Developers arrive and Lakshadweep lives on borrowed time
Kavaratti, Lakshadweep, 2005. Photo: thejas / Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Under the current crisis brewing in Lakshadweep, there is another unspoken crisis that threatens the very livability of the islands, and calls into question the feverish dreams of development in the name of which current policies are enacted. The latest proposed regulations and orders will only make a resolution process that began decades ago more effective. The crisis I am referring to is climate change. Lakshadweep lives on borrowed time, and what we do with that time will decide the fate of the islands and its people.
To be clear, I am not one of the Climate Change Cassandras. I have spent the last two decades trying to understand the impacts of climate change on the coral reefs of Lakshadweep. During this time, I saw the extraordinary resilience of the ecosystem in the face of climatic disturbances. When I first saw the reef succumb to a catastrophic bleaching event in mid-1998, I was convinced that I was witnessing the reef’s death and that I would spend the remaining years writing its epitaph.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. It took a few years, but when the recovery started it went at a galloping pace, and within a decade the reef was back to health. If you spend enough time in nature, it cures you of all pride of intellectual certainty. And the most dangerous thing you can do is believe you’ve seen all the green tips the ecosystem has in its bag.
Warming oceans severely affect coral reefs
And yet, despite the Lakshadweep System’s extraordinary ability to cushion change, it now faces an onslaught unlike anything it has known before. Since 1998, the reef has experienced at least two additional coral mass mortalities and the ocean warming events that trigger these mortalities are increasingly intense and frequent.
Non-seasonal storms of fierce intensity are also increasingly common. It all comes together completely with the predictions of a warming world. With each event, the reef’s ability to recover is seriously tested, and the extraordinary resilience that I have documented in the first decade of my time at Lakshadweep quickly wears off.
While in the 2000s local pressures on the reef were remarkably low given the high human densities on the island, the past decade has seen a dramatic change. Since 2014, a very lucrative commercial reef fishery has settled on the islands, and it empties the reef of all its predatory fish, and a few large herbivores. With their decline, an important pillar of the remarkable resilience of reefs is seriously compromised.
Why are coral reefs important?
As low-lying coral atolls, what happens to the reef, happens to the islands. The reef, the land and its inhabitants are linked in a complex dynamic of life, growth and death. The reef-building coral, a curious animal, plant and mineral trinity, photosynthesizes the warm tropical sunlight, supplying the coral with energy to generate an aragonite skeleton from seawater.
The reef accumulates through centuries of coral growth and death. In the natural process of mortality and erosion, much of this coral is crushed by storms, waves and an army of coral-eating creatures on the reefs. A constant supply of broken down aragonite then enters the lagoon and creates the tiny strips of sand on which human communities can live.
This living engine, as long as it is healthy, can usually generate enough to make the fringes of the atoll robust against stormy conditions and sea level rise, as well as to help maintain the growth of the islands. . The inexorable impact of climate change is changing all of that, and with reef resilience at an all-time low, the engine of reef and island growth is coming to a halt.
Already, our recent research shows, the reefs of the capital, Kavaratti, are eroding faster than they accumulate. This implies that over the next few decades, islands like Kavaratti will experience increasing land erosion, dwindling freshwater stocks, and increased damage with each passage of a major cyclone like Okhi or Tauktae.
Today, the islands are home to more than 70,000 people, grouped in 32 km² of land. It is only a matter of time before this vibrant community has to wonder how long it can still tolerate deteriorating conditions. The people of Lakshadweep face the very real possibility of becoming India’s first internally displaced climate refugees.
Every business plan needs a review
It would be reckless and unwise to run away from the reality of climate change. Facing this inevitable future is the goal of every action in Lakshadweep. Every environmental regulation, every fisheries management initiative, every tourism business, every development plan must be considered from the perspective of climate resilience.
If we are to build adequate palisades against warming seas, we need all of Lakshadweep’s institutions – government and civil society – to work together to ensure that climate resilience is at the heart of the islands’ future. Yet there is a strange silence around the issue of climate change.
It seems to be in a big political angle when the future of the islands is discussed and plans are created. the Lakshadweep Action Plan on climate change in 2012 recognized the reality of climate change and its consequences for the archipelago, but the strategies proposed to deal with it were curiously at odds with the nature and scale of the problem – essentially the promotion of existing projects to increase and intensify production regimes in the islands.
Perhaps the most avant-garde political document is Judge Raveendran committee report of 2014. He explicitly became aware of the ecological fragility of Lakshadweep and its marine ecosystems, recommending strong limits to development while keeping in mind the safe exploitation areas of the archipelago’s ecology.
Since the report submitted its findings, however, there has been a systematic dilution of its recommendations. And with NITI Aayog’s recent development plans in Lakshadweep, it’s safe to say the report is now dead in the water. Lakshadweep’s safe operating limits will have to be redefined to accommodate the relentless march of progress and damn the consequences.
At first glance, the current proposed regulation, the Lakshadweep Development Authority 2021 draft regulation, has nothing to do with local ecology or climate change at all. It deals with development infrastructure, good governance and sound planning. The settlement seeks to centralize all land use decisions in the hands of a single body which, in its wisdom, will determine the development path the islands follow.
The important thing is not so much what the regulation proposes as what it allows. It strengthens the eminent state domain over the whole of Lakshadweep, and islanders are not invited to participate in this development vision. In this plan, climate change, if it exists, is too distant and intangible a scarecrow to be taken seriously.
Projects underway to commodify the islands
This vision of development has evolved over the past seventy years as governments have done their best to revive the archipelago’s engine of growth. Now there seems to be a growing impatience for Lakshadweep to embrace the neoliberal dreams of a rising India. For too long, the visionaries seem to say, these small atolls have existed on the fringes of the Indian economy, satisfied with the little profits they could earn from coconut and tuna.
While there is not much else of material value to be traded on the islands, the islands themselves are eminently merchantable. Beaches of white, uninhabited corals and coconut palms, emerald lagoons and pristine reefs, this is an archetypal tourist brochure come true.
A few boring things stand in the way of this tourist paradise. Truly uninhabited islands are rare in the archipelago, and the rest have a disturbing density of people who have lived here for centuries. They occupy land, they need fresh water, they mess up fish on beaches for a living. They are, for the most part, desperately satisfied with their lot.
They are an unseemly spot on the virgin island. This is not what it looks like on the brochure. The current set of administrative measures reflects a growing impatience with the island’s stubborn refusal to comply with this dream of paradise.
If what is being sold is Eden’s dream, Lakshadweep is as far from this primeval garden as possible. The reefs are struggling, limping merrily as they do their best to recover from the last big disturbance to hit them. Their number of fish is decreasing due to uncontrolled extraction.
And although they are, for me, still among the most beautiful reefs in the world, much of that beauty has to do with my long association with them – because I have known them in better days. This is not what it looks like on the brochure. For a tourist in search of Eden who is trying to get her money’s worth, there are far more spectacular places in the tropics.
Climate resilient tourism
Lakshadweep is in urgent need of development – there is no doubt about it. But which direction this development will take will require much more imagination than current plans allow. If we plan for a future for Lakshadweep in which his people can continue to thrive, we will have to make every plan, a plan on climate change.
I suspect that a climate-resilient future for Lakshadweep will certainly have to include tourism, but tourism that embraces a different kind of exclusivity than the frankly unimaginative visions of floating villas and jet skis. It is possible to design tourism that is much more respectful of the ecological integrity of Lakshadweep, and more aware of the vulnerability of its lagoons, reefs and island to climate change. Tourism that celebrates and learns from the deep cultural history of the gentle people of Lakshadweep, which is planned and led by and for the islanders. The island economy will have to learn to adapt to the inevitable surprises that represent the normality of a changing climate.
For this, the government and civil society of Lakshadweep will need to be able to organize, learn, remain agile and have an adequate agency to make decisions that dynamically change with climate change. Investing in disaster management and preparing (economically, logistically, psychologically) for eventual retirement will also, unfortunately, be essential. This is where our thinking on development should go.
Lakshadweep is far too precious and far too small to bear the weight of delusional dreams of progress. While it is imperative to oppose the jarring and muted notifications that are being offered right now, we urgently need to start a serious conversation about the real crises plaguing Lakshadweep. It is really a matter of life, death and dignity.
Rohan Arthur is a senior scientist and founding administrator of the Nature Conservation Foundation. This article was originally published by Mongabay-India and has been republished here under a Creative Commons license.