On the night of 11 February 2010, when a local taxi-driver Ravi alias Rohidas Shetgaonkar and a Russian national, Alexander Borowski, got into a fatal brawl over a petty reason, shack-owner and another local, Premnath Shetgaonkar, was probably counting his day’s earnings with his accountant wife, a Russian.
The four residents of Morjim in Pernem taluka of north Goa – which has made news for all the wrong reasons recently – highlight changing facets of the present day village. Both local-tourist pairs, part of the same landscape, one defiant, other integrated. And the night became the representation of a simmering unrest that finally spilled over.
Ravi succumbed to his injuries in the hospital a few days later, leaving behind a wife and three young children, Borowski was duly arrested following a murder charge, and the village flared up in agitation, condemning the death of a fellow villager. In a gram sabha (GS) meeting last week, they lashed out at the people who over the last few years intensified tourism to this village where director Sanjay Leela Bhansali shot his debut Khamoshi and which is also the nesting ground for the famous Oliver Ridley sea turtles.
The nesting ground turned into a battleground.
Speaking after the GS which passed a resolution against Russians working in Morjim, Dhananjay Mahadev, Morjim’s deputy sarpanch, said, “Russians come and set up businesses and eat into the local livelihood. We won’t allow them to do this anymore. Earlier, we had more tourists of other nationalities, but now Russians are filling up Morjim. They come here and do dadagiri, look what happened to Ravi…”
The head of Morjim Ekvott (a local organisation), Vasant Shetgaonkar, added, “We’re scared because they (Russians) fight with us.
They come on tourist visas and start businesses here with the locals’ help. They have lots of money. They come before the season starts and pay advance. Like, if a local rents out his premises to a Russian for Rs 70, 000 a month, the Russian sublets it and earns some Rs 2.5-3 lakh.
Same is the case with the tourist taxis.” Language is an impediment, he explains, and this seems quite evident from the number of signboards in Russian that dot this erstwhile fishing village, which has sprouted several Russian-run restaurants, shacks and guesthouses in the last few years.
Some locals allege that some boards even say ‘Goans not allowed’. However, tourism director Swapnil Naik feels that such cases take place in connivance with locals. “We inspect the beach shacks from time to time. They are only allotted to people who have been residents for 15 years. But these people sublet them by getting into oral partnerships. Then it becomes legally tough to catch them.”
Father Maverick Fernandes, secretary of the Roman Catholic Church-backed Council for Social Justice and Peace says the village became popular after the present tourism minister promoted Goa in Russia.
“The presence of the mafia had been established much earlier. The government has woken up to this only now when a local was killed. People are feeling scared in their own village.”
Premnath Shetgaonkar, 33, shack-owner and resident of Morjim for over 12 years feels that it’s the economics at play.
“Last 3-5 years have seen lot of money come into this village. But even though I’m married to a Russian, I’ll never take a foreigner as a business partner.
They are guests and should be treated like that – have a good vacation and go back peacefully. The sea is meant for our livelihood. They should come to enjoy here not stay back, put up restaurants and take away our work. Where will the locals go?
The panchayat is the authority, when they issue licenses, they should make a point that it’ll be cancelled if given to someone else. It’s our mistake that we show them around, they get smarter and take advantage of us later.”
But Vikram Verma, legal counsel for the Russian consulate in India, says the boiling point is the result of the absence of a clear tourism policy for Goa.
“Goa has been sold as a sun and sand destination to a country that’s deprived of the sun for most of the year. So if a foreigner wears a bikini, that’s no license for rape. Any negative situation will end up with a reduction in relationships between the two countries.
Also, there is no bar in our law that prevents foreigners from working here. The fact that a number of locals have tied up with Russians to do business is evidence that not all are against the idea. The language barrier can create fear and hence the possibility of friction.”
Anand B., 30, who’s setting up an eco-resort in Morjim calls it a two-way street. “Foreigners are not being handled well in the village, the locals can get aggressive and are ready to fight. There is groupism. On the other hand, when they set up work here, they hire locals as cleaners and only their own people as managers. Government should have more control over visa norms.”
Goa received approximately 55, 000 Russian tourists in 2009-2010, 48,549 in 2008 and 36, 927 in 2007.
103 Russians are officially settled in Goa, out of these 15 are married to Indian nationals, and around 40 are settled in the Morjim belt.
11 February 2010 – Late night altercation between Ravi and Alexander over the latter’s car headlights disturbing the cabbie group sitting on the roadside. A physical brawl ensues, following which Ravi is admitted to Goa Medical College hospital. Counter complaints filed with the police.
16 February 2010 – Ravi succumbs to his injuries. Alexander booked for murder.
20 February 2010 – DGP orders a clampdown and deportations on foreigners staying on in Goa even after their visas have expired.
21 February 2010 – Morjim gram panchayat meets to protest against the killing of Ravi by Russian national, wants Russians to stop working in Morjim.
28 February 2010 – After a tour of the Morjim village, Goa MP Shantaram Naik says there are large-scale Foreign Exchange Management Act violations by Russians in Morjim, calls for immediate action by the state.