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The Frothing Churn
The Ugly Truths
Signs of Hope
Goa has long been a byword for the ‘getaway’, the chance to rest, release, revel and recharge. On my fourth visit, it also turns out to be about serendipity. Like discovering the intoxicating Guava Mary—which puts its inspiration, the Bloody Mary, to shame. Or walking past the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, towards Panjim’s Fontainhas area, and chancing upon a charming cafe with the best red velvet cupcakes in the country. And Goa has always been about meeting total strangers. Doris Coreia, the cafe’s manager, with a warm, welcoming smile and hot cappuccino, and nary a provocation, reveals all about her changing homestate. “Calangute used to be this vast and empty stretch where my father took us for Sunday outings,” she recalls, “Now it’s difficult to find even an inch of space to sit and watch the sunset.” She hasn’t been to the popular north Goa beach in years and, with the New Year peak season round the corner, offers without prompt: “Don’t go near it in December.”
Rohit Chawla, a Delhi-based photographer who has made Goa his second home, muses on similar lines. He got married and had his honeymoon here. “It used to be a long, pleasant walk from Sinquerim all the way to Calangute. Now, Candolim and Calangute have become trashbins,” he says. Come December 20, he intends to disappear from Goa and return only in the second week of January. “End of the year, it turns into Kumbh Mela. It’s a nightmare,” he says. That’s an assertion that artist and curator Apurva Kulkarni, who has lived in the state for almost 44 years, backs up. “There’s too much forced cheer about. It’s the worst time to be in Goa.” He hasn’t stirred out of the house on New Year’s Eve for a decade now. “Everybody comes here on holiday, but we certainly are not on a holiday in Goa,” he says.
“There is the sex, drug, rave beach strip Goa. There’s an unchanged Goa that resides in its churches, temples and villages too.”
A few weeks before Goa hosts the biggest New Year carnival in India, its residents seem hesistant, unwilling even, to let their hair down. End of the year blues apart, there are discernible hints of larger predicaments, change and churn—social, cultural, economic and environmental—for the long-presumed laid-back and good-spirited Goan (see box). Something that author Amitav Ghosh, in an address delivered on the 50th anniversary of Goa’s incorporation into India last year, very lucidly described as “the anxiety of the new” giving birth to a “narrative of dystopia”. To an outsider, however, nothing would seem amiss. It’s the annual iffi (International Film Festival of India) time. Panjim is caught between the rush for films and street parties even as beer and solkadi flow freely in the vibrant inox compound. But newspapers and impromptu conversations bring long-standing concerns to the fore—worries that only got further underlined by a study on tourism and transformation of coastal Goa conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences under the aegis of the Centre for Environment Education (CEE).
“Undoubtedly Goa has changed. But in the modern world, which place has not? If one expects to find the Goa of two decades ago, then one should also expect to not have telephones, electricity and tarred roads because many villages didn’t have these facilities,” argues fashion designer Wendell Rodricks. While Goans offer a myriad conflicting opinions about the state’s inexorable transformation, one thing is unanimously agreed upon: the cuisine. “The only thing that still remains unchanged about Goa is the fabulous sea food. Try the squids at Viva Panjim,” Coreia says.
Seen in the cold light of statistics, Goa at the end of the year shines. The year-end flights are already packed, airfares have doubled. “Hotels have increased their tariffs by nearly 25 per cent over the last year,” says Sabina Chopra of yatra.com. “In the eight days towards the end of the year, the tourist population in Goa will equal that of the locals,” says Miguel Braganza, botanist and activist with Goa Bachao Abhiyan. But is there adequate infrastructure in place to tackle the immense inflow? And its consequent problems: traffic, pollution, drugs, petty crimes, trafficking, prostitution? Documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma feels safer in Goa than in any other place. “But we cannot spend the night in a chatai in Calangute anymore. We used to. It’s not as carefree anymore,” he says.
It all boils down to Goa’s carrying capacity. “Should we institute a policy, like Bhutan, to limit the number of tourists entertained? Should we have an entry tax?” wonders Braganza. Evidently, tourism, the backbone of Goan economy, has been leaving a trail of problems as well. “It’s a double-edged sword, providing a livelihood to so many people yet proving ecologically detrimental,” says Kulkarni. The worst affected are the 34 beaches along the 105-km-long coastal stretch. “The coastal areas have changed from virtual wilderness in the ’70s to haphazardly developed structures,” the tiss report highlights. A stroll down Calangute beach is enough to bear that out. The shop-lined stretch to the beach feels like the dirty, grimy lane leading up to Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, another city in India bearing the burden of tourism. In front is the rolling sea, around you drunk lumpens. Just behind the many beach shacks lies a huge ugly dump of plastic and waste. The lack of garbage management continues to be an eternal woe. “There are no designated places to throw garbage,” says Sujith Dongre of the CEE. “I have to drive out 5-6 km to physically dispose of it,” says Chawla, who lives in the small village of Assagao. “Every road has garbage strewn all over. We never understood the enormity of the problem,” says property consultant and event manager Cecil Pinto. “How can you even have a tourist industry without a garbage disposal system in place?” a local asks.
And tourism has only been thriving. It started with the march of the hippies in the ’70s. “There
was no electricity in Calangute then; it was brought in to cater to the hippies. The last bus to Mapusa used to be at 4.30 pm and only those who had their own vehicles could manage to catch the sunset there,” Braganza says. Goa tourism was granted industry status only as recently as 2000. Since then, the number of tourists has exploded. “Nearly 40-plus charter flights from 22 countries land every week in Goa. Besides, the domestic market is increasing by 20 per cent annually,” says Chopra. And the “season” has begun to stretch beyond November-January. The once “happening” north has been exploited to the core and more discerning tourists are now heading towards south Goa. But in the south too, Colva and Palolem have started to get alarmingly crowded.
“End of the year, it turns into a Kumbh Mela. But there’s no place in India that’s even halfway as liveable as Goa.”
Hanuman, our cabbie, says domestic tourists are only coming to Goa for the cheap booze and to create a nuisance. He calls them “tapori”, “mawaali” in his Bambaiyya lingo. The inflow of migrants to work in the tourism sector has been fostering resentment among locals. The “Russian takeover”—especially of Morjim—is another flashpoint. The signages and menu cards in Morjim are all in Russian and there are hardly any Indians visible on the beach—not even in the village. According to statistics on the state government’s department of tourism website, the Russian share of the foreign tourist pie has grown from 13.06 per cent in 2010 to 30 per cent in 2011, the highest jump of any nationality. From 179 charter flights from Russia in 2008-2009, the figure had grown to 259 in 2009-2010, again the highest. “These are the low-end tourists,” points out Braganza. “Calculator leke ghoomte hain,” says Hanuman of their miserly ways and aggressive haggling. Prasanth, the owner of the Boom Shack on Morjim beach, says they rent huge houses for a mere Rs 20,000 a month on long lease. “They don’t generate much business, hold on to one beer for hours,” he says. The banyan tree by the lake on the hilltop near Arambol is said to be their unofficial dope hub and there is talk of how they are buying up property illegally—with locals’ names on the deed.
As always, there’s another side to the story. “The tourism and real estate boom has changed Goa irreversibly. The average Goan has become more worldly,” says Wendell Rodricks, even as he points out that while “there is the drug, sex, rave beach strip Goa”, “the unchanged Goa resides in many villages and there is the spiritual Goa of temples and churches”. Assagao-based designer Anjilla Puri thinks there is a Goa beyond the touristy beaches that needs to be discovered. “There are these lovely, little villages with beautiful houses and decent, civilised society,” she says.
Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar is hard at work to keep it that way. Many Goans believe he has the political will and ability to ring in a sustainable tourism, involving locals, tourists, communities, NGOs as well as the government. What’s most heartening is that beyond the commerce of tourism, cultural activities are on the upswing, be it the film fest, litfest, fashion shows or the Sunburn dance music fest. “Visibility for the arts and artistes is getting enhanced, spaces are opening up, little galleries are dotting Goa,” says Kulkarni. Also, artistes and intellectuals are setting up base in Goa. “They have infused sleepy villages and cultural evenings with their sparkling presence,” says Rodricks.
Despite the upheavals, Goa remains for those like Rohit Chawla “the last haven”. “There’s no place in India even halfway as liveable,” he says. The question is how long it will stay that way.