Goa recently marked 50 years since its liberation from Portuguese colonial rule and its merger with India. At the time of its liberation, on December 19, 1961, India’s then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised to safeguard Goa’s identity – customs, practices and policies inherited from the Portuguese, who ruled the area from 1510. Down the years, the people of Goa have begun to believe their identity was under threat, though their spirits were lifted when Sonia Gandhi, grand-daughter of Nehru and chairperson of the federal ruling coalition, promised to take up Goa’s demand for special status in India. Gandhi addressed more than 50,000 people at an anniversary event in the state capital of Panaji. Special status, Goans say, would restrict outsiders from buying land and property in Goa, the top tourist destination in the country. For some time now, even Church circles have reverberated with the clamor for protection of Goa’s land and environment. The principal cause for concern among Goans is the state’s land use plan for the next decade, known as the Goa Regional Plan 2021. The draft plan was first made public in 2009 and its notification was finally published on October 21 this year. The Church and village bodies that discussed the plan determined that it paved the way for unbridled construction activity in violation of environment regulations. On December 16, thousands marched to the state capital to demand scrapping of the plan. The archdiocesan Council of Social Justice and Peace (CSJP) noted that the plan did not specify forests, scrub vegetation or grazing lands as natural cover. Such is the case also with areas lying below sea level, locally known as Khazan land that falls under the jurisdiction of Eco-Sensitive Zone 1. People want fields, ponds, creeks, sluice gates, fish farming and salt pans also to be classified under Zone1. The CSJP opposed depicting cultivable fields in interior villages as settlement zones, a move it said would benefit land developers. Father Maverick Fernandes, CSJP spokesperson, expressed outrage at the notified plan that he said was “a threat to ecology and the existence of the Goan people.” The “vague, irrational and contradictory” plan aims to help realtors who can “eventually build structures at waterfronts, hilltops or at places overlooking green paddy fields,” the priest added. Construction activity boomed in Goa after local people’s Lusitanian laid-back culture began to attract outsiders. Goa continues to draw some 2.4 million tourists every year. The outflow of Catholics overseas for better prospects has also eroded Goa’s uniqueness and diluted its Iberian environment, a vital component of its tourism industry. The influx of outsiders has altered Goa’s demographic picture. Its population increased from 637,591 in 1961 to 14.58 million today. At the same time Catholic presence dwindled from 37 percent in 1967 to 25 percent this year. An unregulated mass influx has led to the wealthy occupying huge tracts of Goans’ land and homes, especially in the last decade. Goa’s 3,702-square-kilometer territory includes 812 sqare kilometers of usable land, of which 450 of them have already been developed. Matanhy Saldanha, chairperson for Goa’s Movement for Special Status, says his people feel “more unsafe” after 50 years. “We fear the imminent loss of our identity” as unscrupulous people destroy Goa’s beauty and serenity in the name of development. Echoing similar sentiments, Father Feroz Fernandes, who edits a local weekly, laments that Indian and overseas millionaires have made Goa a “devastated land.” Evidently, with Goa attaining the reputation for being an international tourism hot spot, there’s an insatiable lust for owning property in Goa. Many housing projects have sprung up in the last decade, some in eco-sensitive and fragile locations. Real estate magnates have cornered prime plots with the connivance of politicians. More than 70 percent of beneficiaries of this acquired land are immigrants. Celebrities now vie with each other to own a permanent holiday abode in Goa. This has led to land prices increasing a thousand fold in the past six years. J Rebelo, an official at the sub registrar’s office in Panaji, says rich people from New Delhi and Mumbai are on “a buying spree” in Goa. “We know the price of land is not worth [what is being paid],” he added. Ironically most houses remain vacant during the year. Their owners just want to flaunt their status by offering them to friends visiting Goa. The quest for real estate in Goa has put even apartments beyond the economic reach of local people, and migrants who work on construction sites have put pressure on basic amenities leading to social conflicts. All this has marginalized and nearly displaced the native Goans. They now pin their hopes on Sonia Gandhi’s promise of special status for Goa to regain its identity. The author was less than a year old when Goa's Liberation took place. At 51, and based at Porvorim, near Panjim, he has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years, having served as editor of the Panjim-based Gomantak Times
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