Tuesday, 25 October 2016

COLONY LOST?



An article in The Guardian recently claimed “artists” and “hipsters” to be the new agents that drive the process of gentrification. Though the article was about the current situation in Britain, similarities could be drawn with Goa’s own fraught tourism-led development. According to the article, artists and hipsters “are the neoliberal state’s troops”. Artists first move into certain areas that seem to have decayed or have not developed, and “sow the seeds of cultural capital. ... Both artists and (some) of the hipsters – the ones who haven’t ‘settled’ yet – will move on, exploring, breaking away (again), developing new potential sites for capital investment. And so the cycle of gentrification starts all over”.

The Goan parallels with the quote above may not be obvious on first reading. Goa’s unchecked development of the tourism and real-estate industry started with Goa being exposed to the neoliberal economic setup of India. What has this to do with the influx of artists and hipsters in Goa? The idea of Goa as a ‘touristic heaven’ or a ‘pleasure periphery’ was constructed on a Goan landscape that was populated by agrarian villages, making the acquisition of  real-estate, in due course of time, elite status symbols coveted by the artists, writers, and the upwardly mobile professionals from Indian metros – or the catch-all desi misnomer, “culturewallahs”. The neoliberal economic setup and the easy mobility afforded by the Indian nation-state led to the large scale gentrification of sea-side villages that we are witnessing today – a process either exemplified by the rise of ‘mega projects’ or the emergence of ‘Portuguese houses’ as markers of chic and luxurious lifestyle.

Another parallel is how people who drive this gentrification in Goa can leave anytime for better pastures. Very often the “culturewallahs” who move to Goa claim that their commitment to Goa and its people is much deeper than a sudden decision to shift to Goa. It is not simply an investment in Goan real estate. However, a recent assertion by Deepti Kapoor, who had moved to Goa but has now decided to go elsewhere due to the deteriorating situation here, testifies to the skin-deep character of this commitment. It also reveals the disaster that gentrification is, for Goans, who unfortunately have to live in the mess that such a development leaves behind. What does Goa get out of this? Art? And what is the relevance of such art?

To say that the affluent global and Indian elites can move to Goa due to the financial resources available to them is only half the story. This is why we need to dwell on the notion of ‘colony’ in relation to gentrification. Like the colonies established during the height of European imperialism, the ‘colonies’ established by the real-estate industry have an element of exclusivity to them. One’s social location determines who gets access into these ‘colonies’. To think of gentrification as a process by which ‘colonies’ get established allows us to see that rather than being harbingers of modernization and progress – or of art or culture – they are, in fact, a recapitulation of South Asia’s age-old and timeless hierarchies. 

It is the emergence of such ‘colonies’ that defines the ‘brand value’ of Goa in recent times. These gentrified places, while a good economic investment, also simultaneously become a refuge for the rich…a utopia tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the world. Thus, while these places are physically enclosed by way of allowing access only to a privileged few, they are also cut-off from the social and political realities of the world. Only when these utopian places are threatened for any kind of reason – then one sees a remarkable outrage that gets blown out of proportion.
 
Pic: Vishvesh Kandolkar
Consider the recent case of the unfortunate murder of a perfume-maker who had made Goa her home. Her death was mourned by a huge outrage. The critique that the same attention was not paid to another murder which happened on the same day is insufficient. The reason why one person’s murder was discussed down to its last detail and the other was almost ignored was also due to the fact that the other murder occurred in a nondescript ‘vaddo’. To be fair, most of the gentrified neighborhoods that have emerged in Goan villages have been constructed in various ‘vadde’, but the gentrification makes all the difference. Compared to the genteel location of the murder of the Goa-based perfumer, the nondescript ‘vaddo’ in a Goan village is insignificant.

Juxtaposing the social and physical locations of the two murders allows us to see that the comments by numerous glitterati and literati to declare categorically that the crime against the perfumer signaled the demise of the once great Goa, is nothing but a fear of losing privilege. It is not an outrage marked by concern for Goa. For the same people couldn’t care any less when large chunks of Goan land were (and are) grabbed from ordinary, hard-working Goans. Considering that most of the land grabbed from Goans goes largely to build resorts, second-homes, and ‘colonies’ made available for the disposable pleasure of the same elites, one can understand why there isn’t any outrage.

Gentrification thus is a process by which localities get taken over by the rich, simultaneously pushing out the locals. It is also a process by which the locals are slowly rendered powerless. Goa’s problem with gentrification does not need any outrage or lamentations of demise, but to recognize first that the problem exists, and what and who engendered it. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 26 October, 2016)

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