50 years of liberation: Is Goa losing its sheen?

By Rajdeep Sardesai
21 December 2011 14:14 IST

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 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 which 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 which 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, 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 parceling 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 dominant presence. 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 who awarded mining leases in perpetuity to some Goans. If the Goa assembly's Public Accounts Committee is to be believed, 15 million metric tones 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 illegal mining. Goa accounts for 60 per cent of the country's iron ore exports, and a ban on mining 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 perfect postcard where 'susegado' (or 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 eco-system that offers the best of the east and the west.

Post-script: 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!

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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Sory Sir we can't give u mario since their is no lover of mario cartoons ,all becme Babus lover

- Mahesh Ghadi, Panjim | 27 th December 2011 18:50


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