Who belongs to Goa? This question resurfaces as the State battles the raging pandemic

The droves of reckless tourists descending on a Goa already coping poorly with the pandemic has turned the spotlight back on the long simmering discord between locals and settlers

May 15, 2021 11:47 am | Updated July 06, 2022 12:37 pm IST

Visitors throng Goa’s Baga beach during Holi in March this year, with no masks or social distancing.

Visitors throng Goa’s Baga beach during Holi in March this year, with no masks or social distancing.

On May 1, India’s smallest State crested a milestone: a record 54 people died from COVID-19. Social media erupted with anger about how the number of casualties in Goa was higher than in entire countries such as Tanzania, Vietnam, and Taiwan. On its front page, the iconic oHeraldo newspaper — once the last Portuguese daily in Asia — headlined another shocking fact: on that day, the tiny territory moved past China in cumulative infections.

At that point, Goa’s positivity rate had reached 50%, one of the highest in the world. It has stayed in that range, even as mortality figures continue to climb. On May 11, an astonishing 75 people died from the virus, at which point it was discovered that dozens were succumbing every night due to interrupted oxygen supply in the main Covid hospital at the Goa Medical College (GMC).

That revelation triggered vicious internecine sniping between the Chief Minister Pramod Sawant (an RSS loyalist appointed to succeed the late Manohar Parrikar) and his health minister Vishwajit Rane (the former Congress MLA). Earlier this week, Sawant made a show of being “probably the first CM in the country to visit a COVID-19 ward” at the GMC, where he announced, “we have 100% oxygen. The problem will be resolved in a day.” But the situation remained unchanged, and Rane went to the extent of demanding “a High Court-monitored inquiry” into his own portfolio, “to find out why so many are dying”.

Separately, in a widely ridiculed empty gesture, Rane also insisted every citizen above the age of 18 should begin taking Ivermectin — an anti-parasite drug that its own manufacturer says is ineffective against COVID-19 — because “all our doctors and experts, the Chief Minister have unanimously decided to go ahead with this.”

At a cafe on Anjuna Beach in the pre-pandemic era

At a cafe on Anjuna Beach in the pre-pandemic era

All this back and forth has occurred in just the first few days of an astonishingly lax State-wide curfew that followed a threadbare four-day lockdown in which hotels, bars and restaurants stayed open. On the lockdown’s first day, Sawant himself inaugurated a bridge in the midst of a dense crowd of supporters. Even the normally docile North Goa collector was moved to admonish the CM for “wilful disobedience likely to pose a grave risk to public health and safety.”

Parallel universes

Exactly these kinds of cavalier antics have come to characterise the distinctly schizophrenic pandemic atmosphere in Goa.

On the one hand, the healthcare infrastructure is stretched to breaking point. On the other, hordes of escapees from worse-off locations keep pouring in. It is as if two parallel universes co-exist: one is pandemic-stricken, the other is partying like it’s 2019.

This grotesque dichotomy has played out — until the second wave slowed things somewhat — every evening in front of my home, next to Miramar beach in the pocket-sized capital of Panaji.

A casino in Panaji buzzing with visitors

A casino in Panaji buzzing with visitors

Like all our neighbours, my family carefully masks up for our strictly socially-distanced breather on the sands, where we invariably encounter droves of tourists streaming out from the luxury hotel next door, refusing to follow safety protocols. They turn belligerent when requested to do so. Their collective attitude is perfectly clear: rules don’t apply in Goa; we can do what we want.

The always-simmering discordance between locals and bhaille — the derisive Konkani term for “outsiders” — has turned bitter during the pandemic. One illustrative exchange recently played out on singer Chrystal Farrell’s Facebook timeline, when she posted “a humble request” to all Goa helpline services: “Guys I know you have Goa’s best interest at heart but please refrain from allowing posts from people who want to come and hang around. Once things get better, we will welcome everybody with open arms. Till then show some sensitivity, and encourage them to stay in their own states, and let us heal in ours.”

Who really cares?

That appeal ignited fraught debate on who genuinely has Goa’s interests at heart. Veteran travel professional John Buckenham complained, “We get the really badly behaved ones that refuse to follow instructions and throw their weight around.” Farrell added, “Don’t get me started on locals offering accommodation and transport, when the rest of the State is pleading for the government to close borders.” Then, the journalist Nigel Britto commented about “neo-Goans and other settlers who can and will just leave, if things get really bad. [I don’t] think they’re actually concerned about Goa and Goans.”

Britto broke an unwritten rule by speaking out about the anxieties that plague long-term residents and natives of Goa. The facts are stark: Goans today represent less than 50% of the permanent population, and the pandemic has greatly accelerated this imbalance. There is immense concern about an unstoppable tsunami of disaffected urbanites decamping en masse from other cities and living out newly-minted Goa dreams.

Revellers, many unmasked, at the Goa Carnival in February this year

Revellers, many unmasked, at the Goa Carnival in February this year

“Immediately after the 2020 national lockdown was lifted, we started receiving a lot of enquiries from buyers looking to settle in Goa,” says Denzil Xavier, president of the Goa Association of Realtors. The demand has been unrelenting, he says, “especially from high-net-worth individuals looking to get away from the crisis in their hometowns”. “This rising demand for a piece of paradise will only translate into higher land prices, and could put land and home ownership permanently beyond the reach of the average Goan.”

The pressure on limited resources has extended to every aspect of life during the pandemic. On May 1, the Goa Association of Resident Doctors issued an uncharacteristically dramatic public letter stating, “Even in these times, VIP culture is still very much prevalent. [Doctors] who are managing more than 30 new patients at a time are told to see ‘VIP’ patients and get them admitted fast, even if many times they don’t require admission. The other critical patients who have been waiting for 2-3 hours then fight with us.” An anonymous but widely circulated WhatsApp message claimed that several such incidents involved “outsiders” who used political connections to “throw their weight around.”

“When we moved [from New Delhi to the river island of Corjuem] in 1998, our neighbours were initially mystified,” says Orijit Sen, the pioneering graphic novelist. “Back then there were no particular negative connotations to being ‘Delhi people’, as there are now. Bernard, the seller, even told us he was happy that people from outside were buying his house because new people bring new ideas, and Goa needed new ideas. But he also urged us to always maintain siesta hours, because he wanted outsiders to respect the Goan way of life. Bernard was a wise man!”

For Sen, the emergence of a new Goa evokes mixed feelings. “While the depredations of the past decade — with successive waves of newcomers investing larger sums of money — are well known, there are quieter and better changes also happening. Many people moving here value community life, are sensitive to ecological concerns, have creative skills, and are interested in contributing to Goa. But it’s a delicate balance that can turn exploitative, ugly and commercialised in a short time.”

Heta Pandit, chairperson of Goa Heritage Action Group, came to Goa in the early 90s during the communal riots in Mumbai, “which is not unlike how people now are coming for respite from the pandemic or from the congestion and oppression of city life. Some writers, artists and performers are coming because Goa is conducive to creativity. Goa is a refuge for many reasons,” she says.

I asked Pandit whether Goa is being irrevocably changed, and she shared this anecdote: “I was in a car with a Goan friend and someone from Mumbai. My Goan friend was talking about how things happen at their own pace in Goa and how that needs to be respected. The Bombay friend laughed and said, ‘They’ll have to learn to change. They’ll have to learn to do things our way.’ I think that illustrates the attitude that some people come with,” says Pandit.

Norma Alvares moved to Goa from Mumbai in 1977 with her husband Claude. “There was absolutely no concept of outsiders nor were there hordes of people looking for a second home. Goa was considered quite a backward place, from where people were trying to go elsewhere for jobs.” From that vantage, Alvares has witnessed the spectacular rise of the former backwater into one of the richest corners of South Asia.

“When we came, it was because we were interested in rural development work,” says Alvares. “Today’s neo-Goans are simply looking for sanity, a place away from the madness of the cities. They are looking for a better life.”

Alvares says she sees many newcomers start off on the wrong foot. “The first thing they do is build a big wall around their property, insulate themselves from the village. This is absolutely the worst way to get integrated. In cities, each is for himself but village life is the opposite. All ceremonies and customs, from festivals to marriages, mean the involvement of neighbours. The villagers are your larger family, be they of your faith or another.”

Slice of heaven

But there are parallel, and welcome, phenomena at play as well. New entrants are very active in environmental issues, as they have bought their slice of heaven and now want to protect further damage to their investment, as Alvares says. “They also appear to have the time to attend meetings and speak up on social media. This must be appreciated. I recently spoke at an event organised to save Assagao in North Goa, and all the attendees were ‘outsiders’ with only a handful of Goans. It hit home hard.”

In fact, if there is a ground zero for the explosive growth of new settlers, it is Assagao, which is now uncomfortably reminiscent of an extension of New Delhi, with its uneasy mix of cosmopolitanism, cliquishness and unlimited cash. In this ghetto of gentrification, some of the country’s best restaurants shelter in old Goan houses, including the superb Edible Archives, described by food writer Vikram Doctor (himself a new migrant to Goa) as “a model for how a restaurant can also be a catalyst for awareness on environmental issues, sustainability and preservation of local food traditions.”

Edible Archives is the creation of the scholarly and thoughtful duo, chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar and Shalini Krishnan. Krishnan gave me an interesting insight: “People are often not sure if I’m a Goan, so I see things from both sides, and definitely see a change in perception when people think I’m from here versus when they know I’m not. I’d say it’s quite a strong feeling. But I also think it is easier here for a large variety of people to learn to fit in and feel at home in a relatively short time than in many other places I’ve lived.”

Residents queue up outside a COVID-19 testing centre in Panaji

Residents queue up outside a COVID-19 testing centre in Panaji

Who belongs to Goa? Who does Goa belong to? These fundamental questions now hang over the social imagination and collective mindscape of residents like permanently massed monsoon clouds.

The brilliant Panaji-based architect Raya Shankhwalker, whose sensitive, minimalist work is popular with wealthy would-be migrants, says, “The problem is that we are a very small population with a distinct lifestyle and culture, different from other parts of the country. The current pace of influx is very rapid, and it’s not always the case that the new people who are moving in really understand, or want to understand, the underlying ethos.” The problem, says Shankhwalker, is when a large number of people move in for the love of the place but not necessarily to be a part of its people.”

Waves of migration

This existential conundrum isn’t exclusive to Goa, but it does strike home viscerally hard in a territory where the collective cultural identity has been partly defined by waves of migration for at least 200 years. Since Britain temporarily occupied the territory at the cusp of the 19th century, waves of locals have cascaded out of their ancestral land to become “subaltern elites” (the term was coined by historian Cristiana Bastos) in the British and Portuguese empires and later, a swathe of post-colonial nations from Macau to Mozambique. Today, the Prime Minister of Portugal is a Goan, and so is the attorney general of the U.K. Can there be any place for nativism in a place like this?

“The motivation of new arrivals in Goa is primarily to escape the misery of their own hometowns, to get away from the miasma that urban India has become,” says Rajan Parrikar, one of the staunchest defenders of Goa’s cultural ethos. By contrast, “Goans migrate only for professional or financial reasons, and Goa remains ‘home’ in every sense regardless of their physical location. I think this is a crucial difference.”

Parrikar says, “This was not the compact Goans made with India. In the Opinion Poll of 1967 [in which the prospect of merger with Maharashtra was defeated], Goans spoke clearly on this matter. We wanted our identity, our way of life, and the character of our land protected, and not be washed away in the Indian tidal wave. This transformation is fundamentally illegal and undemocratic since it runs counter to the wishes of the host populace. Is there a State or community in India that would welcome liquidation of its identity and a takeover by people from without? No group of humans likes to be overtaken overnight by another. That is just the way we are wired.”

The writer-photographer-columnist is the co-founder/ curator of Goa Arts and Literature Festival.

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