Sometime in April this year, the new Lakshadweep administrator Praful Patel ordered the demolition of thatched fishermen’s huts along the beach of Kavaratti, one of the main islands of this stunningly beautiful archipelago. The photographs of the demolition came out a couple of weeks after the deed was done. When the islanders protested, the administration justified the demolition saying that the huts were illegal as they had been built on government land.
This came close on the heels of the administrator unveiling, among other draft rules, an ambitious plan to convert this quiet little archipelago into a “Maldives model” tourist destination. The original residents whose life this will impact in a dramatic and irrevocable manner are continuing to protest even as the administration remains obdurate.
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The Maldives model has been criticized and rejected as outdated for several years now. It was a model created when sustainable tourism had not been contemplated or considered. It was pushed through with little regard for the environment and with the goal of attracting affluent tourists. The profits did not always return to the local community, though there were some benefits to the local economy in terms of employment and opportunities. The fear is that if this archaic model is perpetrated in Lakshadweep, the fragile ecology of the islands may be devastated.
This brings up, once again, the question: To whom do the beaches belong? To the fisherfolk whose livelihoods depend on the sea? To government agencies? To the tourists with deep pockets? To security forces? What happens when “outsiders” forcibly occupy and “develop” beaches which fisherfolk have used for generations?
Sadly, when the goal is high-end tourism, fisherfolk are at the bottom of the pecking order. Their connection with the sea is most visceral and intimate, yet they are the ones whose lives are most affected by this intrusion on their space. The ones who have lived there longest are the ones most likely to be ousted first when big budget tourism steps in.
Pristine beaches are most coveted by the tourism industry. But, when a beach becomes a tourist resort, it loses its natural beauty and is transformed into an ersatz world. The beaches of Goa are prime examples, and those of Mahabalipuram on the outskirts of Chennai are fast getting there.
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In 1970, when I first visited Kovalam Bay, a little gem in the Arabian Sea on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, it was still a quiet fishermen’s beach skirting a sea that sparkled like myriad gems in the bright tropical sunshine. Simple catamarans belonging to the fishermen lay beached on the shore next to nets spread out to dry. The only structures were a small ramshackle “bath hut” perched precariously on the side of the little cliff which formed one side of the cove and a thatched “canteen” selling fresh fish fry in another corner. The sea was warm, shallow and as calm as a swimming pool. A fisherman offered me a ride on his catamaran for ₹1. As I sat on the two logs of wood tied together, dipping in and out of the water, I felt one with the sea. As I trailed my hand in the water, incredibly, I saw two tiny seahorses floating in my palm!
On top of the cliff was Halcyon Castle, a small palace with a spectacular view of the sea. Built by the Travancore royal family as a summer retreat in 1932, it had been bought by the Kerala government and converted into a luxury hotel. It had space for about 20 guests and was space scientist and physicist Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s favourite place of stay. He and the architect Charles Correa, who also stayed there when visiting, would swim in the sea at dawn. There were no crowds then. The visitors to the beach came from nearby Trivandrum city to take a dip or enjoy the sea air. Families brought mats and food for a picnic. There was a sense of informality and tranquility.
By 1971, grand plans were on to develop a five-star resort at Kovalam, which would put Kerala on the tourist map, on par with Goa. Yes, the Goa model was aspirational even then!
India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) set aside ₹2 crore to build a resort “like no other in India”. It was designed by Charles Correa to blend into the scenery. The main hotel, set on the cliff’s edge, had beautiful views of the sea. But a part of the beach was blasted and denuded of palm trees to make way for 40 beach huts. The old bath hut on the cliff was demolished and changing cabins came up on the small strip of beach.
By 1973, in just two years, the face of Kovalam had changed, and problems began to crop up. Pollution and effluents from the hotel were spilling into the pristine bay. Was the sewage being pumped into the bay as well? Access to the beach was controlled; the catamarans and fishing nets were pushed to a tiny corner of the beach.
By the 1980s, the tourism bug had bitten Kerala in a big way. All the serene fishermen’s beaches around Kovalam were developed, and resorts big and small sprang up. Tourist buses, trinket sellers, seedy parlours offering Ayurveda massages, and drug peddlers came in their wake.
By the late 1980s, the God’s Own Country brand campaign for Kerala tourism took off. In the early 1980s, when I headed the creative department of an ad agency, we were hired to do a campaign for the nascent Kerala Tourism Development Corporation. In retrospect, our campaign was naïve and simple, but perhaps it connected better with the real Kerala. Once the big advertising players stepped in, the perspective changed and so did the landscape. The aggressive tourism campaign brought in much needed money and boosted employment opportunities.
By then, some of the countries that had exploited their pristine beaches had begun to see through the chimera of tourism. The local population, which had hoped to gain a better livelihood through tourism, remained largely at the bottom of the food chain as international hospitality groups or large business houses reaped the profits, without ploughing it back into the community. Careless tourists dumped waste on the beaches and the resorts dumped their sewage and garbage into the sea.
The injustice of it all struck me one day in the 1980s while talking to a group of fisherwomen on a beach near Trivandrum Some families had just been ousted from land they had occupied for generations. Others with small plots of land on the beach front were getting tempting offers to sell. As they plied me with cold narangi vellum (lime juice) and told me about their difficulties, they said their children did not want this hard life as fisherfolk. The educated ones wanted to get jobs in the Gulf or in the hospitality industry.
The problem is that people living on the margins in places coveted by developers of any sort often do not really have a choice but to give in to larger forces. The people of Lakshadweep rallying together to fight for their land and their lifestyle gives us hope that this need not always be the case.
Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru. In this fortnightly column, she examines the links between current news and events and headlines of the past, drawing on her 50-plus years of experience in the field.
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