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THE VERTICAL

The Lakshadweep Gambit

Kerala: On 4 January, pictures of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi snorkelling in Lakshadweep hit social media. The pictures were accompanied by his invitation “for those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them, Lakshadweep has to be on your list,” and incited a cascade of unanticipated events in the Indian archipelago of 36 islands lying to the west of India’s southwestern coast, in the Laccadive Sea between the Arabian Sea to and the Bay of Bengal.


The photos triggered a surge in Google searches unseen in 20 years. Maldivian ministers in Malé, a mere 900 kilometres southwest of Lakshadweep, were alarmed. A few vented against Modi on social media.

 

Hassan Zihan, Mariyam Shiuna and Malsha Shareef, all deputy ministers, were suspended for the social media posts they made against Modi. Maldivian ministers have been sacked for lesser blunders, however, the president has chosen to keep them on government payroll following a temporary suspension.

 

At a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had escalated to levels previously unseen following the Hamas-led terror attacks in October 2023 and in the wider context of Israeli settler violence in the West Bank, Shiuna pointed out India’s ties with Israel. Other public officials joined in and said that Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep was aimed at undermining Maldives’ luxury tourism industry, which prides itself on its secluded pristine beaches.


Indian travel and tourism agencies and celebrities added fuel to the controversy by using hashtags #MaldivesOut and #ExploreIndianIslands.

 

In January, Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu broke with tradition and prioritized visits to Turkey and China, flouting India's “first-visit” protocol. He flew to China, signed 20 deals, secured a massive 1000 crore aid package, and upon his return, urged India to withdraw its 80-member army contingent stationed in the Maldives by 15 March. The first well-known Indian presence in the Maldives was in response to the 1988 coup, under Operation Cactus, following a request from then-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, which protected the Maldives from Sri Lankan militants. There were 77 Indian officers stationed in Maldives since 2010 when the Indian government gifted two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft. Recent news suggests the first batch of Indian troops, some 25 soldiers, have already left the island country.

 

In short, Modi’s Lakshadweep pictures created something of a diplomatic crisis that could significantly reshape Indian and Maldivian relations.

 

Muizzu’s moves while in power have signalled a subtle but important shift in Maldivian foreign policy, with China gaining significant ground and India's traditional influence facing a challenge. But as diplomatic tensions between India and the Maldives have simmered, Muizzu’s deals with China, aimed at turbocharging tourism through large-scale construction projects and marketing to new countries, have raised crucial questions about the fragile archipelago’s environmental sustainability. Lakshadweep is similarly threatened—and if Modi’s agenda is realized, also poses a threat to the tourism sector pivotal to the Maldivian economy.


Swallowed By the Ocean

While Maldives-China 20-point MoU cooperation in disaster management and green and low-carbon sounds positive, deepening blue economy cooperation and accelerating Belt and Road initiative raises serious concerns for the low-lying island country.

 

In late 2021, highlighting the Maldives’ extreme environmental vulnerability, Aminath Shauna, the former environment and climate change minister noted, in an interview with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that a staggering 80% of the country's islands sit less than a meter above sea level, over 90 percent of the islands report flooding annually, 97 percent are reporting shoreline erosion.

 

“Fifty percent of all our housing structures are within just 100 meters of the coastline. So most really cannot withstand tidal floods, let alone tsunamis. Really, everything is at stake,” she had said.

 

In 2008, concerned about the rising sea levels threatening the Maldives, then-President Mohamed Nasheed proposed relocation to neighbouring countries. However, in comparison, the current president’s plans differ greatly. He envisions reclaiming land, building elevated islands, and fortifying them.

 

A report from the Economic Society of New Delhi-based Shri Ram College of Commerce reveals how extensive extraction for development disrupts beaches, harming marine life, compromising conservation for commerce, fuelling rapid biodiversity loss, around 21 percent of daily waste comes from tourists, polluting water and endangering health and untreated sewage and depletion threaten freshwater resources.

 

But tourism continues to be integral to the Maldives economy, with growth in the sector in 2022 exceeding pre-pandemic levels with a remarkable 13.9% growth, outpacing even optimistic forecasts, fuelled by pent-up demand from both European and Asian tourists.


Indeed, tourist arrivals and revenue in the Maldives have rebounded sharply, with total receipts soaring by 28% from $3.5 billion in 2021 to an estimated $4.5 billion in 2022.

 

Fascinatingly, leading the charge was the recent upsurge in Indian travellers, some of them prominent Bollywood stars, with 209,198 visiting the island paradise in 2023. Close behind were 209,146 Russian visitors, followed by 187,118 Chinese tourists ranking third.

 

According to Maldives Monetary Authority, fuelled by a booming tourism sector, Maldives’ total government revenue surged 38% to 1.82 billion USD in 2022, outpacing both tax and non-tax revenue hikes.

 

Financial figures show strong tourism recovery in the Maldives, raising concerns about its impact on the region's fragile ecosystem. However, the nation's latest partnerships, especially with China, may offer opportunities for balancing economic growth with environmental protection.


Chalo Lakshadweep

Can India reasonably pitch in Lakshadweep as a competitor for Maldives? While the idea of Lakshadweep as a competitor to the Maldives might be tempting, environmental concerns raise serious doubts about its feasibility. Lakshadweep’s environmental fragility, limited infrastructure and local concerns, cannot be ignored.

 

A fresh study paints a grim picture for the Lakshadweep Islands, revealing that all of them are facing significant threat from rising sea levels, regardless of future emission scenarios. This marks the first-time climate models have been used to assess potential inundation across the archipelago.

 

The study predicts drastic land loss for smaller islands like Chetlat and Amini, with 60-70% and 70-80% of their shorelines vanishing under rising waters. Even larger islands like Minicoy and Kavaratti, including the capital, are not spared, facing potential land loss along 60% of their coastlines. The only relative safe haven appears to be Androth island, though it too will be impacted.

 

Minicoy, the second largest and southernmost island in Lakshadweep, shares a unique historical connection with the Maldives. Known locally as “Maliku” in the Maldivian-Minicoy language, Minicoy was separated from the Maldives in 1752 by the Ali Rajas of Malabar (Kerala) and remained distinct ever since.

 

The remaining northern islands of Lakshadweep, the Amindivi group, fell under British control much earlier in 1799, following their victory over Tipu Sultan of Mysore (who ruled them from 1787). The Laccadive Islands (southern group) and Minicoy were annexed to the British Empire later, with suzerainty of Minicoy transferring to the British Indian Empire in 1875. However, the Arakkal House held a trade monopoly over these islands until 1905, when they were fully surrendered to the British.

 

When India gained independence in 1947, the Union Jack continued to fly over the Minicoy lighthouse until 1956, when a representative of the Queen lowered it, marking Minicoy's official integration into the Indian Union.

 

Lakshadweep’s current infrastructure caters to its 60,000 residents and a limited tourist influx. In 2021, the islands welcomed 13,500 tourists, a number that jumped to 22,800 in 2022. While this growth is encouraging, it also strains existing resources. There is only one airline operating flights to Lakshadweep and six ships ferrying people and any Indian, who is not a native of Lakshadweep, shall have to obtain an entry permit. The reason for this, as per the Lakshadweep Tourism website, is to protect the Indigenous peoples residing there.


Following a Supreme Court order in the 2012 case of M/s Sea Shell Beach Resorts v. Union Territory of Lakshadweep and Others, an expert committee led by Justice R.V. Raveendran evaluated the Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP) for Lakshadweep. The IIMP is a crucial document that outlines the vision and strategies for sustainable development in Lakshadweep. The Supreme Court's order emphasized the need for balancing development with environmental protection in the islands. The Raveendran Committee's report made several recommendations, including, strict adherence to environmental laws and regulations, prioritization of sustainable tourism and eco-friendly practices, protection of the islands' fragile ecosystems and cultural heritage.

 

Having said that, recently, the Lakshadweep administration planned to develop eco-tourism projects in 11 islands in public-private partnerships. NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s policy body, had sought proposals from consultants. The administration of the union territory identified the islands of Bangaram, Thinnakara, Pareli-II, Pareli- III, Chariyam, Kalpitti, Tilakkam, Kavaratti, Perumal par, Viringili island and Minicoy. Additionally, branded hotels are coming up while water villas are also on the horizon.

 

However, the one and only parliamentarian from Lakshadweep has already raised his concern over tourism development projects.

 

Talking to the media, he said the “Chalo Lakshadweep” call may not even get off the ground given multiple constraints, including the lack of direct flights and the minuscule number—150—of hotel rooms.

 

“Even if it does, the tourist inflow has to be controlled in view of the fragile ecology of the island that has been propped up by a rulebook that lays down the number of tourists the islands can contain each day,” Mohammad Faizal, the parliamentarian from Lakshadweep, told media.

 

Faizal cited Justice R.V. Raveendran’s suggestions to protect the island. The media quoted him, adding that the island is looking for high-end controlled tourism.

 

Meanwhile, in a phone conversation with SAAG from Androth, the largest island in Lakshadweep, Mohammed Althaf Hussain, a former Panchayath president, discussed the potential benefits and drawbacks of increased tourism focus in the islands.

 

Hussain noted that “pumping more money into tourism development can create job opportunities, help locals diversify their income, boost earnings, and popularize local culture.” However, he also acknowledged environmental concerns, stating, “Like any other place, our islands face environmental challenges due to climate change, including waste management woes.” He concluded by expressing optimism that “with scientific solutions, we can overcome these challenges.”

 

Dr Naveen Namboothri, Trustee and Programme Head at Dakshin Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental conservation and sustainable development, shared a note prepared by Lakshadweep Research Collective. This note responded to the draft development plan for the island proposed by the Indian government.

 

The note shared by Naveen, who is part of Lakshadweep Research Collective, states that, the then development plan poses a dangerous threat to Lakshadweep's ecology, community, and culture. The note adds that the plan ignores Lakshadweep's unique ecology and climate vulnerabilities, proposing unsustainable development that endangers reefs and livelihoods.

 

“It grants authorities power to take land and resources, jeopardizing traditional practices and local economies. Proposes a narrow, “fast-track” approach focused on infrastructure and exploitation, neglecting social well-being and ecological integrity,” the note adds.


On 1 February, while presenting the interim budget, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaram, named Lakshadweep. “To address the emerging fervour for domestic tourism, projects for port connectivity, tourism infrastructure, and amenities will be taken up on our islands, including Lakshadweep,” she said.

 

And there are reports that India has proposed a ₹3,600-crore infrastructure upgrade plan for the Lakshadweep islands, aiming to transform them into a tourist hub.

 

Back in 2021, the Lakshadweep administrator was accused of introducing policies that could harm the environment and cultural heritage of the islands.  The controversial proposals included a beef ban and restrictions on those contesting in local elections. At the time, India’s opposition leader Rahul Gandhi also raised his concerns.

 

The tensions between India and the Maldives can be attributed to hypernationalism displayed by both state and non-state actors. While Maldivian deputy ministers criticized Prime Minister Modi, Indian social media users fueled the issue with their own brand of hypernationalism and unrealistic expectations regarding Lakshadweep. For India, boycotting the Maldives may well have negative political consequences. Meanwhile, losing the trust of a long-standing strategic partner whose culture is intertwined with its own would be a major detriment for the Maldives.

 

Fueled by budget allocations and amplified by media buzz, India seems intent on making a "Maldives™" out of Lakshadweep, propelling ultra-nationalist sentiments in both countries. This move suggests that India is far from closing the chapter on instigating a previously non-existent tourism rivalry between Lakshadweep and the Maldives.

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Prime Minister Modi on the beach in Lakshadweep during a recent visit. ANI / Courtesy of Ministry of Tourism.

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Reportage
Lakshadweep
Maldives
India
Nationalism
China
Foreign Policy
Environment
Climate Change
Islands
Lakshadweep archipelago
Operation Cactus
Mohamed Muizzu
Modi
Minicoy
Tourism
Belt and Road Initiative
Luxury Tourism
Mohamed Nasheed
IMF
Maldives Monetary Authority
Sea Shell Beach Resorts
Integrated Island Management Plan
Laccadive
Maliku
Kavaratti
Androth
Chalo Lakshadweep
Amindivi
Eco-tourism
Turkey
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
Infrastructure
Diplomatic Relations
Malé
Maldivian Economy
Environmental Disaster

REJIMON KUTTAPPAN is a Kerala-based independent journalist, migrant rights researcher, and author of Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf (Penguin India, 2021).

Reportage
Lakshadweep

REJIMON KUTTAPPAN

Why have India’s ultranationalist aspirations made Lakshadweep the unlikely locus of its tourist aspirations and exacerbated tensions with the Maldives?

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