The controversy around the administrative ‘reforms’ in Lakshadweep and the Andamans has triggered a debate on the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of private ownership and tourism on islands.
The land and administrative reforms the Centre has proposed for the Union Territory of Lakshadweep, with the aim to ‘boost’ tourism in the region have triggered a global row. The controversy has also invited public attention to the raging debate around the ecological fragility of islands and how vested commercial and geopolitical interests can wreak havoc on them. The Centre plans three crucial changes to rules governing tourism, food and local body polls which people in Lakshadweep feel can harm their unique culture and the ecology of the pristine cluster of islands.
Lakshadweep is not alone. Across the world, several archipelagos have evolved into sites of tourism, hosting tourists in grand resorts and vacation homes. Moreover, in the last decade, islands have also become commodities that can be purchased and privatised. Especially during the Covid-19 era, islands have become a coveted destination for those who are in the search for isolated, safe spaces to get away to. Travel Daily recently reported that “private islands” witnessed an increase of 156 per cent in search demand in 2019.
But as these isolated ecosystems have been altered for the guests from the mainland, they’ve displaced the systemic environmental processes in numerous ways, say experts.
The Caribbean example
One of the most popular vacation sites in the world, the Caribbean islands’ economy is heavily dependent on its tourism industry. However, over the years the islands have recorded irreversible environmental impacts, including marine pollution and degradation, as well as high demand for water and energy resources. Coral reef degradation in the Caribbean has recorded an estimated annual revenue loss of between$350 million and $870 million, according to the World Bank.
Adding to that, the report also stated that 80 per cent of all marine pollution in the Caribbean region comes from land-based sources, mostly untreated wastewater, litter, and agricultural run-off. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 85 per cent of the wastewater discharged into the Caribbean Sea is untreated. Moreover, 80 per cent of the living coral in the Caribbean was lost in the past three decades, according to Smithsonian Ocean. This was the result of destructive fishing, pollution, warming and changing ocean chemistry.
Maldives’ scary prospect
Meanwhile, in Lakshadweep’s neighbouring archipelago of the Maldives, as per 2017 data tourism accounted for over 32.5 per cent of the gross domestic product of the region and generated $2.7 billion in revenues. Although the island nation continues to sell itself as an environmental holiday destination, marine biologists say the archipelago’s coral reefs are paying a hefty penalty. Gabriel Grimsditch, a coastal and marine ecosystems expert at the UNEP, recently told media that the expansion of construction work in uninhabited islands and lagoons is frightening. He said this would lead to an “increased amount of sediments and nutrients in the ocean”. Such a high number of resorts will put an immense amount of pressure on the coral reefs and irreversibly damage them, he told Devex.
The Maldives administration is reportedly planning to attract 2.5 million tourists by 2023 and environmentalists term the move “very concerning”. In 2019, over 1.7 million tourists visited the Maldives.
In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Similar concerns have also surfaced regarding the ecology of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Given the recent developments regarding land clearance for Phase I of the NITI Aayog’s ‘holistic’ and ‘sustainable’ vision for Great Nicobar Island, many researchers have flagged grave concerns.
Recently, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India told The Hindu that the entire west and southern coast of Great Nicobar – precisely the area sought for the NITI Aayog proposals – needs to be protected for a megapode and other wildlife, such as nesting marine turtles, as the existing protected area network in Great Nicobar is not designed for the same. Not just that, an expert committee set up by the Union Environment Ministry approved a “zero extent” ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ) for the Galathea National Park, part of the Unesco World Heritage Site, permitting its land for being used in the NITI Aayog plan.
Several environmentalists and eco-experts share similar findings over the proposed township and area development project proposal on the Great Nicobar Island. They found that the plan would negatively impact turtle and megapode nesting sites and affect coral reefs, although the centre’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) had recommended it for grant of terms of reference.
Lakshadweep has been credited by environmentalists and researchers as hosting an extremely fragile ecology. Even with a relatively less resident population across islands, navigation through the lagoons to collect resources has been reported to cause irreparable damage to corals and other fauna and flora by the accumulation of silt and resultant sedimentation leading to choking of corals and eventual mortality.
Moreover, islands also host nesting sites for birds including the grey heron, curlew, golden plougher and others. In the event of forest clearance, the building of resorts or tourist destinations would prove to be detrimental for bird populations. Islands have been privatised and commercialised for tourism across the world, but for a hefty irreversible cost.
A week ago, Bangaram, one of the zero-populated islands in Lakshadweep was handed over to private agencies after being reclaimed by the local administration years ago. The cases of ecological deterioration mentioned above have continued to worsen, given the warnings and examples of formerly damaged tourist sites. Unless we learn from the existent examples, the island groups of Lakshadweep and the Andamans, which at present appear as potential sites of economic growth will potentially end up being crumbling sites of ecological damage, warn environmentalists.