It’s Not Always Better in Goa

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And certainly not in the arena of politics. However, with Remo Fernandes crooning to get Goans out to vote, the state’s poll scene is far from dull

Manohar Parrikar, former Chief Minister of Goa and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s star campaigner, hits the campaign trail at 6.30 am. Wearing slippers a size larger to enable him to walk long distances, Parrikar has criss-crossed the length and breadth of Goa, slated for polls on 3 March.

As an opposition leader, Parrikar is a happy man. The reason is the method by which the rival Congress party has distributed election tickets. Call it shortsightedness or arrogance, but in constituencies affected by severe anti-incumbency, the ruling Congress has handed out tickets to politicians’ family members and their distant relatives. Of the state’s 40 Assembly seats, there are two members each from the five families who are contesting elections. Five more seats have been given to their relatives and secretaries. So, effectively, 15 seats have gone exclusively to five families.

Current Congress Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, fighting an anti-incumbency mood in his own constituency Margao, had stood by the motto that tickets must be awarded to only one member of a family. But if the allocation of tickets is any indication, then Kamat’s word may not have held much weight at the High Command’s darbar.

“We did not have candidates in these places. So what is wrong in giving tickets to family members? After all, elective merit is the key. We will win by a two-thirds’ majority,” says Kamat, whose conviction in his own words seems dicey, to say the least. “We had checked these constituencies and found no party worker who could win the polls,” he adds.

Disgruntled Congressmen who have been denied tickets feel that elective merit has been the last consideration. “Money power has won,” says an office bearer of the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC), “The party is not giving out funds for election campaigns. So, all those who have [sufficient] money power have got tickets. If the party says that it cannot get candidates, then it is an extremely sorry state of affairs for the Congress in Goa.”

Of all the factions of the Congress in Goa, and there are several, three prominent groups hold the key to the party’s politics in the state. One is led by Pratapsinh Rane, another by Digambar Kamat, and the third by GPCC president Fransico Sardinha. It is their nominees who have made it to the ballots.

“It is clear that the Congress is propagating family raj,” says Parrikar, “They have looted the state and have got their relatives also to do this job with them.” The BJP’s campaign against family raj appears to have been impactful. Just about everyone in Goa who is clued in to the polls is talking about it. “Yeh Congress India ke bahar ka party hai. BJP India ka party hai. Congress ko vote diya toh hamara kaam nahin hoga,” says Laxman Gawas, a 30-year-old driver who lives in Mapusa, terming the Congress an outsider’s party and the BJP one of the country’s own. Gawas has believed this all his voting life: that the Congress President’s foreign origins have a bearing on the identity of the party she leads. Call it ignorance or effective BJP propaganda, but there are many voters like him around.

The Congress, on its part, has been wasting valuable campaign hours issuing clarifications on allegations of ‘family raj’. “People are not blind. They know that the Congress has given them good candidates. It is, after all, for their benefit,” is Sardinha’s take on the issue.

Another issue that has taken centrestage concerns the compulsory learning of Konkani and Marathi, two languages popularly spoken in Goa. More and more people want to do away with Portuguese completely. This demand has gained so much momentum that the few families of Portuguese descent still living in Goa keep mostly to themselves. They hardly interact with others, and try to keep their cultural affinities as low-key as possible. “We are peaceful people. No one can deny the Portuguese contribution to Goa. It is evident and there for all to see,” says Margarida de Naronha Tavora-Costa, a 13th-generation direct descendant of Vasco da Gama. Like many other Portuguese Goans, she is in the restaurant business. “We just don’t want too much attention,” says Tavora-Costa.

The language war in Goa has been bolstered by protests on the issue in neighbouring Maharashtra. The insistence on Konkani and Marathi in schools can be traced to perceptions of Goa as a state adhering to its Catholic cultural ways in denial of the fact that its majority is Hindu. Indeed, under the influence of saffron rhetoric, what was once a minor Hindu-Christian divide is threatening to become a serious gap. In accordance with popular majoritarian prejudices, many saffronised Hindus blame Christians for the sex-and-drugs haven that Goa has come to be seen as. “We are 68 per cent of the population. Goa’s Christians, who are far fewer, have ruined the state with their culture,” rants Rajendra Kerkar, an anti-mining activist, “You find only nude tourists running around in Goa.”

Kerkar may be shocked to learn that the Congress plans to make tourism its central focus to boost the local economy. “We want the tourist population to go up,” says Pratapsinh Rane, state minister for health, who wants the season to last all through the year. “We have plans to make Goa one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world,” he adds.

Related to this is infrastructure development, an issue high on the priority lists of both the Congress and BJP. Both talk of bypasses, bridges, modern garbage clearance systems, water connections and the like. From October to March, the tourist influx is usually larger than the state’s own resident population. This places enormous strain on the state’s rickety infrastructure. “In these months, all the water is diverted to hotels, as tourists live there. There is an acute shortage of water in non-tourist areas,” says George, a resident of Salcete.

For all the campaigning, Goans seem deeply disillusioned with elections. It is so bad that the Election Commission (EC) has roped in Goan musician Remo Fernandes as its mascot to urge people to vote. He has designed billboards with the message, made himself accessible to the media, and even composed and recorded a song titled, Vote: Tit for Tat, in English and Konkani. He has been visiting colleges and egging the youth on to use their vote “ethically and intelligently”.

Ethics, of course, is part of the local discourse. What people notice is the sheer wealth of most candidates, evident in the fancy cars they use on their campaign trails. In affidavits filed with the EC, the personal wealth of all contesting candidates has risen sharply from the last time round. At the top of the list of rich contestants is businessmen Dinar Tarcar, who wants to represent Santacruz in the Assembly. His declared wealth stands at Rs 211 crore—though, when he contested the Panaji seat back in 2007, he had declared assets of only Rs 5 crore.

Nearly all poll candidates this time are in the crore bracket, with several in the ‘Rs 25 crore plus’ range. Candidates with criminal cases against them have also seen an increase: 23 per cent in 2012, up from 18 per cent in 2007. The Congress accounts for the largest number of these.

The big money is no surprise. Most of Goa’s politicians have close links with mining operations. So entrenched are these businesses that the Congress plans to set up a dedicated mining corridor in the state. “The state’s fragile ecosystem cannot take it,” complains Kerkar, “There is so much illegal mining activity going on that it has affected the water table. Rivers are drying up.”

Despite a clampdown by the High Court and an indictment by the Justice MB Shah Commission, both legal and illegal mining continues to flourish in the state. The statistics are alarming, but this is one issue that unites both contenders for power. Both Parrikar and Kamat brush it aside. “It is not so much as it’s made out to be,” says Kamat, words that Parrikar echoes in some form or another.

The ravages of mining are hard not to notice in Goa. All through the northern belt of the state, one sees huge mining dump piles. At a large dump in Vaghure—once a tiger habitat—ever increasing layers of rubbish from mines seem dangerously poised. Yet, trucks are busy moving around, adding still more to the piles. It is guarded round the clock by private security guards who are told to chase strangers away. In mute spectatorship stands a concrete installation of a tiger, put up in memory of the majestic animal whose land this once was.

Three wildlife sanctuaries—Bondla, Mahavir and Mhadei—had been badly affected by the VD Chowgule Iron Ore Mine, located on their borders, before the director of mines and geology closed the mine’s operations down last April. Private security guards, however, still hover around. The riches are still being eyed, evidently. “It is a matter of time before they restart mining here,” says Kerkar.

The area worst affected by mining, though, is Sirigaon in Bicholim taluka, where about 70 to 80 wells have dried up due to a shift in the water table. Clearly, there is plenty in Goa that deserves top-level attention. But will Remo be able to get people out of their homes to vote?