The present political debate in the country on Lakshadweep, particularly in Kerala, is part of the environment vs development discussions and the stress is on preserving and promoting the cultural integrity and religious freedom of the islands. No doubt, any regulations for the development of the islands that impinge on the islanders should have the acceptance of the local population and the democratic bodies should be fully consulted. Similarly, there should be a balance between protection of the ecology and development.
The genius of the local population depends on their food habits, language and way of life and it should be preserved even when they are given new facilities for a higher standard of living and use of technology in keeping with the aspirations of the people.
For centuries, Lakshadweep has been a beauty spot in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean and India inherited it from the British as an integral part of India. The islands should be treated as an extension of the country into the sea and it should have the same level of development as the rest of the country.
In fact, the islands should have priority in development because they have been neglected in the past. The population is small enough to benefit from modest investments. Only 10 of the 36 islands are inhabited and the total population is 65,000, smaller than an average District capital. It also has a low population growth of 6% as against the national average of 17%. But the islands give India 20,000 km of territorial waters and 4,00,000 km of Exclusive Economic Zone.
Lakshadweep has assumed strategic importance in recent years with the rise of China and its efforts to dominate the Indo-Pacific. Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands are two natural sentinels for India on the east and the west. They are two virtual aircraft carriers and candidates for developing naval facilities there. Lakshadweep has only a small naval facility in Kavaratty, which needs to be expanded to meet the new requirements of security. The setting up of the Quad will mean joint exercises with the other three members of the security dialogue, the US, Japan and Australia. Lakshadweep should be a gateway or choke point for friends and foes. The efficacy of Quad will depend on the deployment of the naval assets of the participants in an integrated manner.
The 200-km wide funnel referred to as Nine Degree Channel (named after the latitude) near the island is an important sea lane of communication, linking the Persian Gulf with East Asia. The South Western Naval Command based in Kochi keeps an eye on the cargo passing through this area against illegal activities including piracy.
The significance of Lakshadweep and Andamans has come for special attention in recent times. The US Navy conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) recently. The US 7th Fleet's USS John Paul Jones "asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India's exclusive economic zone, without requesting India's prior consent, consistent with international law," as stated by the US authorities. The statement even asserted that India's policy of requiring prior notification to be "inconsistent with international law." India's Ministry of External Affairs conveyed its concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the Government of USA through diplomatic channels.
It is not clear even now why the US chose to conduct the operation in India's EEZ. If it was to give China, which has a similar position as India, a message, targeting India was particularly objectionable. The Biden Administration has made it clear that it will fly, sail and operate whenever international law allows. Ironically, the US is not a signatory to the Law of the Sea, which it quotes. But the choice of the vicinity of Lakshadweep may indicate the importance of the islands.
The Chinese strategy to enforce its claims in the South China Sea is to create as many artificial islands as possible to measure China's territorial waters from these islands rather than from the mainland. India has a case to create islands in the vicinity of Lakshadweep to expand our territorial sea and EEZ. At the minimum, Lakshadweep should be developed as a naval facility. This will benefit the inhabitants by way of jobs and excellent infrastructure. Some small island states in the Caribbean and the South Pacific prefer to be administered by their former colonial masters as they are not viable as independent states.
In the context of climate change, the developed countries advise us not to do what they did, but what they prescribe. They say that developing countries should protect their natural environment so that trees and water bodies serve as sinks to their emissions of greenhouse gases. That is the only way the rich countries can continue to enjoy their style of living based on conspicuous consumption. I remember the King of Bhutan saying to a western expert: "Your advice will amount to building a fence around us to keep us like animals in a zoo for you to view." In fact, Bhutan has become a model of development by embarking on sustainable development, which has made this Himalayan Kingdom the only country which is carbon free.
We should adopt a similar strategy for Lakshadweep, bearing in mind the interests of the people and the importance of the island for our security. Instead of treating it as a distant island, we should incorporate it in the development and security architecture of India with the concurrence of the local people, as stressed by the High Court.
(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora)