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Sunil Sethi: Goa's seething undercurrents


Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Goa: India's top seaside tourist destination is going through an uncertain season. Depending on whom you listen to, it's been good, bad or will definitely get worse. According to Alec, our faithful taxi owner, who has been ferrying us round for years and whose business I have seen expand from two elderly Maruti vans into a fleet of sleek vehicles in recent times, says the good times are still with him. "Not bad," he answers in his taciturn God-bless-us-all way when I ask how things are going this year. Luxury resorts, such as the 250-room Park Hyatt spread over 40 landscaped acres in the south, aren't complaining, either.
The SEZ controversy, with protestors threatening violence against visitors last year, appears to have hit the medium and low-end budget tourism economy the most. Overweight Europeans with thick German and Glaswegian accents may throng the popular beach strips in Candolim, Calangute and Baga but the small hotel, guesthouse and beachside shack owners are angry. Charter flights are fewer this year, says Joachim, owner of a popular shack. That means higher overheads. "Tourists complain if we raise the price of our Seafood Sizzler." (Not surprising: this measly dish, consisting of two prawns and a fillet of kingfish served with some wilting coleslaw, is now priced at Rs 350.) Joachim's father Alvaro, who has run the family-owned shack for 15 years, is furious about the SEZs. "It's a conspiracy between big business and construction magnates from Mumbai and Delhi to buy up our land. They say they will give employment to thousands of Goans but actually they will destroy the livelihood of thousands like us."
The SEZ row became so politically fractious around Christmas that the Goa government was forced to place large adverts in local and national dailies announcing that tourists were safe, very welcome and would be accorded every courtesy in Goa's time-honoured tradition. Since then Chief Minister Digambar Kamat has been doorstepping Union Commerce Minister Kamal Nath in Delhi, vociferously arguing that SEZ policy is a state matter and he will not, come what may, go against the people's wishes. The pro-SEZ lobby is girding its loins for a fight. Goa's 40-member legislature is fragile enough for less than a handful of defectors to bring the government down.
Under Goa's pellucid blue skies, rippling green paddies and waving palms, there are other threatening signals of how the development debate, even in a prosperous and cosmopolitan state, can take dangerous turns. A strong sense of regionalism is growing into a seething undercurrent of Goa-for-Goans. The unchecked construction, soaring land prices and increased migration of recent years are making Goans question the motives of outsiders buying large tracts of land and turning their state into a playground of the rich and famous. Whereas everyone from Jade Jagger to Lord Meghnad Desai may want to own a small piece of Goa, poor construction labour is mostly from Bihar and eastern UP. And the old story of building sites creating slums and slums turning into vote banks is beginning to exercise Goa's strongly integrated village communities with their communidade lands, property held in trust by the panchayats, which politicians lust after greedily. More and more Goans are asking why, if states like Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal have strict legislation against outsiders buying property, why shouldn't Goa?
Each time I return to Goa I try and pay a visit to an old and honoured friend, the cartoonist and illustrator Mario Miranda in his beautiful 18th century family home in a quiet village in the deep south. This time I noticed a change in the hallowed exteriors of the wonderful old house where so much personal history has been lovingly preserved for generations. Elegantly designed grillwork now covers the many windows and doors of the two-storey mansion. "Goans had a tradition of leaving their doors and windows wide open and I supposed it wouldn't change in my life," he said. "But when things change so fast, safety comes first."

First Published: Sat, January 12 2008. 00:00 IST