India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep, two environmentally sensitive archipelagos, have been at the centre of recent controversies. While Andaman and Nicobar are governed by a Lieutenant Governor, Lakshadweep falls under the rule of an Administrator. These territories have witnessed significant development activities that have raised concerns among experts and attracted the attention of the Supreme Court-appointed committees.
In the case of Lakshadweep, the Indian Hotel Company Limited has leased the uninhabited island Suheli and the southern part of the inhabited island Kadamath for tourism purposes. Additionally, the controversial Lagoon villa project is currently under review. On the other hand, the Great Nicobar project in Andaman and Nicobar has sparked renewed debate about the islands’ future in view of the suggested development plans. Both these ventures have drawn criticism for contradicting the recommendations put forth by the Supreme Court-appointed committees.
The Supreme Court has played a crucial role in shaping the fate of these archipelagos. In 2001, the court prohibited the cutting of naturally grown trees in Andaman and Nicobar, effectively putting an end to centuries-long exploitation by the British and later by Indian settlers. To address the environmental concerns, the court established a committee chaired by Shekhar Singh, who had a deep understanding of the islands. The committee meticulously examined various aspects and sectors, including commercial forestry, construction practices, encroachments, tribal reserves, land diversion, poaching, and tourism. The committee’s recommendations aimed to protect the fragile ecosystem of Andaman and Nicobar and even suggested measures such as implementing identity cards to prevent encroachments.
Similarly, in 2012, the Supreme Court appointed another committee, headed by retired judge R.V. Raveendran, to address the issues in Lakshadweep. This committee provided recommendations covering coastal zone management, conservation of coral ecosystems, agriculture, fishing, tourism, renewable energy sources, and connectivity. Notably, the committee recommended the establishment of a second airstrip at Minicoy and emphasised the need to regulate the influx of tourists by measuring the islands’ carrying capacity.
Both these cases ended up in the Supreme Court unintentionally. Three NGOs filed a writ petition against violations in Andaman and Nicobar, invoking a previous Supreme Court order. Meanwhile, the Seashells Resort in Lakshadweep filed a case in the Kerala High Court, leading to the appointment of the Raveendran committee. The Supreme Court eventually approved most of the committees’ recommendations. However, the administrations of Andaman and Nicobar, as well as Lakshadweep, have not fully implemented the court’s orders. For instance, the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road, recommended by the Shekhar Singh committee, remains pending, and the Inner Line Permits have not been implemented. Similarly, Lakshadweep has yet to develop a proper tourism policy, and certain tourism activities are in violation of coastal regulation norms.
One cannot help but wonder how the situation would have unfolded if the Supreme Court had not intervened in these archipelagos. The administrations of Andaman and Nicobar, as well as Lakshadweep, have remained passive observers of these developments. The delayed implementation of crucial recommendations raises questions about their inaction.
- In Lakshadweep, the Indian Hotel Company Ltd has leased the uninhabited island Suheli and southern part of the inhabited island Kadamath for tourism purposes; the controversial Lagoon villa project is also currently under review.
- The Great Nicobar project in Andaman and Nicobar has sparked renewed debate about the islands’ future in view of the suggested development plans.
- The recent developments have caused concern from the Supreme Court which established a committee to address environmental concerns of the archipelagos.
The demographic landscape of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is complex, with the tribal population facing the threat of extinction and the settler population lacking representation in governance. In contrast, Lakshadweep has a more homogeneous demography, except in Minicoy, where the people and culture are closely linked to the Maldives.
It is essential to critically analyse the constitutional justification for Union Territories and their centralised administrative system. This system resembles the structure of the East India Company in India, where the Administrator or Lieutenant Governor can be compared to the Governor General or Viceroy. Consultation and deliberation are lacking in this system, with bureaucrats acting as implementation agents for the Central government’s schemes. Despite 75 years of independence, the government appoints “Viceroys” to rule strategically significant and environmentally fragile archipelagos. The response to a Right to Information application reveals that the powers to promulgate regulations with respect to Union Territories rest with the President, undermining the role of parliament in rule-making. Therefore, having only one elected Member of Parliament from each Union Territory does not compensate for the absence of local governance.
Also Read | Flora and fauna of Great Nicobar in great peril
While it would be an exaggeration to claim that the Supreme Court verdicts “saved” these archipelagos, they did protect these remote areas from potential environmental disasters. Recent developments, however, have happened in total disregard of the recommendations of the Supreme Court-appointed committees. The Lakshadweep administration, under Praful K. Patel, initiated the demolition of fishermen’s temporary sheds on Kavaratti Island, going against the Integrated Island Management Plan that allowed such constructions. It seems that the unelected bureaucratic system is operating with a sense of entitlement, as if they have been given free rein over the archipelagos, disregarding their history, nature, and the local population’s sensibilities.
Further, the central government has disregarded existing safeguards imposed by the court and attempted to change the names of islands and institutions in a bid to evoke patriotism. Schools in Kalpeni and several islands in Andaman and Nicobar have been renamed, which has elicited a petition against this action in the Kerala High Court.
These archipelagos are not just clusters of islands; they are home to people with legitimate rights over the land and surrounding seas. As a 75-year-old democracy, we expect fair administration from unelected individuals who are appointed by an indirectly elected President with limited powers. The present and future of these Union Territories, especially the environmentally fragile Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep, heavily rely on the verdicts of India’s apex court and High Courts.
Salahuddin is a researcher.