Wednesday, February 14, 2018

IDLE TRUCKS, STRIKING TAXIS, AND A BROKEN SYSTEM



The recent ban by the Supreme Court of India on mining activities in Goa for a second time reminds us of the plight faced by those dependent on the mining industry. But the court order also brings to mind other Goans stuck in a similar situation of facing economic uncertainty and the consequences of large-scale illegalities. For instance, it is, I think, useful to compare the mining industry and the tourism industry as both have been touted as the ‘backbone’ of Goan economy, and both these industries witness conflicts and illegalities in equal measure.

When the Supreme Court banned mining activities for the first time in 2012, it is estimated that there were about 25,000 trucks servicing that industry. The case of the mining truckers provides the best illustration of how harmful excessive ‘development’ can be to the people of Goa. When the mining boom happened a few years before the first ban, and countries like China were in desperate need for iron ore, the mining companies in Goa began to expand uncontrollably. However, they did this by shifting a good amount of the liability onto the people of Goa. Thus, the people in the mining areas were incentivized to invest in trucks and other mining equipment with the idea that the millions of dollars made in profits would trickle down to the truckers. This was how the mining industry “share[d] the spoils” of an ecologically-damaging and short-term, profit-driven industry.

Those familiar with the mining-affected areas would be able to confirm that the windfall of profits that trickled down to the persons who had invested in trucks and machinery created a profligacy of sorts. The sudden surge in income led to extravagant spending; suddenly SUVs were seen zooming on the roads of these areas along with the trucks. However, the sudden crash in the industry exposed how shaky this new prosperity was; loans could not be honored and the luxury products had to be sold at a price far lower than in normal circumstances. This was an artificial prosperity created by and for the benefit of private mining firms.

The crash also brought with it a human tragedy. At least in the Quepem-Sanvordem-Curchorem-Sanguem belt that I am personally familiar with, one witnessed families breaking up, deaths due to alcoholism, and suicides due to the mental pressure (which have not been reported properly). With the trucks sitting idle and no place to sell them off to, the mounting debt left the people vulnerable to exploitation. Some of the trucks were contracted for garbage collection to a Bangalore-based company. While the payments were diligently made for the first few months for the contracted trucks, it soon stopped, aggravating the situation further.

Cut to the taxistas, and one realizes that the issue – and perhaps, scale – is similar. In the aftermath of the strike by the taxistas in January, it was estimated that nearly 20,000 cabs had gone off the Goan roads. The demand for more taxis comes on the heel of successive governments increasing the tourist footfalls in Goa – beyond the carrying capacity of the resources available in Goa. Thus, one can argue that the reason so many taxis are required is because the tourism industry has grown at a rate that is not feasible for the economic betterment of the Goan people.

Just like in the mining sector, the people were encouraged to invest in cabs – the liabilities, of course, are those of the individual owners. While the ‘development’ of the mining sector was for the people in the hinterlands of Goa, that done through the tourism industry seems to be for the people on the coast. In both these cases, the population was, by and large, either traditionally from the working classes or engaged in agriculture. Many of the people who had invested in the trucks during the mining boom and others who are now servicing the tourism industry by operating taxis hail from mundkar/tenant backgrounds. Often times, the taxis were paid for by the land developer in return for forfeiting the tenancy rights. In other words, in the recent decades of Goa’s much touted ‘development’, these individuals and their families have had no access to decent employment. With artificially booming industries suddenly collapsing – as happens in a neoliberal economic setup – these individuals and groups are further marginalized with nowhere else to go. Like the mining truckers in the event of the crash, one has to suffer in silence should the economy crash.

In this sense, one can think of the resistance of the taxistas to the various policies of the tourism sector and the government as ways to ensure that the plight of the mining truckers does not become their own. To be honest, in their own flawed way, members of the tourist taxi associations have been demanding a fair system in response to allegations of fleecing, for some time now. They have also alleged that the hotels over-charge and claimed it not fair that only the taxistas be singled out as fleecers.

None of this is to argue that the taxistas don’t engage in reckless driving;  some do, and so do a greater number of GA-registered private cars along with two-wheelers and the non-Goa-registered private cars of tourists (AP, MH, KA and so on). In the current scenario, reckless and dangerous driving seems to be the only recognizable fault. The point is that like the mining truckers, the taxistas are also part of a system that is not only working against the interests of these groups, but against the interest of all the people of Goa.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 14 February, 2018)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

THE ‘MOTHERS’ OF GOA



Every few months the issue of identity emerges in Goa, and vociferous debates and discussions undoubtedly follow. One can observe a certain tendency wherein political issues are reduced to issues of Goan identity. This is done by emotionally appealing to the masses that their existence solely depends on protecting an abstract idea – the Goan identity. This abstract and loosely-defined idea assumes different forms around events, symbols, and objects as the political and ruling classes see fit. One way in which these emotional appeals are made is through the idea of ‘mother’.

In the last couple of months, one such issue where ‘mother’ was invoked was the diversion of the waters of river Mhadei. In these debates, one of the statements claimed that the river Mhadei is the “mother” of Goans. The logic, one presumes, is that the Mhadei river forms a crucial, life-giving link for Goans. Without the river feeding its waters to the Mandovi in Goa, it was argued, there would be no Goans, and Goa will turn into a parched desert. As such, Goans need to band together to halt the developmental plans of Karnataka. Although it is true that the river might undergo drastic changes – or even disappear – if the waters are diverted away in other parts of Karnataka, the logic of the opposition discourse elevates the physical existence of the river to an abstract idea. The point is that those who are trying to mobilize Goans against the proposed plans on the Mhadei are using an emotional appeal to drum up populist support, rather than ensuring that the legal, technical, and environmental arguments are strengthened and due process followed.

This is not the first time that politics in Goa has been defined through the metaphor of ‘motherhood’. The debates surrounding the Konkani language and Goan identity are the best examples of how political discourses in Goa are couched in terms of ‘motherhood’. From the ’60s one witnessed an emerging view that Konkani was Goa’s sole language. In these terms, the relationship of Goans to the Konkani language was projected to be one that a mother and child shared. To not protect (and therefore not be loyal to) one’s mother was a betrayal of Goan identity. At this point one needs to pause and ask: which communities have benefitted from this kind of politics? Has the politics of ‘identity through motherhood’ enriched the political discourse in Goa? Arguably, not. One can observe that no proper resolution of Goa’s identity issues has ever come about in the last 50-odd years. On the contrary, one witnesses ever more contestations regarding Goan identity.

The identity politics surrounding the ‘Konkani mai’ or ‘mai bhas’ – the Konkani mother – benefitted only a few. The votaries of Romi Concanim have been left out in the cold, as the Official Language Act of 1987 only recognized Konkani in the Nagri script as official. This is not to argue that the language politics has turned out what it is today only because Konkani was elevated to the status of a ‘mother’. However, it can be observed that casting Konkani in a singular notion of ‘mother’ to Goans led to the exclusion of the other languages of Goa.

And this probably is the problem with identity politics that has a narrow focus on one particular event, symbol, and object while excluding other similar objects, events, and symbols. It is through this kind of politics that one section of the Goan people is pitted against another. If some years back political parties and cultural institutions claimed that Konkani was the defining element of Goa’s identity, in more recent times the people of Goa are being rallied around such symbols like the coconut tree, the coconut, and now even a river.

A couple of years ago, Kaustubh Naik, a research scholar, called for an “unburdening” of Goa’s language politics from the notion of ‘motherhood’  precisely because of the current exclusive nature of the language politics in Goa. With the political discourse around the Mhadei issue being framed in terms of ‘motherhood’, one wonders if certain patterns of such politics will also repeat as they did in the Konkani movement. For one, we can think about how the masses will be emotionally rallied, while the rights of many communities that directly depend on the river for sustenance will be systematically compromised. One is not clear why the Mhadei issue is tethered to Goan identity. Why it isn’t simply an issue of the right to water of the people of Goa and Karnataka? Or an ecological issue wherein diverting the courses of rivers can have drastic impact on the environment and therefore on the present and future generations of people?

The pattern of identity politics in Goa’s recent history in fact indicates that the mobilization of the masses for the purpose of safeguarding identity – often by the political and dominant classes – does not transform into a concrete action for securing rights of non-dominant communities. In this conceptualization of the ‘mother’ the issues of life and livelihood are divorced from the political discourse.

What is worse is that in this manner the masses of Goa are lead from one identity crisis to another. The actual problems are not addressed and the social, economic, and cultural realities of many sections of the Goan population are erased or elided. We must, therefore, be on our guard against such tendencies of misusing identity politics.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 31 January, 2018)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

BHIMA KOREGAON AND LESSONS FOR GOAN HISTORY



The commemoration of the East India Company’s victory against the Peshwas at Bhima Koregaon, and the subsequent violence that was witnessed, provides some pointers to understand Goan history. In recent times, those lakhs of Dalits who congregate at Bhima Koregaon to pay their respects to the fallen warriors have been termed as “anti-nationals” by the Hindu right. The ostensible logic of the Hindu right is that commemorations such as those at Bhima Koregaon signify the celebration of ‘foreign’ victory over ‘Indian’ forces. We are thus presented with a history that appears to contain a clear divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The ‘us’ here is a unified political and cultural community called India, and the ‘them’ being the foreign rulers who did not have their origins in India.

But such logic is not just endemic within the thinking of the right. Even secular liberal nationalism has successfully attempted to project a clear us-and-them divide in the subcontinent’s past. New research in history is increasingly demonstrating that this is not the case. Indeed, the past witnessed myriad and complex forms of power struggles that do not fit into the simple ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary. The commonly known and freely circulating facts about Goan history are a good place to start understanding these complex power struggles.

It is well-known that Portuguese sovereignty, which started in 1510 could not have been successful without the help of native elites. While the campaign of Afonso de Albuquerque is etched in the collective memory of Goans due to the inclusion in school textbooks, the fact that native elites like the trader Mhall Pai Vernekar and the naval commander Timoja who helped Albuquerque with intelligence and forces is not interpreted as collaborating with a foreign power. The issue here is not whether a power is foreign or not, but the manner in which nationalist history writing chooses to interpret certain facts. Thus, when elites join forces with foreign powers it is not regarded as aiding colonial power or imposing foreign domination. But the same nationalist history holds it against the subaltern sections if they align with foreign powers.

The truth is that everybody, at some point or the other, aligned with foreign powers in a complex hierarchy of political power. In fact, ‘foreignness’ wasn’t defined according to modern notions of nationality. However, it was always the elites who were the first to make alliances, and this is true of both India and Goa. Because the history of European rule in South Asia is also linked to colonial rule, the acknowledgment of this history of native or local collaboration becomes all the more urgent if one is not to be misled by naïve readings of history. In this context, we can turn to the writings of the historian Ângela Barreto Xavier, based at the University of Lisbon who has roots in Goa and also holds the J. H. da Cunha Rivara Chair for Visiting Professors at the Goa University. Xavier in her essay, “David contra Golias na Goa Seiscentista e Setecentista. Escrita Identitária e Colonização Interna,” (Ler História, no. 49, 2005) argues that the contestation of local elites – the Brahmins and the Chardos – within the political system of the Portuguese empire created “internal colonizers”.

Within the imperial Portuguese hierarchies, Xavier argues that the local elites competed with each other for entry into such prestigious occupations such as priesthood and military services in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The interesting bit about the local elites was that while they were subject to the Portuguese imperial hierarchy, their bid for power was also tempered by their internal caste differences, conversion to Christianity notwithstanding. The result was that both the Brahmins and Chardos constructed their identity in a particular way: on the one hand, arguing that they were best suited to govern the lands on behalf of the Portuguese Crown; and on the other, trying to defeat the caste interests of their rival group(s). Thus, Catholic Brahmins would write texts that would claim nobility for their lineage; in response, the Chardos wrote texts that countered this view of the Brahmins, making a case for their eligibility to rule the territory of Goa. Hindu Brahmins similarly took their sectarian differences to the Portuguese Crown, asking the king to restrict the power of the rival sects.

The power games of the elites and their successful bid for power in the Portuguese empire – whether through government and/or military employment, entry into the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or maintaining the control over temple management and property – created a group of people, already elites before the coming of the Portuguese, aiding the process of empire-building and colonization. Xavier suggests that such a political process resulted in the native elites increasingly claiming the place of the intermediary between the Portuguese Crown and officials and the subaltern peoples of Goa. 

Anjali Arondekar, another Goan scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, talks about how activists of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj in the nineteenth century mobilized themselves in order to liberate this beleaguered community from upper-caste oppression. One of the means that they used was to petition the Portuguese Governor to intervene and alleviate their plight.

Whether all these alliances by different sections of Goan society were successful or not is a story for another day. The commemoration/celebration today is largely linked to groups that are marginalized or oppressed in contemporary political setup. Hence, it is unwise to take a moral high ground in this regards, largely because it enables a misleading belief that there were stark differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the past. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 17 January, 2018)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

SUSEGAD GOANS AND EMPLOYMENT

The Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar’s comments on employment on the floor of the assembly during the 2017 winter session highlighted the serious issue of unemployment prevailing in Goa. Mr. Parrikar said that reserving 80% of the jobs for locals was a pre-condition for granting permissions to set up shop in Goa for various companies and industries.

For some months now, the issue of Goans being gainfully employed within Goa itself has been raised not only with a view to tackle unemployment, but to also safeguard Goan identity. This issue has been articulated by spokespersons of political parties, and ministers within the current government, as best tackled by reserving jobs for Goan youth, particularly in the private sector. There is a sense that the government can no longer be the chief locus of employment for Goan youth and hence the need for employment in private sectors. This would also expose young Goans to the highly competitive world of private corporations, as opposed to government employment that seemingly does not require high performance. In all these statements from various quarters, one cannot help but observe a subtle assumption running through: that there is a problem of unemployment in Goa because Goans do not want to work hard, or are not good enough.

Even if all these statements are well intentioned and the subtle assumption that Goans are not hard-working an unconscious one, it drives us to focus on the issue of the various stages leading to employment: education, training, and finally the entry into the job market. One needs to take a step back and think about training or the acquisition of skills through education in a broader sense. Education, in this regard, should not only prepare a young person for the existing job market, but should also open up an individual’s horizons to a wide range of opportunities beyond the services demanded by a neo-liberal economy – where the market is believed to regulate economic relations and the profit is earned by the corporations leaving the risks and loses for the government – as is the case with our current economic setup in India.

Time and again, it has been emphasized by many writers and commentators in Goa that the basic structure of education has serious flaws in it. The Medium of Instruction issue, whereby the preferred choice of language for a child’s education was not actively supported by successive governments, indicated that quality education – but most importantly, equal education – is not available to all members of Goan society. Rather than allowing English education that would help the poorer sections in getting jobs, the government wanted to saddle these very groups with the burden of ‘mother tongue’. In terms of higher education and the proposed plans for expanding its scope, the government wanted to promote technical education, rather than a holistic approach that promotes the sciences and humanities. This we saw in the manner in which a new IIT was proposed in Canacona in 2016, and the various arguments that were put forth for the setting up of such an institution.

When there is talk of reserving jobs for Goans or positively discriminating in favor of Goans, one should also think about how existing reservations for discriminated-against communities, i.e. caste-based reservations, in educational institutions – both in terms of seats for students and jobs for teachers – are scuttled on a regular basis in Goa. In terms of education/training leading eventually to jobs, such discriminatory practices in the universities contribute to the unemployment of members of these communities. So, the system creates disadvantages for certain students right at the beginning, during their education, and those who somehow overcome these hurdles are denied the jobs reserved for them, despite having the necessary qualifications. Perhaps there is an irony here considering the current debate. Young students are disadvantaged as far as their education is concerned, while one expects them to somehow possess skills that would prepare them for the job market.

The view expressed in the assembly and the press suggesting that Goans should consider settling for lesser pay and difficult working conditions (even as a way of gaining experience and exposure) means that there is an acknowledgement that poor salaries are also a problem along with unemployment. Even if jobs are reserved, the government’s policy does not deal with the fact that Goan youth need to be shielded from poor salaries. If such a step is ensured through policy and law, it would be against the neo-liberal setup and thus discourage investment in Goa. Even if jobs are assured, good working conditions are not.

One thing should be clear from the foregoing: reserving jobs for Goans is not enough if Goan identity is to be fostered. It needs to be ensured whether the steps taken by the government, in fact, promote the interests of Goans, and improve the living conditions inside Goa. If unemployment is to be tackled then one needs to take into consideration related areas such as education, which eventually has a bearing on identity as well.

Contrary to popular belief in sections of the media and the political establishment, Goans are seeking work and not sloth, as can be seen with Goans migrating in droves. Thus, there is no dearth of persons who are determined to do the hard work. In order to tackle unemployment as well the problems with Goan identity, decent working conditions must prevail in Goa. If the internal situation – be it political, economic, social, and infrastructural – is poor, then out-migration will always remain a better option.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 3 January, 2018)