Homeward bound? Not for the mostly Muslim Lakshadweep natives in Kerala

The largely Muslim islanders blame the BJP nominee-run Union territory administration for discriminating against them.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 02, 2022 | 9:00 AMUpdatedOct 02, 2022 | 9:00 AM


Securing a passage home has become a nightmare for Lakshadweep natives working or studying in mainland India, or stuck after coming on a short visit.

Mostly of limited means, these islanders have been forced to borrow or dig into their meagre resources to find accommodations on rent in Kochi and Beypore in Kozhikode — gateways to the Lakshadweep archipelago — till they secure passage on the next available ship.

They throng the Lakshadweep administrative offices in these two port cities every day with one goal: A ticket to sail. And every day, they return empty-handed, save for a lucky few.

“You can see old people, women, and students gather in large numbers at the administration office every morning,” says Sruthi Haris, a Kochi-based social worker who helps stranded people find temporary accommodation.

“They disappear by noon as tickets run out, only to come back the next day. It’s heart-breaking, actually.”

More ships docked than operating

The situation has arisen because there are not enough ships to meet the passenger demand. And it has been building up over the past year, as ships started being docked either for repairs or for sale.

MV Kavarathi

The MV Kavarathi, the largest among passenger ships to the island. (Supplied)

From the original complement of seven vessels ferrying more than 3,200 passengers between the archipelago and the mainland, the number today has dropped to two ships. With it, the total carrying capacity has dropped to about 600.

Demand usually falls during the monsoons as people are aware that of the fleet of seven vessels, two are fair-weather ships, meaning they are docked during the rainy season.

But this time around, the fall in effective capacity has meant that the shortfall in tickets still remains, The Hindu newspaper quoted KI Nizamuddin, panchayat member from Lakshadweep’s capital Kavaratti, as saying.

Until December 2021, MV Kavarathi was the biggest ship in operation on this route till it was docked for maintenance after catching fire mid-sea.

According to the website Article14, the other four were docked well before MV Kavarathi. But it is the docking of this ship, with a carrying capacity of 700 passengers, which seems to have dealt the severest blow.

‘Administrator delaying repairs’

Highly placed sources in the Lakshadweep administration told South First that repair works on the vessel are held up as some original equipment is yet to be procured from Denmark.

village Lakshadweep

A Lakshadweep village. (KA Shaji/South First)

They blame Lakshadweep administrator Praful Patel for the delay.

“For some reason, he has been delaying the procurement,” said one person, requesting anonymity.

While MV Aminidivi and MV Minicoy, earlier decommissioned, have now been sent for auction where they will bought as scrap. Currently stationed at Cochin Shipyard, both the ships are more than 20 years old and were found unfit for daily operations

MV Corals, with a carrying capacity of 400 passengers, and MV Lakshadweep Sea, with 250, have been undergoing repairs.

The MV Lagoon (350 passengers) and MV Arabian Sea (250 passengers) are the only two ships being operated currently.

‘Crisis predates docking’

Lakshadweep’s sole Lok Sabha member Mohammed Faizal, however, feels the crisis predates the dockings.

In fact, he, like others such as Dr Mohammed Sadique KP, president of the Lakshadweep chapter of Janata Dal (United), blames administrator Patel for the current mess.

“Lakshadweep residents were struggling to get tickets even when there were all the seven ships operating,” he said in a statement to website Article14, which has been tracking the crisis for some time.

In his view, the crisis would have been averted if Patel had accepted a plan that the central government had drawn up in 2015-16 to buy six new ships.

children Lakshadweep

Children of a lLkshadweep island. (Supplied)

Similarly, JD(U)’s Dr Sadique — an endodontist by profession — filed a petition in the Kerala High Court in May, charging Patel of being indifferent to the plight of at least 2,000 islanders stranded in Kochi, Calicut and Mangalaru.

Interestingly, Kerala’s Chief Justice S Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly disposed of Dr Sadique’s petition, noting in their judgement on 14 June that the administration had assured it of resuming services of the docked ships that month.

Needless to say, services have not been resumed — even three months later — despite the assurance.

Sources in Lakshadweep also accused the administration of exacerbating the situation by taking whimsical decisions.

It suspended online booking in June without giving any guarantee of tickets at the counters, but did a U-turn the next month, though only making 30 percent of the tickets available online.

Said SM Mysha, vice-president of the Agatti unit of NCP, “The crisis is the creation of the authorities.”