We, Indians, are very good at celebrating the ritual of anniversaries. Perhaps, we believe that an annual ceremonial occasion entitles us to have selective amnesia the rest of the year. So, on the 10th anniversary of the December 13, 2001 Parliament attacks, pious homages were paid to the dead, so what if it took one of the widows six years to get a petrol pump allotted? Now, the nation prepares for another anniversary. This weekend marks 50 years since Goa was ‘liberated’ from the Portuguese, the culmination of a long and, at times, bloody struggle that has never quite received its due in our nationalist historiography.
Like all grand anniversaries, this one too will be marked by pomp and spectacle. Goa’s quaint capital, Panjim, will be brightly lit, Sonia Gandhi will address a public meeting, music concerts and art exhibitions will be held, there will be fireworks along the beaches. Every effort will be made to hide the darker side of arguably India’s most beautiful state.
That darker side has meant that a state that was once caricatured as a happy-go-lucky land of fish, feni and football is now targeted as home to drug, land and mining mafias. Remember one of this year’s box office hits, Singham, was set in Goa, where Ajay Devgan plays the tough cop who aims to rid an entire system of baddies? Bollywood often takes its cue from real life. From Premnath playing the happily drunk fisherman Braganza in Bobby to Devgan as Bajirao Singham, the wheel has come full circle: the once idyllic Goa is now seen as paradise lost.
When did it all change? For most tourists, Goa is still the country’s premier holiday destination. The hippies of the Beatles era have given way to a large domestic and low cost foreign tourist industry. Brand Goa for the tourist is defined by plenty of sun, many beaches, all-night bars, loud music, and the occasional rave party. Basically, a chance to rid oneself of the inhibitions of middle class India without the neighbour complaining. The more affluent have even bought themselves flats and houses, preferably with a view of the sea.
Brand Goa for the locals, on the other hand, has been defined by a certain social conservatism, strong family ties, village temples and churches, environmental consciousness and a fierce attachment to property. A clash between the two Goas was inevitable and lies at the heart of the state’s travails.
The battle has been primarily fought over a tiny state’s most precious commodity: land. From Mumbai and Delhi’s real estate entrepreneurs to even the Russian mafia, Goa became fair game for those seeking a quick return on investment. In 2006, the then chief minister Pratapsinh Rane, in a written reply in the Goa assembly, stated that in the previous three years as many as 482 properties had been sold to foreign nationals, including Russians. In 2007, it was the sustained pressure from local activists that forced the Goa government to abandon its much-publicised regional plan, a scheme designed to ensure the parcelling of the state’s land, unmindful of the environmental consequences. Despite this, the most frequent sight in the Goan countryside, even today, is of rapid construction activity as farmlands give way to holiday homes.
Negotiating these land ‘deals’ are the state’s politicians. Their clout within the village panchayat system means that no sale is complete without the intervention of the local don-turned-neta. In a small state, the influence of the local MLA is much greater than in the big states where the chief minister wields a more dominantpresence. No one exemplifies this better than the colourful Atanasio ‘Babush’ Monserrate, Goa’s education minister, whose rather chequered CV includes a dozen criminal charges, including once attacking a police station. A three-time MLA, he has switched parties four times in a decade and has been part of both BJP and Congress governments. In a 40-member state assembly, where every MLA has a price tag, Monserrate has become symbolic of a decaying political culture.
Linked to land conflicts is the growing controversy over mining rights. Mining has been central to Goa’s economy, a colonial legacy started by the Portuguese awarding mining leases in perpetuity to some Goans. If the Goa assembly’s Public Accounts Committee is to be believed, 15 million metric tonnes of ore were extracted illegally in the last three years, allegedly at a Rs 4,000 crore loss to the exchequer. The figures may be disputed. But what is generally accepted is that, like in neighbouring Karnataka, windfall profits have spurred illegal mining.
The answer is not, as is being suggested by some, a ban on mining. Goa accounts for 60% of the country’s iron ore exports, and a ban would cripple the state’s economy. What the state needs is a mining regulator who can ensure a certain transparency in the functioning of a largely unregulated industry. Modern Goa needs speedier industrialisation in the same manner as it needs strong environmental protection laws.
In a sense, the polarised public debate on mining reflects the central dilemma of one of India’s youngest states. To see Goa as an unchanging rural idyll would be to do disservice to an increasingly aspirational society. Goa cannot be confined to a picture perfectpostcard where ‘susegado’ (‘relaxed, timeless fun’ in Konkani) remains its calling card. But nor must it lose its unique status as a truly multi-cultural haven with a fragile ecosystem that offers the best of east and west.
PS: One of the greatest contemporary Goans, the iconic cartoonist Mario Miranda, died this week. Mario represented an older Goa, gentle and aesthetic. It’s a Goa which must never die. Give me a Mario over a Monserrate any day.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network
The views expressed by the author are personal