lakshadweep administration, though later restored by the Supreme Court), religious practices and way of life”.

The administration is also said to be rooting to lift the current alcohol ban, and to plant Amul in place of local dairy farms. Malayalam, the local language, is reportedly to be replaced by the CBSE curriculum in local schools.

There are more serious storms brewing on the horizon: pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean, and the low-grade global war, that began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and escalated with the Hamas terror attack on Israel, has just entered a new and dangerous phase, after the US and British strikes in the Red Sea and on Houthi rebels in Yemen.

There is heightened surveillance by the Indian Navy in Goa and elsewhere. Further, the US’ most important overseas military base is on the Chagossian island of Diego Garcia, just 1,730 km south of Minicoy. It will almost certainly see greater activity.

Given Lakshadweep’s proximity to the Maldives, and China’s stranglehold over Male (Beijing has a long lease on a prime Maldivian atoll and a suspected submarine base in southern Maldives), security will play spoiler to many a grand plan in Lakshadweep.

“Minnikoy is all summer afternoon,” wrote British naturalist Alfred Alcock in 1902, of his “wonderfully charmed” days on the islands.

However unsettling the thought, it may be looming war clouds, and not “high-end tourism”, that will shield that pristine “summer afternoon” from rapacious exploitation.