Just two years after the swift decapitation and annexation of the 451-year-old Estado da India by Jawaharlal Nehru’s troops in 1961, the novelist and writer Graham Greene visited the former Portuguese colony.
In the epic Sunday Times cover story that followed, he marvelled about “the uniqueness of Goa” while warning that its destruction was predestined because “you cannot hang a skull at the entrance [of what was then a Union Territory] as you can on a mango tree to avert the envious eye.”
Greene predicted other Indians would pour into the republic’s newest possession in overwhelming numbers: “Outside Goa one is aware all the time of the interminable repetition of the ramshackle, the enormous pressure of poverty, flowing, branching, extending like floodwater. This is not a question of religion. The Goan Hindu village can be distinguished as easily from the Hindu village of India as the Christian, and there is little need to drive the point home at the boundary with placards. The houses in the Goan village were built with piety to last.”
Skip forward intervening decades – today is the 60th anniversary of the first ceremonial raising of the tiranga in my hometown of Panjim – and there can be no doubt the British author was right in substantial measure.
India’s smallest state has indeed come under pressure from destabilising numbers of would-be migrants from other parts of the country. These influxes – which only accelerated after Covid-19, have shifted the demographic balance decisively to non-natives, who now comprise the majority (even if official statistics do not always confirm what is clear on the ground).
Yet, there is no doubt Greene got things totally wrong, as did others at the time, including Nehru. They made the mistake of assuming that Goa’s polity would fall in line with national trends. Instead, at their first opportunity these new Indians voted overwhelmingly against the Congress, and for newly minted regional forces in the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and United Goans Party.
Goa University history professor Parag Parobo writes in his excellent India’s First Democratic Revolution: Dayanand Bandodkar and the Rise of Bahujan in Goa that, against the 1961 backdrop, “Goa’s Liberation saw the idea of the Bahujan Samaj being reinvented. There was a shift from the attitude of appealing to the government to bring about economic transformation [to] political mobilisation for a collective identity which would acquire political resources for itself, and a focus on attacking the stranglehold of the upper castes.”
Thus, “at a time when the entire country was driven by Nehru’s vision of investments in industries and higher education as an apparatus of development, Goa, through [the first chief minister] Dayanand Bandodkar’s governance, prioritised human developments through schooling and health.”
This prescient approach, which persisted right until statehood in 1987, is barely understood and even less acknowledged in the rest of India. Nonetheless, it laid the foundation for the state’s contemporary successes in human development, which underline its vaunted quality of life.
Things changed rapidly after 2000. The famously idyllic coastline unexpectedly became one of the most highly sought after New Year’s destinations in the world. Goa’s tourism brand soared to global renown, then crashed once again when the state started becoming paralyzed beyond capacity during high season. From 2010, when the total number of visitors spiked past two million, it has been a madhouse: three million in 2013, four in 2015, five in 2016, and both 2018 and 2019 crossed an eye-watering eight million.
Those are scary numbers, way past sustainability. Their impact has devastated the once pristine landscape, with uncontrolled garbage and polluted water. Another symptom of India’s insatiable appetite for Goa is its real estate industry gone rogue, with innumerable illegalities along the coastline, and monstrously oversized apartment complexes on the plateaus. Meanwhile, in an extension of an India-wide phenomenon, the state’s urban areas are collapsing under mismanagement.
Here, as with much of what has happened in Goa over the past 20 years, an outsized share of the responsibility for the state’s precipitous decline is due to the late chief minister Manohar Parrikar. In many ways, it is impossible to disentangle the story of what happened in Goa in that time from the outsized personality, capacities, whims and vagaries of the man who was treated as a talismanic good luck charm by Narendra Modi himself.
Just as the first decade of the new millennium in Goa was filled with optimistic enthusiasm because of his unprecedented politics of the possible, the second was an unmitigated debacle of misgovernance due to Parrikar’s absence, after he took the job as Defence Minister in New Delhi, and later due to cancer, which took his life in 2019. The moment his hands loosened on the reins, an uncommonly venal and incompetent cadre has run riot. Even after Governor Satya Pal Malik publicly complained about “corruption in Goa government in handling anything and everything”, there has been no accountability.
Understanding that the BJP is vulnerable under Pramod Sawant, AAP and TMC have charged in, sometimes to surreal effect.
In my neighborhood, we have become used to boldface names parading on our doorstep. Some time ago, I peered out of my office window to see Rahul Gandhi tooling up on the back of a motorcycle taxi.
This morning, the stretch of Miramar beach outside my home has been scrubbed past recognition in anticipation of the prime minister’s visit. On my usual walk, I was dumbfounded to discover an entire Potemkin fishing village of museum-quality traditional boats conjured up from nowhere. By this evening, they will no doubt have disappeared. It seems an enigmatically precise metaphor for the anniversary occasion. Viva Goa! Jai Hind!