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To get around Brexit, Goans are taking the Portugal route

Brexit has marginally increased a demographic shift that has been building for a century in Goa

analysis Updated: Jan 30, 2017 12:49 IST
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Panaji.  If migration — both in and out of the state — does affect electoral outcomes, it will be in a few constituencies such as Cortalim.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Panaji. If migration — both in and out of the state — does affect electoral outcomes, it will be in a few constituencies such as Cortalim.(PTI)

One would hardly expect any connection between the Brexit vote and the Goa assembly elections. But in fact, Britain’s vote to exit the European Union caused a marginal uptick in a trend that has affected Goa’s demography over much of the past century. A few more Goans than before Brexit, most of them Catholics, have sought to beat the deadline to enter Britain after emigrating to Portugal - which is relatively easy for residents of the former Portuguese colony.

According to historian Parag Parobo, who teaches at Goa University, Catholics formed the majority of the population up to around 1925 in what was then a Portuguese colony. Today, Catholics form about a quarter of the state’s population. Both push and pull factors — Catholic emigration as well as the immigration into Goa of non-Christians from other states — have decreased the proportion of Catholics by half.

Not that this affects electoral politics a lot. Such a major demographic shift would have affected a list system of electoral democracy. But the first-past-the-post system ensures that areas like Salcete in the south are still Catholic-dominated even after several residents, particularly younger ones, have emigrated. If migration — both in and out of the state — does affect electoral outcomes, it will be in a few constituencies such as Cortalim. Many Catholic families live in the east and south of that constituency and a large number of workers have migrated to work in large industrial enterprises in the west of the constituency.

Read: Unfazed by Brexit vote, Goans revel in London festival

The way Parobo recounts the varied history of emigration, enough Catholics began to emigrate during the second quarter of the 19th century to begin to affect Goa’s demography. World travel at that time was largely by steam boat. From the 1940s, airliners made long-distance travel much easier. The rate of emigration also increased. After the 1970s, many Goans migrated to the Gulf for work, but these were of various religious affiliations — and could not get local citizenship.

The ease of travel and migration across the European Union since the 1990s caused another major wave of emigration over the past couple of decades. Tens of thousands of Goans have emigrated to Portugal and thence to Britain. That is the preferred destination, since most of the emigres are fluent in English and expect much better pay there for skilled labour.

Read: Post-Brexit vote, Goans, EU citizens in a limbo

Brexit gave a jolt to those who had planned to undertake the journey; the door was closing. They had to go soon if they were going to get there at all.

As it happens, it is also since the 1990s that a boom in industrial activity caused immigration to Goa from other parts of India, which also contributed to decreasing the proportion of the state’s Catholic population. A large number of workers have come from north Karnataka and other places to work in major industrial units. In addition, a large number of citizens from Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere have bought property in Goa over the past couple of decades. Some have moved permanently, thus contributing to the demographic shift. Others use their properties for a while every winter, or visit for a few days at a time every trimester. All this has resulted in a construction boom, which has brought a large number of labour from far afield, often from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Also during this period, a large number of entrepreneurs who hail from elsewhere have set up small businesses in Goa. Some run restaurants, guest houses and hostels. Many more run retail establishments. For example, a very large number of Kashmiris sell jewellery, tapestries, cushion covers, shawls, blouses and shirts in Goa. Some of them return to Kashmir in summer but many have invested in property and base themselves largely in Goa.

David Devadas is a senior journalist based in Kashmir. The views expressed are personal.