On a cool evening in mid-October, a hundred or so people, mostly Goan — teachers, writers, painters, journalists, businesspersons, fashion designers and lawyers — stood near one of Atanassio Monserrate’s two large villas near Panjim.
They held candles; an emphatic circle of light. I was there too, wax from a temperamental candle blistering my fingers.
It seemed a small price to pay. After all, I didn’t join in the singing of we-shall-overcome, or impassioned speech-making.My fingers had not been severed with a chopper, as happened to a Goan lawyer the previous night. Nor had I been severely beaten about the head, as had a young Goan professor of history, as he dined on chicken xacuti with this lawyer friend at a modest Panjim restaurant. It’s why we had all gathered in civil outrage.
It was a tangential protest against Monserrate, this deeply troubled state’s minister of education, embroiled, among other things, in a suit over deliberately mis-stating his formal education as being a high school graduate instead of merely a graduate of Standard Seven. A canny player who was not so long ago a small-time moneylender, Monserrate was also until January 2007 the minister for town and country planning. The place is traditionally a hot button for real estate deals, a mother lode of a ministry. Indeed, such a mother lode that the Goan Observer, a maverick weekly with rare courage, calls him Monster-Rat. It was as if by our peaceful protest we could shame Monserrate into admitting culpability — call us well-meaning fools — for the attack by a group of masked men, an event gory even by present-day Goan standards.
The Scarlett letter
Aires Rodrigues, the lawyer, was representing a German mother and daughter. The daughter, 14, had allegedly been coerced into sex by Monserrate’s 21-year-old son Rohit in the backseat of a brand new Audi given to him by his father. Rohit had also sent the girl twisted text messages from a mobile phone. So allegedly had Warren, the nephew of a rather heavy-handed Goan MLA-and-minister twosome: Churchill Alemao and his brother Joaquim. The Monserrate-Alemao inheritors had been marked as co-accused, and so, at that time absent from the law.
For a few short days, Goa appeared to be on edge: would they? could they? — justice and all that. Then, last week, the German lady withdrew her complaint, alleging severe harassment by the state’s political, police and justice systems, and severe disillusionment with all these.
And suddenly, the ghost of young Scarlett Keeling was back. Bizarre passion play had turned yet again into ruthless play
The Scarlett investigation drags on with as yet little chance of progress eight months after the 15-year-old British visitor’s death from drugs, drinks and drowning after a night of merrymaking with Goan paramours with impressive political muscle. Anjuna, the beachside where Scarlett died, was last Wednesday — the day of the traditional weekly flea market — awash in paramilitary, as are other popular beaches of Goa. They were avowedly present to protect overseas visitors — among them, digital hippies flaunting mobile phones and fluorescent Tees — from vague terrorist threats, and also to provide a fig-leaf of security from sexual predators: Goans and other Indians. Some of their cousins-in-security, stalwarts of the state police, are also known to provide protection to purveyors of trance; the state is today a major transshipment point for natural and man-made narcotics, and a posting to the Anti-Narcotics Cell, which has as its fief the beachside universe and its party planets, is a prized one.Paradise lost
Pretty, pleasant, lush, fatally romanticised Goa looks rotten to its core.
These days, it resembles Bihar-by-the-sea, or Uttar Pradesh, or Maharashtra, or Bengal. Not on account of workers from these states who seasonally travel here in droves for work, drawn by the triple boons — and now, high curses — of uncontrolled tourism, frenetic iron-ore mining and rampant construction that cannot entirely be serviced by the sons of the soil. But, on account of Goa’s political leaders, administrators, police and businesses all too often displaying the grotesque corruption and triggering the ‘mobocracy’ prevalent in these states they so love to revile.
Goa’s astounding 300 per cent increase in real estate valuations in the past two years is driven as much by the cash-in mentality of Goan landowners as by the need of the wealthy from across India and other parts of the world to park burgeoning incomes, black and white, largely through rule-bending investments in real estate.
Now, recession of the economy is combining with the recession of goodwill and good behaviour, to speedily crumble façades. For decades, the several parallel universes of Goa — the tourism trade, mining trade, political trade, and the somnolent life of the Goan villages away from these influences — have often lived in wilful ignorance of each other. A problem always someone else’s problem: what is out of sight being out of mind. This denial is quite a feat in this tiny state where it is a leisurely three-hour drive from north to south; and just an hour, from the fading brocade of ocean and sand in the west to the blue hills in the east, increasingly threatened by illegal mining. The fabrics of these parallel universes now lie torn, along with the lies and the presumption of paradise.
Party of thieves
According to studies by Transparency International, Goa is among the most corrupt states in India. The local media not owned by local mining and leisure interests openly refer to Goa’s 40-member legislative assembly as the den of 40 thieves. There are recorded instances of panchayat leaders travelling overseas for family vacations immediately after the consummation of a real estate deal, new cars gracing their compounds.
Recession, Scarlett, the lamentable episode with the German girl, and bad-mouthing ‘foreigners’ and ‘outsiders’ for every ill in Goa has ensured, thus far, that compared to the last ‘season’, this self-professed, self-indulgent, quite indolent paradise may receive a quarter less of travellers between this October and next March. On Thursday night, as he knocked back superior whiskey and legs of chicken at a chic neighbourhood barbecue in Altinho, Panjim’s plushest address, a former minister’s son and hotelier lamented a 50 per cent drop in his business with cancellations by charter tourists. Near him, a noted architect bemoaned increasing illegalities, and urged strong civic action to all who would listen. As an immense red snapper waited its turn on a grill, expatriate managers of businesses discussed deteriorating law and order and public confidence in Goa.Citizens protest
Elsewhere, away from the media whitewash supported by the government and travel business, and the plastic "I love Goa" and "Goa is such a happening place" sound bites from visiting satraps and sirens of Bollywood, the churn many Goans are only now beginning to come to terms with is in evidence. And many Goans are combating ills — call it Malaise de Goa — with immense courage and at great personal risk.
In gram sabha after gram sabha across Goan villages, north and south, at meetings all those locally registered to vote can participate, citizens are questioning the decisions of panchayat leaders to grant permission for construction projects and to operate mines. In early November, in the picturesque northern village of Assagao, 70 year-old C.S. Baretto had his leg broken by intruders in his home, for asking too many questions about housing projects. In October, in Moira village due east of Assagao, writer and activist Venita Coelho was forcibly removed by the police who had been called by the sarpanch, and then illegally detained for several hours, basically for demanding to know the development plan for the village. Coelho plans to sue the panchayat and the police. A similar fate befell a grandmother from the neighbouring village of Aldona, who was forcibly ejected from a panchayat meeting for legitimately insisting on being present as an observer.
Last Wednesday in the south, in the jungles near Colomba village of Quepem taluka, I witnessed a protest. Nearly a hundred villagers, women and men, young and old, dirt poor and relatively better off, desperate at their water sources drying up, their fields choked with ore effluent during paddy season, and the continuous roar of heavy earth-moving machinery, marched to the mines operated by Fomento, an enterprise of the Timblo mining, leisure and media conglomerate from Goa, and stalled work. The protesters counted among them an elderly Catholic priest, Father Mathias, slapped by local toughs a few weeks earlier for protesting too much. And Cheryl De Souza, a widow and single mother who alleges intimidation by the Alemao brothers to give up her farmland in the nearby Maina area that abuts an Alemao-controlled mining concession. (De Souza is an inspiration for the fictional character of Widow Charming in my recently published novel, who stands up to a rampaging, intimidating, politically ambitious, wealth-obsessed thug called Winston Almeida and his two brothers — all fictional
characters, of course.)
Inevitably, the anti-mining protesters were arrested by the police, after showing the authorities a detailed map in which the mine was marked as being part of a forest that could not be disturbed. As the legality — or illegality of it — is pursued in court, these villagers plan to repeatedly invade the mines, and be repeatedly arrested, till they are heard.
On the surface, it appears to be foolish. A hundred against Goa’s biggest industry — mining and export of ore — as the chief minister and other so-called leaders of the people stand mute. But it’s a sign of the times. This protest would have been unthinkable two years ago. Such protests have survived despite spin-doctors of the Timblos and tame politicians supporting mining interests and even, raising the convenient bogey of Maoism in Goa, branding some activists as Maoist cadre. (The claim was dismissed by senior police officials as entirely specious.)
“But wouldn’t it be nice?” mused an activist with the state’s nascent but steadily gathering voice of protest, Goa Bachao Abhiyan, on a recent morning as we caught up for tea at a tiny pao-bhaji shop next to Panjim’s Azad Maidan. The GBA has repeatedly this past year brought several hundred people to attend anti-corruption rallies and public meetings. The GBA, comprising volunteers ranging from architects and doctors to housewives sick to their bellies of the rot in Goa, is also engaged in plugging land conversion loopholes in the proposed Goa Regional Plan 2021. The GBA activist looked at a newspaper that contained photographs of and articles about Monserrate, the Alemao brothers, and Vishwajeet Rane, son of former chief minister and current speaker of the assembly, Pratapsingh Rane, and counted among the aggressive heavyweights of Goan politics. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” she smiled as she put down a cup of sickly-sweet tea, and tapped the paper, “If Maoists were to threaten all the crooks to behave themselves? It might solve some of our problems.”
In Goa, it’s open season.
(Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Once Upon a Time in Aparanta, a novel)