Livelihood and Changing Social Values in Lakshadweep

By: Vineeta Hoon
Field based studies carried out in Lakshadweep for over two decades examine the islanders’ dependence on coral reefs. Data reveal that mainstream influences are leading to significant changes in cultural norms with evidences of a break down of the traditional matrilineal society.

The Lakshadweep Islands lying off the west coast of India are comprised of coral atolls, reefs and submerged banks, which surround 36 low lying coralline islands. It is considered the smallest Union Territory of India with a population of 64,429 in 2011. However, the land area of 32 sq km accounts for less than 1 per cent of the total area of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep. Taken in totality, with the lagoons and the exclusive economic zone – the coral atolls occupy a large territory.

Lakshadweep constitutes the only atoll formation in India and forms the northern most segment of the Chagos – Maldive – Laccadive oceanic ridge. The islands are flat and scarcely rise more than 2 m (Fig 1). The soils of these islands are structureless, formed by coral detritus and as such the soil fertility and water holding capacity are extremely poor. Apart from coconut, little else can be grown here. Freshwater resources contained in a lens shaped aquifer 1.5 m below the surface, are limited and the hydrological system extremely fragile – the water being periodically renewed by rainfall. Eleven out of the thirty-six islands are inhabited – Agatti, Andrott, Amini, Bangaram, Bitra, Chetlat, Kadmat, Kavaratti, Kalpeni, Kiltan and Minicoy; The first islands to be settled were Amini, Kavaratti, Andrott, and Kalpeni. People then moved to the other islands of Agatti, Kiltan, Chetlat and Kadmat. An old dialect of Malayalam is spoken on all the islands except Minicoy, where they speak Mahl and are culturally similar to the people of Maldives. Lakshadweep is classified as a scheduled tribe (ST) area, which the Government is committed to protect.

Marine Resources and Livelihood: The reef bio-composition of Lakshadweep is significant and includes 114 species of corals, 42 species of seaweeds, 7 species of seagrasses, 108 species of sponges, 4 species of lobsters, 76 species of echinoderms, 600 species of fin fishes, etc. Among groups which are known to be internationally threatened, Lakshadweep Islands are home to globally significant populations of green and hawksbill turtles; whale sharks, reef sharks and manta rays; and whales and dolphins. The atolls act as a stepping stone for the transport of planktonic larvae of reef organisms from both western and eastern Indian Ocean. Lakshadweep reefs are thus believed to play a significant role in the distribution and maintenance of coral reef biodiversity in India.

The reefs are also a potential tourist attraction, that can significantly contribute to local income generation and foreign exchange. When managed with care, they can provide a steady flow of income to the islanders through responsible fisheries and tourism. In one estimate, the total net benefit per year of the world’s coral reefs was pegged at 29.8 billion USD with tourism and recreation accounting for 9.6 billion, coastal protection for 9.0 billion, fisheries for 5.7 billion and biodiversity for 5.5 billion (H J S Cesar, 2003, The economics of worldwide coral reef degradation, WWF-Netherlands)

Material and Methods: Observations and data was collected using a combination of participatory appraisal methods, interviews, focus group discussions, visualisation, and household surveys based on random sampling. Additional interview based surveys were also conducted to analyse issues related to tourism. The current data was compared with that which was gathered in 2001 and 1990, to describe the changes taking place in Lakshadweep over the past two decades.

Changing Status of Women: Lakshadweep followed a marumukkathayam (matrilineal) system where land and property was passed down the female line. Extended families lived together in joint families called tharawads where men came to live in their wives’ house after marriage. There is, however, weakening of the system at present with Muslim men using the shariat law to inherit property from their parents.

Fig 1: Atoll formation
Fig 1: Atoll formation

As recently as 1990, matriarchal joint families with women serving as the head of the household was a norm. By the 2001 socioeconomic assessment conducted at Agatti Island – the tharawad was on the decline. About 74 per cent of the households reported that they lived in houses belonging to their mothers – which further dropped to 68 per cent in 2011. A rising number of nuclear families are seen today accompanied by a boom in house construction. As the joint families break into nuclear families, the number of households (and therefore houses) has been growing much more quickly than the population. At Agatti interestingly, 81 per cent of the respondents cited a male head in 2011 – a trend that is also reflected in all other islands. It is likely that the mainland India’s patriarchal culture perpetuated through the increasing interaction for higher education, religious teaching and visitors, staff and tourists apart from an easy access to entertainment and media. The surveys revealed that males are now considered decision makers and breadwinners of the household. It was also perceived that as opposed to 1990, when women played an important role in post harvest activities in fish processing, in 2002 women work participation fell significantly. In Agatti fishermen teams have extended their work to include post harvest processing – and these teams do not include any women. Apart from Minicoy, which differs in these parameters, the downward trend continues in all the islands. Also, in 2011 the survey team noted that women are rarely self employed and play a less significant role in the economic sphere of Island life than in the past. The two primary jobs available to women now are domestic and office jobs in the government.

Most women now observe purdha – a trend that started in late 1990s. Juxtaposed against a women’s literacy rate of 88 per cent and a total literacy rate of 92 per cent (2011 Census) there definitely seems to be a disconnect that demands further research.

Fig 2: Primary Source of Income for Agatti
Fig 2: Primary Source of Income for Agatti

Income and Employment: The traditional sources of income for the people of Lakshadweep continue to be fishing, coconut cultivation and allied industries. Recreation fishing is also taken into account while calculating annual household income. In 2001 and 2011 the sources of income have been classified as – deep sea, lagoon and reef fishing; coconut cultivation; government jobs; entrepreneurship and private employment in grocery, motor cycle repair, tea and other shops, tourist resorts, Madrassa; and labour (Fig. 2 and 3).

Fig 3: Primary Employment for Agatti
Fig 3: Primary Employment for Agatti

Government jobs continue to be the most lucrative income provider with 23 per cent of the economically active population depending on it – generating 57 per cent of the annual income of the islanders in 2011. The corresponding figures were 30 per cent and 71 per cent in 2001. This is followed by tuna and deep sea fishing. 16 per cent as opposed to 27 per cent in 2001 of the households have at least one person employed in tuna and deep sea fishing, which generates 17 per cent of the total island income in 2011 as against 14 per cent in 2001.

Apart from artisanal fishery and bait fishing for the tuna, 97 per cent of the households tend to supplement the main source of income with subsistence reef related activities such as netting, line fishing, cowry and shingle collection, while 80 per cent of the households rear 2 to 3 goats and chicken as a dietary supplement. Also 87 per cent of the households are able to fulfil their household needs for coconut oil and also use coconut for food.

Historically, Lakshadweep’s income accrued from coconut plantations and the products derived from it − copra and coir. Although, the income derived from coconut is now marginal, every islander strives to own a few trees as it is still considered prestigious.

Poverty: A study of income in the Agatti island reveals an annual per capita income of 560 USD (Fig 4). This translates to around 1.50 USD/day, slightly higher than the World Bank’s poverty threshold of 1.25 (World Bank, 2008). Despite the observation that income has doubled since the assessment conducted in 2002, however, it is not evenly distributed. Two percent of the households reported an annual household income over 20,000 USD, while at the other end of the spectrum, 14 per cent of the total households had an annual income of less than 500 USD. These households are the poorest of the poor. They do not have an economically active adult male to support them and survive on welfare from the government which provides 10 USD a month to households below the poverty line. Given the breakdown of the matrilineal system, which has traditionally provided a safety net for family members, these poorest households may be even more vulnerable in the future if the current trends continue.

Marine Services and Tourism: Healthy coral reefs have a high non extractive market value. When managed with care, they can provide a steady flow of jobs and income to the islanders through responsible beach tourism. Tourism operations are controlled by the Lakshadweep Administration through Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (SPORTS) that directly runs the operation or leases out each resort to private entrepreneurs. As outsiders are not allowed to buy land in Lakshadweep the islanders lease out land to the Department of Tourism, which is responsible for developing infrastructure and can also re-lease land to interested parties through a global tender. Till 1988, the administration encouraged low volume, high value eco-tourism in uninhabited islands, so as not to hurt the sensibilities of the conservative Muslim population and not to overburden the limited fresh water and electricity resources on the inhabited islands.

The first international resort was set up at Bangaram in 1988 that included scuba diving facilities, with an airstrip being built at Agatti for easier access. Resorts, such as the one established in Agatti from 1990 onwards have been in a state of limbo since early 2012, as also the Bangaram Island operations – a model of success in Lakshadweep tourism, being presently engaged in a legal battle with the Lakshadweep Administration. In 2010 the administration encouraged local entrepreneurs to set up home-stay tourism and dive centres. All such initiatives are today waiting to obtain various clearances to make a start. The islanders feel frustrated since they have now realised the potential income benefits from tourism and found their own partners to start resorts and dive centres directly. The land owners on the island however want to work independently with the resort leasers and not have SPORTS as the middleman. They are, however, hampered by the entry permit rules. All private tourism activities are at a standstill until the Administration can figure out a way to ensure equity to all stakeholders.

Lakshadweep is administered like a welfare state. Services such as transport, electricity, and diesel for boats are heavily subsidised, while education and health services are imparted free of cost. The rights of the islanders are protected through the island entry rules and a visitor has to procure an entry permit from the Lakshadweep administration.

Perceptions of Marine Protected Areas: The Lakshadweep Administration has not designated any marine protected areas (MPAs) in Lakshadweep as yet; however, all the people interviewed at Agatti and Minicoy understood the concept of an MPA as an area that would be set aside to allow coral reefs and their associated species to regenerate. However, only 30 per cent of the respondents in Agatti as against 60 per cent in Minicoy believed that MPAs would help improve livelihoods of fishers. Most respondents felt that management effectiveness for all conservation measures could be increased through joint participation of the islanders with the authority and they felt that enforcement officers, being islanders, were unable to meet out fair justice.

End Note

The Lakshadweep economy has seen little or no management action towards its resources. Despite the high diversity of species on the reef, there are no large populations of any one kind. Hence species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans, favoured by islanders, are vulnerable to over fishing and many species are now classified as endangered in government notifications, prohibiting their exploitation by local islanders.

Longlines and refrigeration has aided the expansion of the fishing sector, but at the same time income divides are intensifying. These trends create challenges and reiterate the need for socioeconomic monitoring for adaptive management. There is also a strong need to develop policies for enhancing employment opportunities, management of fisheries, sanitation, waste disposal and drinking water. Revenue from tourism has declined with the closure of the resorts and a clear policy that includes conservation and natural resource management with local participation is needed to ensure a sustainable future for Lakshadweep.

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