India : Lakshadweep


Lakshadweep is the smallest Union Territory of India and lies about 220-440 km from Kochi, Kerala, in the Arabian Sea and is one of the two major groups of islands in India. Local traditions and legends attribute the first settlement on these islands to the period of Cheraman Perumal, the last Chera king of Kerala. Historical records show that around the 7th century, a shipwrecked Muslim saint converted the inhabitants to Islam. The sovereignty remained in the hands of the royal family of Kerala and eventually passed on to Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. Following the defeat of Tipu Sultan by the British at Srirangapatna, the islands were annexed by the East India Company and remained with the British until India gained independence. Lakshadweep was made a Union Territory of India in 1956 and comes under the jurisdiction of the Kerala High Court at Kochi. The territory elects one member to the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Parliament of India). Lakshadweep forms a single Indian district and is governed by an administrator appointed by the central government of India.

The length of the Lakshadweep coastline is 132 km, which is approximately 1.6 % of India’s total coastline. The islands have a total lagoon area of about 4,200, territorial waters of 20,000 and account for 400,000 of total Exclusive Economic Zone of the country. The archipelago comprises of 36 islands, covering an area of 32 Kavaratti is the capital and the most centrally located island, with a land area of approximately 4.22 and a permanent population of 10,119. The archipelago consists of 11 inhabited islands, 16 uninhabited islands attached islets, four newly formed islets and 5 submerged reefs. The inhabited islands are Kavaratti, Agatti, Amini, Kadmat, Bangaram, Kiltan, Chetlat, Bitra, Andrott, Kalpeni and Minicoy. Bitra is the smallest of all having only a population of 225 persons. According to the 2011 census Lakshadweep has a population of 64,429. More than 93% of the indigenous population are Muslims with the majority belonging to the Shafi School of the Sunni Sect. The district has a population density of 2,013 inhabitants per, which is third highest in the country and cause of concern.

All Lakshadweep islands are of coral origin and mainly atolls except the one platform reef of Androth. The height of the land above the sea level is about 1-2 metres. These islands have a warm and humid tropical climate and receive an annual rainfall of about 1500 mm mainly from the southwest monsoon (June to September). The lagoons and the surrounding waters and corals reefs are replete with a wide variety of flora and fauna. Coconut cultivation and tuna fishing form the mainstay of the economy of the islanders. Tuna is processed in the canning factory at Minicoy. A large part of the tuna catch is also dried in the sun after cooking and smoking, the resultant product known as ‘Mas’, which can be kept for two years, and is exported along with salt dried shark to the mainland.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing

Up until fairly recently, the main source of electricity was diesel generators with fuel being transported from the mainland. Considering the remoteness of the islands and the polluting nature of the existing plants, it was considered desirable to adopt a strategy to utilize available potential of non-polluting, renewable energy sources in these ecologically sensitive islands. An assessment study was carried out in 2000 by the Organisations for the Promotion of Energy Technologies (OPET) Network and subsequently a project was undertaken to prepare an action plan (or road map) for 100% electrification through renewable energy sources in the island communities of Lakshadweep.

The Lakshadweep Electricity Department had already introduced solar photovoltaic (SPV) systems for power generation when it surveyed the smallest island Bitra and set up a 5kWp SPV plant during 1988. Based on its successful operation, this plant was augmented to 25 kWp in 1993. A 10 kWp SPV power plant was installed at Bangaram island in 1996 and a 50 kWp plant in Kadmat island during 1998. All these plants were stand alone i.e. the power from the PV array was used to charge a battery bank and this power was converted to AC and used to power the loads at night. Apart from these systems, SPV street lighting was also installed in the islands, solar lanterns were distributed to individual houses and solar dryers deployed for drying copra and fish. With advances in technology, two 100 kWp grid interactive SPV plants were installed at Kiltan and Minicoy islands by 2000.

The successful operation of these power systems convinced the Electricity Department to embark on an ambitious project to install 100 kWp grid interactive SPV plants on seven other islands. The existing systems at Bitra and Bangaram were also augmented with the one on Bangaram now a 50 kWp diesel-solar hybrid and the first of its kind in India. When completed, this project undertaken by Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd will be one of largest PV islands electrification programmes in the world. 

Coconut husks, shells and fronds pose a major waste disposal problem in the islands and their burning in the open causes environmental degradation. A 250 KW biomass gasifier running on the above wastes from coconut is under completion at Kavaratti with further units planned for other islands. Future plans also include 3 wind generators for Kavaratti that will reduce the consumption of diesel for generation of electricity during the windy monsoon season. Wind monitoring masts are also being placed on six other islands to explore the viability of installing further turbines.

Traditional housing in Lakshadweep was made with thatch roofs and coral shingles suitable for the warm humid climate. In view of environmental problems associated with indiscriminate exploitation of corals, the Administration began procuring building material like cement, river sand and reinforcement steel from the mainland. This trend towards use of heavy construction methods was inappropriate for the climate. It created uncomfortable indoor conditions and increased the use of mechanical air conditioning and thereby electricity. In 2010 Pradeep Sachdeva Design Associates in New Delhi visited the islands to outline proposals for sustainable development of physical infrastructure. These included tourist cottages and other buildings made from locally available appropriate materials like coconut leaves and timber; reed beds for sewage treatment; and procuring improved, efficient cook stoves fuelled by local biomass briquettes.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

An expert team from the Government of India Planning Commission has strongly recommended the Lakshadweep Administration should evolve a detailed and a foolproof liquid and solid waste management plan/system and put it in place for protecting and conserving the fragile lagoon and coastal marine ecosystems of the islands and their biodiversity. Domestic wastes are discharged into the sea directly without any treatment. It is estimated that about 1.2 million litres of waste per day is generated at Kavaratti alone. Most households have constructed soak pits for disposal of latrine waste. Owing to acute pressure on the land, the soak pits have been built very close to the open wells. The soil being sandy and porous and the soak pits having been crudely made means faecal matter finds its way into the water in the open wells. The non-degradable solid wastes are either dumped on the narrow shoreline behind each household or at one end of each island by the local bodies.

Piles of plastic waste can be seen around the islands with the bulk being large bags containing sand, building material etc brought from Kerala. An immediate requirement is for this plastic to be collected and returned to the mainland or to set up a plastic to diesel conversion plant that will serve two purposes - one disposal and the other reduce diesel import.

Water Management & Security

There are no surface water bodies on the islands. Groundwater is the only freshwater resource available for drinking purposes and is limited in all the islands. The non-availability of drinking water is the reason for most islands to remain uninhabited. There are areas even in the inhabited areas where groundwater is brackish as it lies very close to the surface. Population pressure has placed an enormous strain on the quantity of freshwater available, leading to saline water intrusion.

The water supply scheme mainly consists of groundwater extracted through collector wells. This is a system of radial perforated pipes located at shallow depth through which groundwater flows and collects in a collector well. These wells are located in sites with good water availability and the extraction is carried out at brief intervals to allow for recharge. Water from these wells is pumped to a collection sump and after chlorination, is pumped to overhead water tanks and then to the distribution system. The water is also supplied through standpipes on the streets for a brief duration daily. However, the water supplied through this system accounts for just 5% of the demand according to officials. As such, rooftop rainwater harvesting is also being promoted and has been adopted by a number of households, public buildings and in government offices. The high annual rainfall of about 1400mm is spread over 8 months of the year and can meet a significant portion of the outstanding demand.

On Kavaratti, the world’s first ever Low Temperature Thermal Desalination (LTTD) plant was opened in 2005. LTTD technology involves flashing relatively warm sea water (28-30 deg Celsius) inside a vacuum flash chamber and condensing the resultant vapour using deep sea cold water (7-15 deg Celsius). The cold water for the Kavaratti plant is drawn at a depth of 350m some 400m from the shore. This technology was developed by the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) under the Ministry of Earth Sciences. The plant’s capacity is 100,000 litres per day and is the sole source of safe drinking water being piped free of cost to every household in the island. The NIOT is in the process of setting up three more LTTD plants at Agatti, Minicoy and Amini Islands with the remaining inhabited islands to follow.

Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production

The Lakshadweep islands are identical in structure and formation and their tops are built up of coral reefs. The soil has been derived from coral limestone. It is essentially coral sandy soil underlined by limestone and gravel of different shapes and size. The land has 85-98% calcium carbonate, which is totally unfavourable for any type of cultivation except for coconut plantations. Around 28 million coconuts are produced annually. Copra (dried kernel of coconut used for oil extraction or food), coir spinning, rope and mat making are the main manufacturing activities that have been established. In order to diversify and add value to the crop various other products like vinegar, jaggery (a colloidal sugary substance made out of coconut toddy), coconut cream and desiccated coconut powder are now being made.

Many chemical fertilizers were used to maintain the coconut crop but decline of both soil and land productivity became of considerable concern to the Department of Agriculture who began distributing organic manure at subsidized cost to farmers. Compost is now being produced from waste coir pith left over from the fibre factories. Whilst this helps to retain water it does not have a high nutrient content so vermi composting techniques using fish waste are now being explored. An awareness programme on organic certification for the entire Lakshadweep was launched on Minicoy in March 2010 where farmers were exhorted to cooperate in making the project a success. The hazards of chemical fertilizers and pesticides were explained in detail and the necessity of preferring organic manure to maintain quality of the agricultural yield was underlined. A new Farmers Co-operative Society was being formed and inspections carried out on agricultural land seeking organic certification. Goat rearing for milk and back yard poultry rearing to reduce the import of eggs and meat has also been promoted by the Administration.


The islands are reached from the mainland by four passenger ships and larger cargo boats managed and operated by the Lakshadweep Development Corporation. Vessels carry copra and coir from the islands and return with rice, sugar and other provisions. However, the rough sea during the monsoons is a limitation. Although great improvements have been made in surface transport, loading and unloading facilities from ship to shore is very much lacking. Only Androth has jetties and in the other islands, the ships stop by reefs and cargo is unloaded onto barges and smaller vessels. This poses a severe limitation, as material beyond 2 tonnes cannot be brought to the islands at present. Passenger ships operate from Kochi and sailing schedules are arranged so that each island gets priority at some time of the year.

The only airstrip is at Agatti where there are direct flights from Kochi operated by Indian Airlines and Kingfisher. Onward flights from Kochi are available to most of the airports in India and abroad. There are proposals for airstrips at other islands although a helicopter transfer service is available from Agatti to Bangaram and Kavaratti. The total length of roads in the islands is 253 km including bicycle tracks of which 124 km has been converted into cement concrete roads that are generally in good condition. The need for transportation is not very high and vehicles are mainly composed of privately owned 2 or 3 wheelers for commercial use. Fuel for vehicles is procured by a cooperative society and distributed in each island.

Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

Although the potential for tourism is immense, it has been controlled and restricted in the islands to preserve the ecological balance. Tourists need a permit to reach the archipelago and foreign nationals are not permitted to visit certain islands. According to the current alcohol laws of India, consumption of alcoholic beverages is not permitted except on Bangaram. The Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (SPORTS) has been recognized as a nodal agency for the promotion of low volume high value ecotourism in Lakshadweep since 1982 and has initiated action in this regard. In the absence of any restaurants in Lakshadweep, SPORTS has been running restaurants for tourists on certain islands and offer a number of package tours. Other companies can also organise scuba diving and water sport holidays at different island resorts.

The islands of Lakshadweep are rich in traditional heritage with music and dance highly influenced by Islamic culture. The two main folk dances are Parichakali and Kolkali but on the island of Minicoy the Lava is the most famous and colorful dance accompanied by special drums. Singing folk ballads depicting stories of the historical past is common during family occasions and festivities. Marriage ceremonies invariably see ‘Opana’ that refers to a song sung by a lead singer and followed immediately by a group of women.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

The Lakshadweep Archipelago forms a terrestrial ecoregion together with the Maldives and the Chagos. In terms of biodiversity, corals are represented by 148 species; ornamental fish by 296 species; fish by 126 families and 601 species; crustaceans by 68 species; molluscs by 227 species; sponges by 91 species; mangroves by 2 species; seaweeds by 114 species; echinoderms by 78 species, sea grass by 6 species; sea turtles by 4 species; birds by 101 species and cetaceans by 12 species. A comprehensive ornithological survey was undertaken in 2006 that included a list of potential threats faced by various species together with recommendations on how they might be alleviated.

Various other surveys and visits   have been made to the islands and Coral Reef Monitoring Network established. Owing to the wealth of marine life surrounding Suheli Par there was a proposal to declare the waters of this atoll a Marine National Park. The Agatti Conservation Reserve was established in 2008 following a collaboration between Bombay Natural History Society, Lead International and funding from the Darwin Initiative to conduct intensive ecological and social surveys on all of Lakshadweep’s islands.

The Lakshadweep Marine Research and Conservation Centre was established by a group of young islanders in 2008. The centre works closely with the pole and line tuna fishing community to protect the Pitti Bird Sanctuary – around 1.21 ha of sand bank situated about 24 km northwest of Kavaratti. This is the only oceanic breeding ground for four species of terns in India and the single protected area in Lakshadweep under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972).

The archipelago has a significant population of endangered green and hawksbill turtles and the Centre organises surveys in the uninhabited islands. The reefs and lagoons of Kavaratti are under severe anthropogenic threats, namely increased lagoon fishing, waste release to lagoons and increasing tourism activities that have started to have negative impacts on the turtles and their habitats. Lakshadweep follows the school curriculum of the neighbouring state of Kerala and this denies island students a chance to learn about their immediate environment. The Centre with support from Seacology has constructed an environmental education centre on Kavaratti. In exchange, the local community has set aside 500 acres of Kavaratti lagoon as a marine reserve, where marine species will be protected for a minimum duration of 10 years.

Seacology has also been supporting the local community on the southernmost island of Minicoy. It is the only island in Lakshadweep that supports mangroves and salt marsh ecosystems. The Centre for Action Research on Environment Science and Society (CARESS) is working in partnership with Minicoyans to revive traditional management systems for protecting the reefs and lagoons. Minicoyan leaders have committed to creating a 2,471 acre no-take marine protected area for a minimum of 20 years. In exchange, Seacology has built a natural and cultural heritage museum, as well as two guard posts for the marine protected area. As part of the conservation and awareness efforts, CARESS held a workshop to train women in making souvenirs and toys with a marine theme, made with leftover fabric from the women's homes. The women learned how to make templates of the animals, and cut, sew and stuff their creations. They also learned about the importance of each creature in the ecosystem, and received a coral reef knowledge certificate, and were taken on a trip in a glass bottomed boat at the conclusion of the workshop. The women have created a self-help group and will make these souvenirs for additional income.

Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures

The low level of these islands makes them very sensitive to sea level rise. Coastal erosion is a serious problem faced every year resulting in loss of land. Maximum erosion observed over a period of 35-40 years was in the range 28 - 44 m. 1998 was the warmest year on record and the 1990s were the warmest decade since temperature recording began about 150 years ago. The status of live coral cover in the Lakshadweep Islands ranged between 17.5% and 44.3% during 2007. The lowest percentage was recorded at Suheli Island and the highest at Bitra Island. The rise in sea surface temperature due to El Nino phenomenon during 1998 caused extensive coral reef bleaching impacting over 40 to 90% of live coral cover. Live coral cover was no more than 10% at Kadmat Island after the bleaching had happened. It was reported that after the 1998 bleaching, the Lakshadweep reefs recovered by a factor of 2.1 on an average i.e. after 1998 the live coral cover doubled. The highest rate of recovery was reported in the Amini Island (3.4 times). Decreasing algal coverage in most of the islands indicates that the reef could fully recover within next 10 years.

There was a major study of the Lakshadweep Islands published in 2005 to assess vulnerability to various hazards and suggest mitigation/prevention measures. An international workshop on climate change and island vulnerability was held on Lakshadweep in October 2010 that helped to further identify the possible adaptation and mitigation options based on latest research findings and experience.