Hundreds Are Stranded, As Modi Aide Governing Lakshadweep Withdraws Ships To Indian Mainland

MUHAMMED SABITH
 
18 Jul 2022 16 min read  Share

From seven ships, no more than two were available until July 15 to connect the Lakshadweep archipelago to peninsular India, a lifeline for its mostly Muslim inhabitants who use the services for education, jobs and healthcare. The administration of Praful Patel, already accused of upending the islanders way of life, discarded a union government plan to buy new ships, while the Kerala high court, based on a false promise made by his government, rejected a petition seeking more ships and financial aid to those stranded.

Locals wait to board small boats—which ferry passengers from shore to a ship anchored in the Arabian Sea—at a jetty in Lakshadweep’s Kadmat Island. Inter-island travel and shipping to the Indian mainland during the monsoons has been disrupted by a shipping crisis, which islanders blame on not just mismanagement but on bias by the unelected local head of government, an administrator—a Gujarati politician—due to their religious identity as Muslims./SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

KOZHIKODE: It took former cleaner Thangal Koya, 51, two days on a ship to travel 459 km southeast across the Arabian Sea from the island of Agatti in the Lakshadweep archipelago to find medical treatment in a private hospital in Ernakulam, Kerala.

For a week, Koya and his wife Fathima, stayed at the hospital, spending Rs 70,000 on his liver disease. They were keen to return home to their tropical home on their remote 7.6-km-long sliver of an island. But they had to stay in Ernakulam and Kozhikode in Kerala for an extra month because tickets for the ship home were not available. On 26 June, they finally sailed for home. 

On 18 June, when Article 14 met them, the couple, then in Kozhikode, were visibly tired, their faces drawn. They were struggling with money and only wanted, they said, to go home “as early as possible”. On 4 July, speaking from Lakshadweep, Koya said he had to borrow from relatives and friends “thousands of rupees” more than what he budgeted for the journey to hospital.

Koya’s life has been doubly affected by two of many sweeping, widely criticised changes made by the unelected Lakshadweep administration of administrator Praful Khoda Patel, 65, a Gujarati and confidant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, since he took charge in December 2020.  Patel was the first politician to be appointed the union territory’s administrator—a post traditionally handled by experienced bureaucrats.

First, Koya was fired from his Rs 9,800-per-month job a year ago, one of more than 500 locals whose employment with the union territory government was terminated, as part of Patel’s “administrative reforms”. Second, he was stranded because the ships running between Lakshadweep and the mainland were down from seven to two, with seats down from 2,300 to 650, a fall of nearly 3/4th (72%), and cargo haulage down from 850 tonnes to less than half to 350 tonnes.

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The shortage of ships was a crisis made by Praful’s administration, which failed to get three passenger ships into service after they were withdrawn in December 2021 or before, abruptly decommissioning two vessels, and discarding a union government-approved proposal to buy new ships, for reasons that are unclear. One of the ships that remained absent for more than seven months finally returned to sea on 15 July

Lakshadweep leaders Mohammed Faizal of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Mohammed Sadique of the Janata Dal United or JD (U) said they did not believe the current travel crisis could be solved with the return of just one ship. 

“The problem is far from over,” said Faizal, who is also Lakshadweep’s sole member of Parliament (MP). 

“Lakshadweep residents were struggling to get tickets even when there were all the seven ships operating,” Faizal said in a statement sent to Article14, explaining how a 'Perspective Plan', prepared by the union territory administration in 2015-16 and approved by the union government, hoped to introduce six new ships. That plan was scrapped after Patel took charge, with no replacement in sight.  

Travel Crisis Latest Of Many Controversial Moves

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The Lakshadweep police have arrested many in the once peaceful islands, as political parties and locals protest the travel situation, many alleging discrimination because of their religious identity. 

Article14 sought comment from Patel over emails sent to his official email ID, on 29 June and 2 July, followed up with phone calls. There was no response to the emails. The person who attended the phone call at Patel’s office said he was not in Lakshadweep, and provided the contact number of Patel’s private secretary, Anil Ghosh, who agreed to respond to WhatsApp messages. However, there was no response to questions we sent. We will update this story if there. 

Patel, who is also the administrator of the union territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu, rarely stays in Lakshadweep, the archipelago’s daily administration run by a group of officials, including his advisor, A Anbarasu, and district collector S Asker Ali.

Article14 sought comment from Anbarasu, over email, calls and text messages. While two emails were sent to his official email ID on 29 June and 2 July, Article14 also called him and sent him messages over WhatsApp on 13 July. There was no response. We will update this story if he does respond.

As Article 14 reported in May 2021, the people of Lakshadweep—India’s only Muslim-majority territory after Jammu and Kashmir—have, since Patel took charge, faced a cow-slaughter ban, the removal of meat from school meals (rescinded by the Supreme Court in May 2022), a proposed preventive detention law in a region with virtually no crime, the takeover of land by the government and liquor sales after nearly half a century.

The 64,000 people of Lakshadweep—96.58% Muslim with a literacy rate of 92% and classified as a scheduled tribe—have little say in their federally administered territory, which is run by an administrator appointed by New Delhi. They depend heavily on Kerala for education, jobs and healthcare, and even fruits, all dependent on the ships.

“People are dying” in Lakshadweep because of the travel restrictions,” said Ali Akbar, 38, president of the Indian Youth Congress. “Ships are the lifeline of Lakshadweep.” The 10 inhabited islands of the archipelago offer only basic healthcare.

While the islanders depend on ships for their planned medical trips to the mainland, they rely on air ambulances for emergency evacuations. Besides the crisis in sea transport, recent reports suggest serious shortcomings in the rules that guide medical helicopter service. 

In June this year, for instance, a young man from Chetlat island, injured in a motorcycle accident, died after authorities allegedly failed to evacuate  him to Kochi—a major medical destination for the islanders—on time. At least two more similar deaths were reported from the islands in June-July 2022 (here and here). 

Shipping Crisis Plagues Inter-Island Travel Too

The shipping crisis is not limited to mainland travel. It has also affected inter-island travel. Students are among many who currently find it difficult to travel between the islands. 

During the monsoon, the sea is choppy, and the services of small motorised craft that the islanders use are suspended. They depend instead on the island-mainland all-weather ships for inter-island journeys as well between 15 May to 15 September, the official monsoon period. 

But three of the five large ships, as we said,  remained unavailable for seven months. Though one of them, MV Lagoons, returned to service on 15 July, no one knows when the other two—MV Kavaratti and MV Lakshadweep Sea—will return. 

A petition submitted to the Kerala high court in May 2022 by Sadique, president of the JD (U), said “at least 2,000 islanders” were stranded in the south Indian port cities of Kochi, Calicut and Mangaluru, without sufficient food and accommodation, surviving on non-governmental aid. 

Based on a government promise that it would resume service of two docked ships by the end of June 2022, the Kerala high court rejected Sadique’s petition requesting more services and financial assistance for those stranded. But when this story was published, only one ship had resumed the operation and that was about half a month late.  

There are more people stranded in smaller ports, as the website OnManorama reported on 13 June from Beypore, Kerala.

The only other option to reach home is to take a flight from Kochi to Agatti, the only island with an airstrip. But flights are up to 10 times more expensive than the ships, and even to those who can afford them, the rest of the journey cannot be completed during the monsoon, if they live on the other nine islands.

Shihabuddeen, a young man from Amini island, about 60 km east of Agatti, also in Kerala for medical treatment for prolonged headaches, told Article 14 how a flight would not take him home. He was stranded in Ernakulam for a month, spending “lots of money”, which his family—frantic that he returns—had reluctantly sent. 

“They (the family) insist I return,” said Shihabuddeen, who uses one name and has found others like him, waiting to return. “I told them we are stranded without tickets.”

Where Are The Missing Ships?

Three of the regular ships were withdrawn at least seven months ago for repair and maintenance, and their absence appeared to be a case of indifferent scheduling and planning by the Lakshadweep administration. 

Two government officials—one with the Kerala Maritime Board, the other with the public-sector Cochin Shipyard Limited—speaking to Article14 on condition of anonymity, said that the time taken by a vessel to get back in operations after being docked for repair and maintenance varies, and organisations that run passenger vessels do not dock ships all at once.

There are seven ships that sail between Lakshadweep and Kerala, as we said, including five all-weather ships and two fair-weather ships, which do not operate during the monsoon. Only three ships are available now. There were only two ships between December 2021 and July 2022. 

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

Passengers reported that the two ships  that were available between December 2021 and July 2022  boarded excess passengers. The director of Lakshadweep port, in May,  sent a letter to the superintendent of police of the UT, requesting him to “deploy sufficient security personnel” at embarkation points in all the islands and to “carry out screening/ticket checking in a professional way”. 

The letter also said “the masters of passenger ships and vessels have reported serious safety issues due to overcrowding and boarding of excess passengers from island ports … there is heavy rush of passenger movement (sic) due to various requirements”. Sadique’s petition said people were being forced to scramble aboard the available ships without tickets, also sparking safety concerns.

Protests & Arrests

The Patel administration’s failure or unwillingness to solve the travel crisis has sparked protests in Lakshadweep, involving the Indian National Congress (INC) and the NCP, the two major local parties, with protests also reported from Kerala.

In the last week of May, the Lakshadweep police arrested senior leaders of the NCP when they came to discuss the issue with Anbarasu, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who is Patel’s advisor.

Political activists—including the NCP’s state general secretary Muhsin P and village panchayat member Naseer A P—were arrested after they went to discuss the lack of adequate passenger ships and other public concerns, such as the absence of a gynaecologist in the region.

The police made these arrests citing section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which allows a police officer to arrest 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. Their arrests sparked further protests in the islands.

Besides its alleged apathy towards local issues, the Lakshadweep administration has also been accused of quelling democratic protests.

According to a petition from Sadique, who is also the founding coordinator of the Save Lakshadweep Forum, an alliance of various mainstream political parties in Lakshadweep, the situation in the archipelago was “explosive”. 

“The citizens (sic) are frustrated by the lack of transportation facilities and the availability of consumables and it is likely that a law and order problem will erupt in the near future,” said the petition.

To Harass Muslims Is The ‘Only Purpose’: Islanders

The Lakshadweep administration, in its submissions before the Kerala high court, said that transportation for the islanders were only “slightly affected” because of  “unexpected repairs that had to be carried out to three of the 5 all-weather ships”. 

However, many islanders accuse the travel disruption as the latest in a series of moves by Patel’s administration to cause them trouble, in part because of their religious identity.

“This is only to harass us… to harass Muslims,” said Jalal K, 64, a native of Lakshadweep and a retired government employee.

Akbar of the Indian Youth Congress, echoed Jalal’s views. “The administration would get no benefit out of this [keeping the ships in dock], except they find it a means to deny a service to the public,” he said.

“Lakshadweep was facing travel issues even when we had seven ships,” said Anees P P, president of the Lakshadweep Students’ Association. “This has become worse now.”

Both Akbar and Anees said restrictions in issuing tickets was creating fresh trouble. In June 2022, the administration  suspended its online ticketing system, forcing passengers to travel to ticket counters at ports, with no guarantee they would get a ticket there. Early in July, the port authorities  again changed the system and made half the tickets available online, according to Lakshadweep political leaders and port officials.

Jalal, 64, a retired government employee from Kiltan island, who came to Kerala to arrange for his grandson’s admission at an educational institute in the state, said he saw islanders “sleeping near the ticket counter” at the Beypore port at night.

He also spoke about other recent, controversial moves of the current administration, alleging the Patel administration wanted the local population to abandon the islands so that “it can convert the archipelago fully into a tourist destination”.

A False Promise To The High Court

Recent months have witnessed a flood of petitions from Lakshadweep before the Kerala High Court, as political activists and others in the union territory, who describe themselves as now living in the era of the “most unpopular administrator” in history, see the judiciary as their only hope.

The petition from Sadique, the Janata Dal (united) president, citing Article 226 of the Constitution (which deals with the “power of High Courts” to issue certain writs, including to governments, to enforce “fundamental rights” guaranteed by the Constitution), wanted the court to order the administration to provide financial assistance to Lakshadweep locals “who are stranded in Kochi, Calicut and Mangalore, due to the non-availability of ship tickets”.

However, the 14 June judgement delivered by a bench of Chief Justice S Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly refused to intervene.

Accepting the promises made by the administration before the court, the bench said the administration made “every effort” to transport the passengers between the islands and the mainland. The verdict noted “there is no wilful negligence on the part of the Administration in providing sufficient facilities for transportation of the passengers”.

The court mainly relied on the administration’s promise that two of the three ships docked—MV Lagoons and MV Kavaratti, the latter the largest and especially important during the monsoons—would be back in service by the end of June—one by the second week of June and the other by the end of the month. 

“It is submitted by the Administration in the statement that they (two ships) would be operational from the second week of June and the end of June, 2022 and if the larger ships are operated, there would not be any difficulty to transport passengers in accordance with their requirements,” said the judgement.

That never happened, until July 15, when one of the two ships, MV Lagoons, resumed operations,  half a month after the date committed to the court had passed.

Administration ‘Is Doing Its Best’ To Solve Crisis

An officer with the Lakshadweep ports department told Article14 that the administration “is doing its best” to get the ships back on their routes, but he could not say when services would be restored in full measure.

“There will be a 400-seat ship available within two to three weeks,” said the official on 18 June, speaking on condition on anonymity since he was not authorised to talk to the media. “Another vessel with 250 seats will also be available soon. But we cannot say exactly when.” 

Many in Lakshadweep said the Patel’s administration abandoned its responsibility to run ocean services when it took away in February 2022 these rights from the state-owned Lakshadweep Development Corporation Limited LDCL, which successfully ran them until then. Lakshadweep MP Faizal alleged the LDCL’s performance "plunged" after Patel was appointed the administrator.

In February 2022, Patel handed over shipping services to the Shipping Corporation of India  (SCI), a public-sector company that runs more than 70 ships. Though the SCI manages a small number of passenger vessels, its key operations lie in international goods transport. Until the agreement with the Lakshadweep administration, the SCI’s domestic passenger shipping operations were limited to the vessels it managed for the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Faizal criticised Patel’s administration and the SCI, which he said delayed repairs to MV Kavaratti, handed over to the SCI on 23 March and still in dock.

Article 14 sought comment from SCI officials, calling numbers listed on the company website. An official who attended the call on 13 July, declined to comment on the role of the SCI in the Lakshadweep shipping crisis. There were no responses to queries sent to a couple of official email IDs. 

Vishal Sah, the director of ports, shipping & aviation for the Lakshadweep administration, declined to respond to a number of queries sent by Article14 about the travel crisis. 

The shortage of ships did not look like it would be solved quickly, although the Patel administration had a chance to rectify that in the long run. It discarded that chance.

After Taking Charge, Patel Discarded Plan For New Ships

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In his high court petition, Sadique said the current crisis emerged because of “sheer negligence and lack of planning on the part of Lakshadweep Administration”. 

“Denying proper transportation facilities to the citizenry who reside in remote and difficult geographical conditions is a violation of the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India,” the petition said.  

Since 2000, the Lakshadweep administration prepared two detailed vision documents to address the union territory’s long-term transportation requirements—both shipping and aviation. 

The first Perspective Plan was prepared in 2000. It contained various recommendations meant to be implemented during 2000-2015. The second Perspective Plan was prepared during 2015-16, and proposed six, new passenger ships before 2030.

These six ships included one big all-weather passenger ship (with 500 seats) and two 150-seats vessels by 2020. None of these ships were built or purchased. Lakshadweep MP Faizal said the administration had started the process to buy the big ship, but the pandemic interfered. Faizal said the Perspective Plan was discarded after Patel was appointed administrator in December 2020. Article14  could not independently verify what happened to the plan. 

The Perspective Plan, approved by the union government before Patel took charge, also proposed two more 150-seats all-weather ships by 2025, to replace the existing two fair-weather ships—MV Amindivi and MV Minicoy—scheduled to be decommissioned in 2025. 

Patel’s administration in September 2021 abruptly withdrew both MV Amindivi and MV Minicoy from operations, despite the fact that they were to be decommissioned in 2025 after their replacements arrived, thus deepening the travel crisis.

The Perspective Plan proposed that the new vessels would “handle the projected and growing passenger traffic” in both mainland-island and inter-island routes.

Another Time, Another Court Order

This is not the first time the islanders have faced a travel crisis, but the high court acted differently then.

In 2011, when shipping services were disrupted because of a joint strike by the Lakshadweep Seamen Welfare Association and the Forward Seamen Union of India, the Kerala high court directed the Lakshadweep administration to assist stranded passengers.

The court also asked the government of India to make arrangements to deploy naval or coast guard sailors to resume services, a plea that Sadique also made. The 2011 strike was eventually called off.

Sadique’s petition said Lakshadweep officials financially assisted stranded passengers, not just in 2011 but in 2009 when services were affected by bad weather. The Kerala HC did not consider the request in Sadique’s petition to provide Rs 1,000 per day to islanders stranded in Kerala and Karnataka.  

(Muhammed Sabith is a journalist and researcher based in Kozhikode, Kerala.)