On December 18, regular evening walkers on Miramar beach along the Arabian Sea waterfront of Goa’s tiny capital city of Panjim were shocked to stumble upon an entirely unexpected vista. Familiar central dunes were gone, flattened under extensive viewing pavilions and a network of red carpets. All the refuse-strewn casuarina groves were hidden behind fabric barriers. Every 20 metres, giant video cameras loomed on custom-built platforms, and, at the lip of the waterline, this especially surreal twist: an assortment of museum-quality fishing boats had been conjured out of thin air to provide an ostensibly picturesque backdrop.
This massive repurposing of Miramar into a Potemkin fishing village was in honour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who arrived in Goa the following morning to commemorate the 60th anniversary of decolonisation, which had occurred on December 19, 1961 after the swift decapitation of the 451-year-old Portuguese Estado da India by Jawaharlal Nehru’s troops. The PM took the occasion to rally his BJP cohorts in India’s smallest state—which has been ruled by his party since 2012—ahead of elections scheduled on February 14. “When I see Goa’s progress, I remember my dear friend and colleague,” said Modi, “he not only took Goa to new heights, but also showed its potential. For Goa’s progress and to fully tap the large potential of Goa’s tourism, the campaign was started by Manohar Parrikarji. It has been kept going at the same pace.”
These kinds of encomiums are nothing new. Fulsome praise for the late CM of Goa has been Modi’s style for many years, even before the PM recruited the popular IIT-educated Goan politician as his defence minister in New Delhi from 2014-17. Theirs was an unusually meaningful relationship, with historic consequences. For just two important examples, at the 2002 party conclave in Panjim, which was hosted in a hotel just down the beach from the PM’s vantage on December 19, it was Goa’s then-CM who led the campaign to retain Modi as Gujarat chief minister, and in the exact location in 2014, he torpedoed L.K. Advani’s gambit for leadership in competition with Modi by commenting, “Pickle tastes good when it is left to mature for a year. But when you keep it for more than two years, it turns rancid. Advaniji’s period is more or less over.”
This was Parrikar in his famously plain-speaking avatar, which wound up permanently endearing him to the national media. Yet, that same legacy looks considerably different from Panjim, which he represented in the state legislature from 1994 until dying in office from cancer in 2019. Here, citizens have suffered an extraordinarily precipitous decline in their once-enviable quality of life, buffeted by forces that were empowered to run rampant in the former CM’s declining years. All that destruction was unavoidably on display during Modi’s visit to Miramar too, but just beyond the PM’s carefully manicured sightlines. In all directions, the devastating impact of uncontrolled tourism on a once-pristine location is plainly evident, as well as a veritable tsunami of haphazard, ill-conceived—and often outright illegal—construction activity. Ironically, the newest example of this crude, lawless mayhem is the ‘Manohar Parrikar Smriti Sthal’ on Miramar beach, just behind where the PM sat.
“The memorial dedicated to Parrikar is one among the many new fortress-like barriers between the beach and the adjoining road which is now preventing public access,” says Fernando Velho, an architect and professor at the Goa College of Architecture, who lives just down the road from Miramar. The 41-year-old says, “Apart from a series of unnecessary fences, walls, landscape barriers, gates and other high barriers that the smart city mission has put in place to control the beachfront, the memorial has been built by pouring tonnes of concrete in an eco-sensitive area which enjoys Coastal Regulation Zone protection that actually strictly forbids such heavy constructions. When the authorities themselves set such a poor precedent, it’s obvious that society takes the cue from them, and begins treating the beach in a similar manner. An architectural competition with feedback from the citizens would have done Manohar Parrikar’s complicated legacy better justice.” Back at the beginning of the new millennium, during Parrikar’s second term as chief minister from 2002, Velho had an unusually close-up view of the newly-ascendant politician’s initial efforts to remake the heritage architecture of Panjim, after he triumphantly persuaded the International Film Festival of India to relocate permanently to his constituency.
Goa’s tears Parrikar’s memorial under construction; Trash lies on once-pristine beaches
In The Peacock newspaper at IFFI last year, the young architect writes that “bulldozers arrived and tore down the morgue outside my family home in Panjim, forever changing its gory informal address from ‘the white house opposite the Morgue’ to a more insipid one—‘the white house opposite the multiplex’. Looking out my window as a young architecture student, I got a ringside view of Goa’s transformation from an edgy tourism backwater to a mainstream pleasure periphery for the rest of the country.” He says, “The works carried out for IFFI within the heritage precincts of the former Goa Medical College have set the tone for the massive infrastructure “upgrade” that followed. The major avenues, public spaces, as well as the market complex near the main screening venues were also spruced up or entirely rebuilt.”
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For some time—arguably up to Parrikar’s sweeping victory at the polls in 2012—this juggernaut of “adaptive reuse” of the heritage architecture of Goa went reasonably well. A number of buildings were beautifully (and expensively) renovated and restored: Institute Menezes Braganza, the spectacular 500-year-old Adil Shah Palace, the Maquinez Palace adjacent to the old Goa Medical College precinct. There was more on the way, but then Parrikar fell ill, just when the central government had announced a potential bonanza of new funds under its smart cities mission. In this period of virtual abdication, although the ailing CM ostensibly remained in office, his hand-picked successors led by former Panjim MLA Siddharth Kuncalienkar ran rampant with the newly-constituted Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Limited—a special purpose vehicle wholly owned by the state government that was intended “to plan, appraise, approve, release funds, implement, manage, operate, monitor and evaluate development projects”.
Even compared with the most abject annals of misgovernance in India, it’s hard to get worse than what happened in Panjim in the wake of Parrikar’s absence at the helm, followed by his untimely demise. It has given rise to the rueful joke: what does it take to cripple an exceptionally beautiful heritage city that had previously weathered 200 years with great beauty and grace? The answer is 100 million dollars. Imagine Panaji has supposedly expended over Rs 700 crore in the past few years, while grossly brutalising the city landscape and robbing citizens of enjoyment of some of their most cherished public spaces. Far from improvements, there have been mostly unfinished projects gravely diminishing the quality of life. Lovely century-old buildings like the old Obras Publicas (the erstwhile Public Works Department headquarters) have been demolished without any public consultation, and this same rogue authority has gone so far as to seize and occupy the magnificent Adil Shah palace (it was also the state’s first Secretariat) as their offices, despite the fact that the 500-year-old landmark’s glorious gallery spaces have been committed for an art museum.
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Velho says, “the smart city mission is an opaque institution with a contractor-centric mandate. It aims to be run like a private sector enterprise with a CEO at the helm, and it does not have any democratic accountability, neither does it engage with the public or the local municipalities. What Panjim gets in return are poorly planned projects, scams and wasteful infrastructure. They have literally killed the most thriving public space in Panjim, that is Miramar beach, while wiping out the livelihood of hundreds of vendors and small merchants. In turn the city has pushed through all manner of illegal and hazardous constructions on the beach which are all tightly access controlled. From being wonderfully open, Miramar Beach is increasingly becoming a dead space which only aims to cater to a certain type of purportedly upper-middle-class sensibility at the cost of all others.”
Sadly, even those aspirations are paper-thin, and unsupported by the city authorities in the astonishingly complete lack of accountability that has reigned ever since Parrikar’s hands began to weaken on the reins of governance. That is why, on December 19, when I ventured out to Miramar beach just hours after Modi had left the state, it was no surprise to observe the instant fishing village had already disappeared. By the following weekend, all the trash was back. Since then, it has only piled up higher, accumulating without respite while city politicians grandstand about the former CM’s legacy in an attempt to win the upcoming elections. Meanwhile, an uninterrupted layer of garbage is blanketed across the sands all the way to the feet of Manohar Parrikar’s statue.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Castaway!")
(Views expressed are personal)
Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and co-founder of the goa Arts+literary festival