In a letter on 4 August 1987, as I left the PMO to take up an assignment in Lakshadweep, classified by the MHA as a ‘punishment posting’, Rajiv Gandhi wrote: “Thank you also for your hard work and cheerful assistance over the last five years; first with my mother, and then with me. We shall miss you, especially in our forays into the countryside. You are going to an important assignment. I look forward to seeing you in Lakshadweep at the winter meeting of the Island Development Authority.”
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A paradise set in the heart of the Arabian Sea is the archipelago of Lakshadweep –Sanskrit for ‘one hundred thousand islands’. A Union Territory since 1956, this tiny chain of 36 coral islands of which 10 are inhabited, with an estimated population in 1985 of 44,000, is home to a unique civilisation.
Lakshadweep Had Her Own Island Councils
Unlike the Andamans, Lakshadweep is peopled only by an indigenous population, classified as ‘tribal’, sensitive to the need for the protection of their fragile environment. Rajiv Gandhi’s visits convinced him that the island territories needed a distinct approach to the entire concept of their development. The Island Development Authority, within the Planning Commission, was consequence, and the then Prime Minister appointed Professor MGK Menon, a leading Indian scientist and environmentalist of the time, to head it.
The Authority’s inaugural meeting was held in Port Blair, and a decision was taken that it would hold annual meetings every year, thereafter rotating between the two island territories and New Delhi. Hence, I hosted the scheduled 1988 meeting in Kavaratti, from where I had by then repaired. The Planning Commission hosted the 1989 meeting in the capital, but the next and last such meeting of the Authority was only in January 2003 – once again in Port Blair – which was addressed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Lakshadweep had her own Island Councils, with the UT Island Development Council at its apex in Kavaratti.
“Hasn’t Wajahat Done a Bit Too Much?” – Rajiv Gandhi Joked About Me
It was to inaugurate this Council that Rajiv was to travel with his entire cabinet of ministers to chair the meeting of the Island Development Authority in1988. And while the official visit lasted two days, Rajiv was to be joined by family and friends, travelling by a Pawan Hans helicopter for a holiday in Bangaram atoll, an uninhabited island described by The Indian Express as a ‘barren islet,’ rich with coconut and coral.
There, in a tropical resort with no television, no air-conditioning, but offering a range of sea water sports, Rajiv was to indulge in his favourite hobby – photography. His photographs were published in Rajiv's World: Photographs by Rajiv Gandhi; the book also carries an almost worshipful photograph of his adored Sonia, silhouetted against Lakshadweep’s fabled sunset. Rajiv had invited me to visit whenever I wished, but conscious of official decorum I, together with my family, visited but once – to ensure that all was well.
During the official visit, Sonia had spent her time quietly with my wife Shahila. We, then, flew to Minicoy, where I had arranged for the prime minister and his consort to be seated at the helm of a racing boat in a regatta, from the helipad at one end of the island, to the jetty at its populous heart – for a rapturous public reception and inauguration of a zonal cultural festival.
“Tut! Tut!” Rajiv had chuckled to his official physician, Dr Sahai,“Hasn’t Wajahat done a bit too much?”
A Thriving Sporting Industry
The Island Development Authority had, in its first meeting in Port Blair, capital of the Andamans, asked the Planning Commission to make a special study of the environment of the union territories so as to help plan development. A report each, on the two island systems, was presented to the meeting of the Island Development Authority in Kavaratti, and became the framework of the coming five year plans for the island territories.
By 1989, apart from its decentralised political entity, Lakshadweep had its own airport, and a flourishing tourist industry with an international tourist resort in Bangaram. A thriving tourist industry fuelled by economic activity in the union territory, was pivotal to an economic takeoff, always ensuring that this would not compromise, but enrich the fragile coral ecology.
So, to start with, 80 percent of employment in the resort was to be local. Later, professionals became available, and training was imparted to youngsters in water sports, including professional scuba and deep sea diving. This training became the backbone of a thriving water sports industry in India led by entrepreneurs such as the Mumbai-based Prahlad Kakkar. Local resources were to be fully utilised.
Protecting Life In Lakshadweep
Because Lakshadweep is a tribal area, its lands are protected from alienation of tribal ownership. It was a local NGO, SPORTS (Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports), set up by the government to manage cultural and sports activity, that had hosted the guests on Bangaram atoll.
It was to be the tenant for the resort, with the ownership of trees continuing to vest with the tribal residents, who now found ready market for fresh coconuts and coconut products at prices that they had never hoped for.
Bangaram had risen, by the turn of the century, to become a coveted destination, and commanded what was then a lucrative rent of USD 700 per night for a cottage, and USD 450 for a room, although it provided no air conditioning, no television in the guest rooms, and a telephone only in the resort lounge.
Rainwater harvesting was introduced on every island – today, every home in the islands has that facility – and solar power for lighting – giving Lakshadweep today, the highest percentage of the use of solar power of any of India’s states or union territories. All islands were connected by Pavan Hans helicopters, and orders placed for high speed passenger boats to provide inter-island ferries. Besides, study by the Institute of Oceanography had helped buttress eroded beaches, and water supply especially designed to be supplied through drainage by gravitation.
Outcome of Rajiv Gandhi’s Visit To Lakshadweep
All these initiatives, including the establishment of – among the country’s first –Navodaya Vidyalayas in Minicoy, bore Rajiv Gandhi’s signature. Under his directions to the National Informatics Centre, the office of the Administrator, Lakshadweep, became among the first in India to be computerised, and installed with a mainframe and fax machine. Every island in Lakshadweep had a computer in an early extension of the Government of India’s policy at the time of installing computers in every district.
Endorsed with outlays by the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Finance Commissions (1984-2005) this established, in the words of the last of these Commissions, “speedy and accurate generation of accounting information that might be needed for purposes of better planning, budgeting and monitoring”. And Lakshadweep today has no poor. This was to be the abiding outcome of Rajiv’s visit, for the people of the outermost periphery of our land.
(Wajahat Habibullah was the chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities. Prior to this, he held the position of the first Chief Information Commissioner of India. He was an IAS officer from 1968 until his retirement in August 2005, and held the position of Lakshadweep administrator, at the time that Rajiv Gandhi visited. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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