Curtorim is a small idyllic, time-stand-still village about 45 minutes south of the Dabolim airport in one of India's most visited states Goa. The locals who converse primarily in Konkani here are warm, friendly and civil. In recent times though, outsiders have slowly begun to feel a sense of suspicion or wariness from locals who have observed the mayhem that is playing out in North Goa. More and more of them have come together to oppose selling land to outsiders or to those who are not of Goan origin.
This silent protest of Curtorim has taken on a new voice in the state's capital Panjim. January 2022 saw the formation of a new political party, the Revolutionary Goans under the leadership of Manoj Parab, which seeks to protect the rights of the person of Goan origin in respect of jobs, benefits of various government schemes, education, land, among other things. "A person of Goan Origin" of the state of Goa shall mean a person who is or whose either parent or grandparent was born in Goa prior to 20 December 1961 or who had a permanent habitation in Goa prior to 20 December 1961 and who was a citizen of India post-liberation irrespective of nationality or passport they hold currently.
Goa: The Idyllic Hippy Spot
It was in the 1970s soon after Goa got its liberation (1961) from the Portuguese that a set of Woodstock-spawned counterculture tourists started flocking to the state from all parts of the globe, including Russia. The hippy trail tourists, as they were called - stayed in Himachal's Kasol, Rajasthan's Pushkar and a few trickled to Goa in search of peace and solitude, demanding very little in terms of amenities barring sun, sand and the sea. Many of them flocked to the virgin beaches in the North (Anjuna-Vagator belt) and ran small cafes often offering high quality food from their native countries. A whole ecosystem of yoga and ayurvedic ashrams sprang up to cater to this segment without any dilution in the Susegad feel, culture or traditional ways of the state. By and large, Goa and its Goan traditions and values remained intact. Some money had begun to come into local hands but it was still far too little to make any dent in their mindset and aspirations.
2010 And Thereafter : All Hell Breaks Loose
It was during the preparatory stage for the CHOGM meet in India followed by a visit by the Pope in the 1980s that catapulted Goa on the international radar, in particular, of tourists from Commonwealth countries. As a consequence, the 1980s and 1990s saw many more tourists heading to it both from overseas and within India. Although infrastructure and amenities began to creak a bit under the weight, it still remained a "time of great promise" with non-hippy foreign tourists who could afford a bit more also beginning to make their way to Goa. In fact, it was only in 1982 that the Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC) was set up. Prior to that, tourism, sports and information were one single government department, with no particular emphasis on tourism alone. In the 1990s, some structural interventions were made by the government and a few hotels were built across the state but Goa was not yet facing the influx that was to come.
It is only after 2010 that government sources say that "all hell broke loose" and the state began to get "overrun" by tourists. Although government data shows that the state handles a total of around 5-6 million tourists annually, officials say the number is far higher as the government data fails to capture those who come in by road and those who stay in second homes owned by friends and family. Pre-pandemic, Dabolim airport handled a total of 8-9 million passengers, a majority of which were tourists but senior government officials say that they estimate the actual annual tourist numbers to be at least 20-25% higher than this. As these numbers have grown, local resentment against both settlers and in particular second home owners from the metros has risen as they feel the repercussions of the inflow including the burden on roads and infrastructure built to cater to far lower numbers.
Are We In Goa Or Paharganj
Haphazard development and lack of regulation led to a situation where "everyone and his uncle" jumped into the two money spinners: tourism and real estate. Despite some efforts from the authorities, large parts of North Goa lost their local flavor, feel, and pace and could be anywhere in India, overrun with tattoo shops, cheap shopping, and Sher-E-Punjab dhabas catering to the hordes that come in from various corners of North India. Casinos and seedy bars that flout many norms including CRZ rules abound and are money printing machines for entrepreneurs from other parts who usually partner with a local to run these. These often witness small skirmishes among drunk or unruly patrons and in extreme cases deaths. The recent death of Sonali Phogat, a social media personality with some political heft led to the closure of Curlies, a beach shack at Anjuna after the national media gaze fell on the incident but officials and authorities argue that there are many Curlies all over the state that need to be shuttered. Traffic jams in these parts of the state on New Year's and during the holiday season can give Gurugram-Delhi NH8 traffic a run for its money.
To cater to these burgeoning numbers, the state has poured in more investment, drawn up a master plan it is trying to implement, and is firefighting on a daily basis as far as the state tourism authorities go. A visit to the Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC) chief's office is an eye opener as hundreds throng it on a daily basis from bars, restaurant and shack owners, taxi union officials, panchayat office bearers, adventure sports providers with small and big requests. The former GTDC managing director Nikhil Desai who held the position for a longer than usual period spent most of his time "firefighting" and trying to combat the mini crises that occur on an hourly basis across the state's tourist belts, in particular the beaches. Desai says that the state needs to provide only three things: safety, security, and infrastructure but despite the state pouring in money, it is proving a challenge. The sheer volumes and numbers are defeating the daily efforts.
The Nub Of The Problem
In a state where politicians understand only the colour of money, the sway a small citizenry holds over the powers-that-be is what is leading to the present chaos. Officials say that in most cases, the political masters give into the usually illogical demands of the stakeholders as they fear loss of power in the next elections if they do not concede.
A classic and most controversial instance of this is right under the nose of all office bearers on what is now called Casino road, that runs along the Mandovi and connects the capital to the rest of the state. The entire stretch is overrun by offshore casinos which cater to mostly tourists, act as an eyesore in the otherwise calm stretch of the river and lead to severe environmental and ecological repercussions for it. Locals not vested in the casino trade have been protesting and seeking moving the offshore casinos to another location but the government has been buckling under pressure since 2007. Jack Sukhija, vice president, travel and tourism association of Goa (TTAG) and owner of the iconic Panjim Inn, says that many ministers have promised action on this but nobody has delivered. In 2009-10, hopes were high when Goa's most respected chief minister (late) Manohar Parrikar led a morcha in protest and pledged support but eventually he too was unable to take this bull by its horns. The ₹400-odd crore generated in annual revenue for the government and the profits from the business for other stakeholders have ensured that talk of moving the casinos has remained just talk.
A similar situation has played out with the poorly regulated and run beach shacks, which cause more damage than anything else to the environment and which many government officials argue are no longer required as there are many restaurants all over catering to tourist demands. "The shacks are not worth the price paid by the beaches and their ecology" argues one senior bureaucrat. He says that shacks were permitted many years ago to provide some basic amenities to beach tourists at a time when Goa hardly had any restaurants but were no longer necessary as one can get virtually anything a tourist requires within a stone's throw of the beaches today.
Recently, in a crackdown, 167 out of a total 197 shacks were issued closure notices after being found in violation of the state pollution board norms but it remains to be seen how many actually shutter. Many officials are of the view that ideally all beach shacks in the state - there are around 360-370 in the state - should be shuttered but again the nexus or unholy alliance doesn't allow it and under the guise of creating employment, they continue to operate. In reality, the employment is more for migrants as very few Goans are employed by these shacks although many are co-owned by locals and the kith and kin of the politicians.
Things on the tourism front have also been exacerbated as this period - 2012 onwards - also coincided with a ban on iron ore mining, one of the other big employment-generating industries in the state, leading to the intensifying pressure and focus on the only other big employment generator.
South Going The North Way: Stemming The Inexorable Decline
A lot of locals and early settlers are convinced that Goa is in a permanent decline and "nothing can save it". While many activists and NGOs work on specific causes and try to make a small difference, on the larger problem of over-tourism the consensus remains that it is irreversible and a matter of time before "South Goa goes the North way".
But not everyone is so pessimistic. "There is a far greater consciousness now after locals have seen how destructive some outside influences can be," argues Sukhija. He adds that the South is a very different animal with a range of self-checks including far larger land holdings and villages where the gram panchayats and locals have a greater say. He cites the instance of the now-shelved Raheja housing project in the South, where locals used every trick in the book, including holding a musical protest in Margao in 2015!
Many options to stem the inexorable decline have been considered over time including capping the total number of tourists permitted every year, compartmentalising the tourist zones from the local areas and keeping budget tourists at bay by upping the price of what is on offer, all controversial and hard-hitting matters that can only be carried out by political masters who have a spine. Till then, India's little Europe with a smattering of local and cosmopolitan culture will continue to creak and groan under the weight of over-tourism. Whether it eventually sinks or swims at the behest of its notoriously corrupt and fickle political leaders remains to be seen.