Lakshadweep Is Living on Borrowed Time; An Unspoken Crisis Calls into Question the Fevered Dreams of Development

Beneath the current crisis that is brewing in the Lakshadweep, there is another unspoken crisis unfolding that threatens the very habitability of the islands, and calls into question the fevered dreams of development in whose name the current policies are being promulgated. The latest proposed regulations and orders will only make more efficient a process of unravelling that began several decades ago. The crisis I refer to, is climate change. Lakshadweep is living 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 among the climate change Cassandras. I have spent the last two decades trying to wrap my head around the impacts of climate change on the coral reefs of Lakshadweep. In that time, I have seen the extraordinary resilience the ecosystem has shown to climate disturbances. When I first witnessed the reef succumb to a catastrophic bleaching event in mid-1998, I was convinced that I was witnessing the death of the reef, and that I would spend the remaining years writing its epitaph.

I could not have been more wrong. It took a few years, but when the recovery began, it proceeded at a galloping pace, and in less than a decade the reef was well on its way to health again. If you spend enough time in nature, it cures you of any hubris of intellectual certainty. And the most dangerous thing you can do is to believe you have seen every ecological trick the ecosystem has in its bag.

Ocean warming is severely impacting coral reef

And yet, despite the extraordinary capacity the Lakshadweep system has had to buffer change, it is facing today an onslaught, unlike anything it has faced before. Since 1998, the reef has experienced at least two additional coral mass mortalities and the ocean warming events that trigger these mortalities are becoming more intense and more frequent.

Unseasonal storms of ferocious intensity are also increasing in their frequency. All this is completely of a piece with the predictions of a warming world. With each event, the ability of the reef to recover is being seriously tested and the extraordinary resilience I documented in the first decade of my time in Lakshadweep is fading quickly.

If, in the 2000s, local pressures on the reef were remarkably low given the high human densities on the island, the last ten years have seen a radical shift. Since 2014, a highly lucrative commercial reef fishing has taken hold on the islands, and it is emptying the reef of all its predatory fish, and some large herbivores. With their decline, an important pillar of the remarkable resilience of the reefs is being severely undercut.

Dead corals at Bangaram Atoll. Within a few weeks, an ocean warming event can kill off large tracts of healthy coral reefs. Photo by Rohan Arthur.
Dead corals at Bangaram Atoll. Within a few weeks, an ocean warming event can kill off large tracts of healthy coral reefs. Photo by Rohan Arthur.

Why is coral reef important for Lakshadweep?

As low-lying coral atolls, what happens to the reef, happens to the islands. The reef and the land and its people are bound in an intricate dynamic of life, growth and death. Reef-building coral, a curious trinity of animal, plant and mineral, photosynthesises the warm tropical sunlight, providing energy for the coral to generate a skeleton of aragonite from the seawater.

The reef builds up through centuries of coral birth growth and death. In the natural process of mortality and erosion, a lot of this coral gets ground up by storms, waves, and an army of coral-eating creatures on the reefs.  A constant supply of broken-down aragonite then makes its way into 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 generally generate enough to make the atoll fringes robust against stormy conditions and sea-level rise, as well as help maintain island growth. The inexorable impact of climate change is changing all that, and with reef resilience at an all-time low, the engine of reef and island growth is grinding to a halt.

Already, our recent research is showing, the reefs of the capital, Kavaratti, are eroding faster than they are accreting. What this implies is that over the next few decades, islands like Kavaratti will experience increasing land erosion, decreasing freshwater stocks, and increased damage every time a major cyclone like Okhi or Tauktae blow through.

At present, the islands are home to upward of 70,000 people, packed together on 32-kilometre square of land. It is merely a matter of time before this vibrant community will have to ask itself how much longer it can tolerate the deteriorating conditions. The people of Lakshadweep are facing the very real possibility of becoming the first internally displaced climate refugees in India.

Every developmental plan needs a review

It would be foolhardy and incautious to shy away from the reality of climate change. Dealing with this inevitable future is what every action in Lakshadweep should be geared towards. Every environmental regulation, every fisheries management initiative, every tourism venture, every developmental plan needs to be viewed through the lens of climate resilience.

If we have to build adequate stockades against the warming seas, we need every institution in Lakshadweep – government and civil society – to work together to ensure that climate resilience is front and centre of island futures. Yet there is a strange silence around the issue of climate change.

It seems to sit in a large policy blind spot when island futures are discussed and plans created. The Lakshadweep Action Plan on Climate Change in 2012 acknowledged the reality of climate change and its consequences for the archipelago, but the proposed strategies to deal with it were curiously at odds with the nature and scale of the problem – essentially promoting existing projects to increase and intensify production regimes in the islands.

Perhaps the most forward-thinking policy document is the Justice Raveendran Committee Report of 2014. It explicitly took cognizance of the ecological fragility of Lakshadweep and its marine ecosystems,  recommending strong limits on development keeping in mind the safe operating spaces of the archipelago’s ecology.

Since the report submitted its findings, however, there has been a systematic dilution of its recommendations. And with the recent Niti Aayog plans for development in Lakshadweep, it is safe to say that the report is now dead in the water. The safe operating limits of Lakshadweep will have to be redefined to accommodate the unrelenting march of progress, and damn the consequences.

On the face of it, the current proposed regulation (Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation of 2021) has very little to do with local ecology or climate change at all. It deals with developmental infrastructure, good governance and sound planning. The regulation seeks to centralise all decisions about land utilisation in the hands of a single body that will, in its wisdom, determine the developmental path the islands will take.

What is important is not so much about what the regulation proposes but what it makes possible. It reinforces the state’s eminent domain over all of Lakshadweep, and the people of the islands are not invited to participate in this development vision. In this plan, climate change, if it exists, is too distant and impalpable a bogey to take seriously.

The outer reefs, when healthy, are a churning cement factory, with constant production of living aragonite that builds up the defenses of the atoll. Photo by Rohan Arthur.
The outer reefs, when healthy, are a churning cement factory, with constant production of living aragonite that builds up the defenses of the atoll. Photo by Rohan Arthur.

Plans in motion to commodify the islands

This developmental vision has been evolving over the last seventy years as government after government have tried their best to kickstart the motor of growth on the archipelago. Now there seems to be a growing impatience for Lakshadweep to embrace the neo-liberal dreams of an ascendant India. For too long, the visionaries seem to say, have these little atoll islands existed at the margins of the Indian economy, content with the little profits that coconuts and tuna could give them.

While there is little else of material value to commodify on the islands, the islands themselves are eminently commodifiable. White, uninhabited coral beaches and coconut palms, emerald lagoons and pristine reefs, it is a tourist brochure archetype made real.

A few niggling things stand in the way of this tourist paradise. Truly uninhabited islands are rare in the archipelago, and the rest have a troubling density of people who have lived here for centuries. They occupy land, they require freshwater, they messily process fish on the beaches for a living. They are, for the most part, frustratingly satisfied with their lot.

They are an unseemly smear on the virgin isle. It’s not what it looks like on the brochure. The current set of administrative actions reflect a growing impatience with the island’s stubborn refusal to conform to this dream of paradise.

If what is being sold is the dream of Eden, Lakshadweep is as far away from that primaeval garden as it can possibly be. The reefs are struggling, limping gamely as they try their best to recover from the last big disturbance to hit them. Their fish numbers are declining to uncontrolled extraction.

And while they are, for me, still among the most beautiful reefs in the world, much of that beauty is linked to my long association with them – because I have known them in better days. It’s not what it looks like on the brochure. For an Eden-seeking tourist trying to get her money’s worth, there are far more spectacular places in the tropics.

Lakshadweep atolls are home to a large fishing community. Fishing is a primary profession and fishers depend on lagoons and reefs for both sustenance and livelihood. Photo by Rohan Arthur.
Lakshadweep atolls are home to a large fishing community. Fishing is a primary profession and fishers depend on lagoons and reefs for both sustenance and livelihood. Photo by Rohan Arthur.

Lakshadweep’s future to certainly include climate-resilient tourism

Lakshadweep urgently needs development – of that there is no doubt. But what direction that development takes will require much more imagination than current plans allow. If we are planning for a future for Lakshadweep in which its people can continue to thrive, we will have to make every plan, a plan about climate change.

I suspect a climate-resilient future for Lakshadweep will certainly need 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 conceive of 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. A tourism that celebrates and learns from the deep cultural history of the gentle people of Lakshadweep, one that 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 that, government and civil society in Lakshadweep will need to be able to organise, learn, stay agile and have adequate agency to make decisions that change dynamically with the changing climate. Investing in disaster management and preparing (economically, logistically, psychologically) for an eventual retreat will also, unfortunately, be critical. This is where our developmental thinking should be headed.

Lakshadweep is much too precious and much too small to bear the weight of delusional dreams of progress. While opposing the discordant and tone-deaf notifications that are being proposed right now is an immediate imperative, we must urgently start a serious conversation about the true crises afflicting Lakshadweep. It really is a matter of life, death and dignity.


Rohan Arthur is a senior scientist and founding trustee of the Nature Conservation Foundation.

This article was first appeared in Mongabay India. Republished here with permission under the Creative Commons.