Tuesday, 31 March 2015

NOTES ON A GENTRIFIED GOA



In the last few weeks, two articles – one in the local, and another in the national press – discussed the major upheavals that Goa has witnessed in recent years following the massive in-migration to the state. The first of these articles was penned by Richa Narvekar in Goa Streets a Goan weekly and looked at the process of change from the perspective of shifts in the global economy, and flow of capital. 

Narvekar makes an interesting observation about the rise of the real estate market in Goa and the in-migration of the global, moneyed elites (which includes the cosmopolitan Indian elites): “Hundreds of apartments loom over the street [along the Miramar-Dona Paula road, overlooking the sea] in swanky new buildings, all with lights out; they are unoccupied. All of these have been bought out, but very few of the owners actually live here. Goa has become a major destination for empty ‘investment homes’. As the global rich buy more and more of these investment homes, property values get inflated to the point where average folks are priced out of the market. Construction is booming all over the country, but ironically, so is homelessness”.

Narvekar’s observation is crucial to understanding many of the whirlwind changes that Goa has witnessed in these last few years. This observation exposes a side of Goa’s ‘development’ story that is distinct from the usual focus on garbage, violation of land rules, rampant ecological damage. By looking at how capital flows into Goa and the class and caste of people investing in such ventures one starts to realize that the benefits from the real estate boom, and the consequent use of Goan land, are largely concentrated in the hands of global and Indian elites.

The other article appeared in Outlook – and thus a national magazine – authored by the Goaphile writer and photographer, Vivek Menezes. Noting a contrast between Goans leaving Goa with a Portuguese passport, and others coming into Goa from different parts of the world, Vivek Menezes makes the claim that Goa is leading the way in creating “an alternate idea of India”. So how, according to Vivek Menezes, is Goa leading this trend of creating an alternate idea of India? This is done by Goa being a cosmopolitan hub hosting “ambitious fortune-seekers from around the world”. Vivek Menezes suggests, “While the influx of unskilled labour from across the [Indian] subcontinent continues unstemmed… India’s sunshine state now hosts a bewildering mix of new residents: artists, football players, software developers, chefs and CEOs who are quietly transforming the state’s economy and culture”.

Looking closely at the picture of Goa emerging from the two articles, one cannot help but notice the variance in conclusions at the possible future of Goa. While on the one hand Narvekar is cautious about the process of gentrification due to the migration of certain elites, and indeed warns about its ramifications for Goan society; on the other, Vivek Menezes urges us to see beyond the obvious problems and celebrates it as the basis for its bright future. He suggests that all this gloom and doom will go away as Goa’s innate cosmopolitanism would blur these distinctions of outsider/insider and create a new Goa, and a new idea of India, based on the speech that Amitav Ghosh made in 2011 (in this context, see also this). But the very fact that Goans – largely the working class and minoritized Catholics – leave Goa with a Portuguese passport, while the rich of the world make the proverbial hay when the Goan sun is shining, should itself make us realize that something is not quite right with the way things are operating in Goa.

Vivek Menezes is not the first person to make such an argument and as such one needs to refer back to similar arguments made in the national press over the last few years. Another article, by Namrata Joshi and published also in Outlook in 2012, clearly suggests that there is hope for Goa due  its “[v]ibrant cultural calendar dotted with film fests, litfests, fashion shows and musical events [as well as] [r]enowned artistes, authors and intellectuals setting up base in Goa”.

An article in Times Crest, also published in 2012 , asked “[w]hy are so many writers, artists, photographers and culturewallahs moving to Goa?”,  and had a similar explanation adding that such professionals “have bought houses in Goa and started to spend all their time, or several months of the year, there. Drawn as much by the beauty, openness, and quiet surroundings as by its affordability – though that is fast changing…” It is no secret that many of these ‘culturewallahs’ have invested heavily in ‘Portuguese houses’, in other words in prime and costly Goan real estate.

Such arguments make the case that big-time artists, writers, musicians, and academics making Goa their home is something that needs to be actively accepted and encouraged. And yet, Narvekar points to the flip side of this imagination, indicating that another “essential forerunner to the formation of a gentrified state is the sudden mushrooming of art events. There are art schools, galleries and art event spaces springing up all over the state. But unfortunately, most of the attendees are not the average Goan youth, but young, affluent, alternative migrants. The former can hardly afford the Rs. 300 cocktails or the Rs. 400 mains served at these joints”.


So the question that needs to be posed is whether this in-migration of albeit skilled elite is really bringing any substantial benefits to Goa and Goans? Or is it just another case of gentrification where Goan land is nothing but real estate, and owning an old, so-called Portuguese house merely a status symbol for the global and globalized elites? After all, as the Times Crest article informed in 2012, “having a Goa address is increasingly been perceived as a chic way of saying one has arrived, both professionally and personally”. The whole idea of celebrating such ‘outsiders’, as Vivek Menezes proposes, hides the fact that this celebration is selective; it privileges the already privileged. The ‘outsiders’ who clean the roads of Goa, those who are engaged in construction activities, the labour class basically do not necessarily figure in this narrative of accepting the ‘outsiders’.

In the past, I had argued for the investment in intellectual pursuits so that we would better understand the past and present of Goans and Goa. It was a plea to forge networks so that Goans across the social and economic spectrum would be able to intellectually engage with Goa, and Goan history and culture in a systematic manner. Being skeptical about positive effects of global and economic elites from across the world and India setting up their base in Goa is not necessarily at variance with this earlier suggestion. While it is important to think more closely on who is an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’, it is also important to be aware of the consequences of constructing and re-thinking identities, especially the consequences on the marginalized – ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. The ‘insider’/‘outsider’ argument cannot reproduce newer discriminations that mirror the old feudal ways of living and being. A truly cosmopolitan and democratic culture cannot exclude on the basis of castes, classes, and gender. The fear is that a gentrified (or a gentrifying) Goa would perhaps not permit this to happen.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 1 April, 2015)

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