Wednesday, December 5, 2018


Six months after the shocking revelation came to light that fish imported into Goa is preserved in the carcinogenic formalin, the issue is nowhere close to a solution. Recently, health minister Vishwajit Rane announced that the ban on imports will be in place for six months, except for those traders who comply with health and quality regulations. This apparently unstoppable poisoning (or adulteration) not only brings the governmental authorities under the scanner for being unable to stop such malpractices, but also highlights the manner in which the fishing industry operates in most parts of coastal India. It is important to discuss the labor practices and potential policy decisions that would address allied issues, including the issue of formalin.

It appears that all the coastal regions of peninsular India are linked in the manner in which the fishing industry operates. All the states in peninsular India are export-oriented: the best catch goes to the metropolitan markets of Bombay and Delhi. The labor for most of the mechanized fishing on the west coast, such as that in Goa and Maharashtra, comes from the east coast: from Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, as well as Bihar. The first reports of tainted fish were discovered in Kerala, linked to fish imported from Andhra Pradesh. Hence it is not surprising that the issue in one place has snowballed into a crisis for other regions. Soon after formalin-laced fish was detected in Kerala, other states, including Goa, Assam, and Meghalaya were on alert. Short periods of import bans, coupled with damage-control exercises by the fish traders associations of Andhra Pradesh, were followed by normalization of business.

But the issue did not die; at least not in Goa with illegalities coming to light every other week since June 2018. Last month, fish traders from the neighboring district of Sindhudurg in Maharashtra were up in arms alleging that local politics in Goa was impeding their exports, and they were facing harassment at the Goan border despite following all the rules and regulations of the Goa Government. Karnataka is also threatening to halt mutual exports and imports from and to Goa if fish from its coastal regions is not allowed to be imported into Goa. The peninsular states seem to be dependent on each other for labor and export markets.

The mechanized and labor intensive nature of the industry, largely through trawl and purse seine fishing, requires that a large chunk of the fish be exported. The economics of the fishing industry suggests that local production for local consumption, or self-sufficiency, is not possible – not in Goa or anywhere else in peninsular India. The quantity of industrially-produced fish is either too much for local consumption, or certain types of fish are not part of local diets. Hence, despite banning imports from other states, Goa’s fishing industry depends on exports. This is the reason why Karnataka and Maharashtra get affected with a fish import ban in Goa. This is also why calls for banning export of Goan fish or threats to stop exports completely cause considerable worry to Goan fish traders.

Apart from the macroeconomic setup, most of the fishing industry is sustained by, as mentioned earlier, poor migrant labor who are mostly men away from their families and who work in extremely difficult and unhygienic conditions. They do not have benefits like health insurance and are informally contracted to work, without much options in case of conflicts with their employers. After the catch is brought ashore, it is transported to various destinations near and far. The drivers and the laborers are the ones who have to deal with the police checkpoints and the ire of the locals if any illegalities, such as in the formalin case, are detected.

Next are the distribution networks through the wholesale and local markets, including door-to-door delivery. In Goa, these wholesale and local markets, in addition to providing employment to local men and women, also once again employ a lot of poor migrant labor. Unregulated markets, along with cheaper imported fish means that local fish vendors inside the markets have to compete with those, generally migrant, vendors outside creating its own set of problems due to an export-oriented industry. We see hundreds of women in local markets and along the roads who sell fish throughout the day whether it rains or the scorching sun beat down on them. In every town and village there is an absence of proper market infrastructure. Add to this is the uncertainty of earning one’s daily wages when the government is unable to regulate illegalities in the industry, and when the big bosses of the industry are not committed to providing proper working conditions to those that service the fishing industry. This is similar to what happens in other profit-driven, high volume industries like real estate: the labor of the poor is appropriated while the laborer is dispensed with. Who will fix all of this and not just the poisoned fish that we are forced to consume?

What is happening with the formalin issue is not just a tragedy for those who are economically dependent on the fish industry, along with those who consume fish daily, but also an environmental disaster in the making. Much of the trawl and purse seine fishing, in addition to the destruction of marine ecology by the mining and tourism industry, is depleting the stocks of fish at alarming rates. This is the right time to integrate worker rights and environmental concerns with debates over our health so that future governmental policies and regulations will be drafted with an eye not only on people’s health and worker rights, but also to safeguard the environment.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 5 December, 2018)

Thursday, November 8, 2018


The political developments in the last 30 days may have surely given Goans a sense of déjà vu. With BJP’s Laxmikant Parsekar appearing to revolt, and two Congress MLAs joining the BJP, Goans may have remembered the decades of political instability from the 1970s. The logical question to ask, therefore, is why has Goa witnessed such fragile political regimes? Is there something deeper than merely opportunism and avarice in Goan politics?

If one looks at the earliest elections held in Goa under Indian rule, primordial ties of caste and sub-castes determined the outcomes of elections. They still do, of course. Religion played a part too in the propaganda, but underlying the religious propaganda were the intricate tentacles of caste and sub-caste alliances. Goa’s first chief minister, Dayanand Bandodkar and his MGP came to power by routing a largely Saraswat caste-led Indian National Congress. While the defeat was humiliating for the Congress, for Bandodkar and his MGP, the victory heralded a new configuration of political power and reforms. Bandodkar’s regime was made up of a conglomeration of bahujan castes positioned against upper caste interests, which in due course of time, as Goa University’s Parag Porobo writes in India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015), started disintegrating as the alliance partners, sub-castes within a larger bahujan class, vied for power with each other.

The manner in which Bandodkar’s MGP fragmented due to internal schisms and how politics was structured post-Bandodkar teaches us a thing or two about Goan politics. Recent events suggest that the age-old pattern of fragile political alliances is firmly in place. One can suggest that the fragmented nature of the society allows dominant caste groups to form strategic alliances with one or two of these bahujan sub-castes, in the absence of a consolidated bahujan class. ‘Catholics’ and ‘Muslims’ can also work in a similar way in certain circumstances. For a small state like Goa, within the Indian electoral system of simple majorities, this caste and sub-caste alliances mean that governments can be toppled with one or two ‘rebel’ MLAs.

The rot goes deeper as the social, economic, and political power is concentrated in the hands of a few. Those who already have money and social privilege have been the most successful in capturing political power and also concentrating it in the hands of their coteries. After all, even Bandodkar could mobilize such support because he had the means to; he was an established businessman in the mining sector. Essentially, if we are to understand the role economic capital, or money, plays in elections one should not simply think of it as “greed” but the ability of various groups to pool their resources together.

While Bandodkar’s regime was the only one that can be considered to push for social justice by extending land and education rights to sections of society that were hitherto denied these, successive government seem to be undoing these reforms. There is no need to look any further than the politicking over the Medium of Instruction controversy and the massive land grabs in recent times. Arguably, such a political and social setup does little to bring about positive change. The voters have to depend on a strong leader, i.e. an autocrat-like ruler, largely to ensure that they get government jobs and their “work” gets done. The voters here are not equal citizens, whose right it is to enjoy the benefits of democracy, but they are clients to, and supplicants before, the leader who is the patron.

Wasn’t it a short time ago, February 2017 to be precise, that the office of the Election Commission, through its Chief Electoral Officer, launched a media campaign encouraging the citizens of Goa to vote in large numbers? Given how the current BJP government was formed and the current chaos, the campaign by the election commission, in hindsight, appears to be a cruel joke on the people of Goa. One could argue that the brief of the Election Commission does not go beyond ensuring free and fair elections. But who is to be held responsible for the chaos and uncertainty into which Goa descends after the elections? While elections appear to be a good start towards the control of our own destiny, the unaccountability and shameless backtracking from campaign promises would suggest otherwise. Moreover, short-term and strategic political alliances – all beneficial to the political class and their small coterie of supporters – give us cause to believe that our votes in reality are not valuable at all.

I do not want to suggest that all is lost. As O Heraldo columnist Amita Kanekar suggested a while ago, fragile alliances, leading to fragile governments, are actually useful in stopping the complete annihilation of the Goan people and landscape that the ruling establishment seems currently bent on. One could agree or disagree on the usefulness of fragile alliances for safeguarding Goa. The reasons for such alliances emerging are complex, fragmented social condition being the chief amongst them. At the end of the day, most people in Goa feel cheated with the political situation and the succeeding generations will bear the cost of damages created by the recent governments.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 7 November, 2018)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


Exactly one month ago, the whole world watched shocking images of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil engulfed in flames. The destruction of the fire was so severe that most of the museum’s rare and precious collections of fossils, natural specimens, audio documentation, and archives were destroyed. The most devastating image that brought home the severity of the fire was the aerial photo of the hollowed out building, the majestic former Paço de São Cristóvão, the erstwhile residence of the Portuguese royal family. For Brazilians reeling under a series of political and economic crises, the fire was symbolic of all that is wrong with the present government.

Tragedies like these are not new and usually happen because of poor care. However, in our technologically-advanced times, there exists know-how to prevent them. Keeping aside the importance of good infrastructure, such tragedies occur also because there is a neglect of these resources by cultural and educational institutions. One could think of lack of facilities for research, or the general apathy towards research, even in universities, as contributing to the neglect.What does apathy do? It takes away from us our ability to seriously understand our history and culture, forcing us to rely instead on myth and casual opinion. Think of it in these terms: if one has to claim ownership to a property, one must have proper (documentary) proof. Without which it is seen as simply a baseless claim. Likewise with the history of a people. It is the institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums along with monumental heritage that preserve this proof of our history and allow us, in the present, to devote time and energy to the understanding of the factors and forces that have exerted the pressures and the pulls to create our culture and society.

Take the case of Goa. Most Goans will assert that Goa has a rich history and culture. But how many of us are aware of Goan history beyond the touristy narrative of Goa as a paradise? To pose this question in another way: was Goa always a paradise or did someone, at a particular point in time, suggest that it was? We can answer these and other questions only if students and researchers have easy access to the materials contained in our cultural institutions.

Recognizing the importance of having easy access to archival, cultural, and artefactual material forces us to talk about the virtues of digitization. Goa is sadly lacking in this regard. Access to this material in digital form and through the internet is not available. The global trend, nowadays, is for established and well-known libraries and museums to make many of their collections freely available to the public – researchers or anybody else. As an illustration that would resonate with the general Goan public, the Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino (AHU) in Portugal recently digitized and made freely available a large cache of old photos of Goa of the 1950s/60s taken by Mr. Percival Noronha.

The photographs freeze a moment in time; we get a glimpse of how things looked back then. It gives a glimpse of the past that is immediately relatable because the likeness is not like that of a sketch or painting. Just like a photograph can give a glimpse of the past, written/printed documents too can be similarly useful, though one has to spend countless hours reading and, in some cases, deciphering these documents. And precisely, for this reason, one needs to have easy access to such material. The point is that the lay public and the researcher alike benefits with an ease of access to these resources. What one does with this material depends on, as stated earlier, the educational opportunities available. This also can open up exciting new ways to teach students about history, culture, and politics, not just in schools but also in higher education. Suppose Mr. Noronha had not donated his collection to AHU? Suppose, despite the donation, AHU had not digitized and given free access to the collection?

One can also view ease of access in the digital form as part of a larger practice of furthering (or in some cases starting from scratch) practices of transparent governance. When cultural institutions of public importance open themselves up to the general public, one could argue that it fosters a culture of public participation in the debates and operation of society at large. This could be true for governmental institutions as well, as now a culture of access to valuable information regarding policies and laws will be encoded in the administrative practices. It is true that the Right to Information law addresses this issue to a certain extent; but the governmental bodies do not seem to be very forthcoming. Perhaps because, in India, we have only recently started demanding ease of access to information.

More specifically, and perhaps a bit personally, it is important for researchers to have digital access as not all researchers are able to access libraries, archives and such, because traveling to these institutions requires money and time. Many researchers also find it difficult to travel and do research at the same time; the time that one spends in procuring visas and/or traveling to reach these institutions can be saved if these resources are available in digital form.

The case in Rio de Janeiro is a wake-up call for us. Seeing historical and cultural heritage as belonging, and therefore accessible, to the general public is important for a vibrant and diverse democracy. 

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2018


Pratapsingh Rane’s assertion that Goans abroad are doing no better than cleaning toilets, in the Goa State Legislative Assembly in the context of the resumption of mining activity, has received a lot of flak. Many Goans – via video blogs – said that there is no shame in doing any job so long as one brings an honest wage back home. As the anger over Rane’s comment have cooled down, it would be more apt, as I have highlighted in previous columns, to focus on employments opportunities, working conditions and labour justice as issues that Goan society needs to discuss and address.

To be fair, Rane is not the first to make such a statement. Indeed, it is quite common to hear Goans referring to migrating Goans as ‘toilet cleaners’. Why, it is quite possible that any one of the many readers of this article might have made similar comments. The fact that the people in Goa have been so casually calling migrating Goans as toilet cleaners is extremely shameful, and urgently calls for a change in our collective mental attitude.

This doesn’t mean that Rane can be excused; he is an elected representative of the people of Goa and he cannot be spewing casteist venom on the people originating from the very state that he is an MLA. We can understand that his comments emerge from an identity and location in which feudal privileges have ossified over centuries. In any case, it is quite educational to ask why such a comment is demeaning. What is so fundamentally wrong in cleaning toilets that makes it apparently shameful, that mentioning it is an insult?

Everything, if one hails from South Asia. In South Asia, the dirtiest jobs are forced upon the lowest of the low who are forced to clean the filth created by others, often without any protective gear. Thus, a horror like manual scavenging is routine and normal for most in South Asia, particularly in India. There are communities that are condemned to do this job because they are forced to accept it as their way of life and their dharma. It is precisely because such practices are so widespread and entrenched in the social life of India that one finds one of the most horrible attitudes towards waste and its disposal. One would be lucky, in the subcontinent, to find a clean public toilet; one would be even luckier if one could find no garbage rotting alongside the roads and street corners. Because in the end it is not the duty, or dharma, of members of dominant castes to keep public spaces clean – someone else will be forced to do it. Thus, what is the difference between cleaning toilets or disposing garbage in India and elsewhere?

It is, again, everything. Or even if the difference is slight – for cleaning occupations are not necessarily high paying ones – it could still mean that the shame and humiliation are not as severe as in India. The cultural attitude that demeans people, condemns them to a life of slavery, and creates an insult out of what – as a society – we should have considered as valuable service is not necessarily one that blue collar workers have to suffer abroad. This is why a number of Goans could retort, “Look Mr. Politician, we do not feel demeaned for doing this work and we can provide for our family with dignity”.

Enjoying dignified working conditions abroad doesn’t mean that things get more hunky dory back home; it doesn’t mean that in our own backyards we do not participate and perpetuate the same casteist culture that Rane articulated. Other professions that are elevated as eminently Goan ones – that are iconic of Goemkarponn – such as fishing and agriculture have also been sneered at in public. The reasons are plain to see: these jobs are performed by those on the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy.

With the tourism and real estate boom, Goa has witnessed a huge influx of migrant labor. Often coming from poor regions and deprived backgrounds, these persons are exploited for their labor. In the absence of any proper regulation of labor relations these people often have the worst of working conditions – in fact, the lack of protective gear makes these jobs extremely dangerous. The denial of any dignity to the work that they do, and to their person, further adds to the problem. It is remarkable that a government that claims to tackle the problem of unemployment does so by making policies/legislations that remove roadblocks in capitalist investment, but never make any laws that protect the rights and dignity of the workers.

In this sense, our attitudes towards certain jobs are related to larger concerns of our society because the real issue that affects all is about proper wages and dignified working conditions. If one turns this formulation on its head, Goa is witnessing large scale migration, pathetic working conditions, and dysfunctional public spaces/utilities (including public toilets), it is because as a society we have not jettisoned these utterly demeaning and undignified attitudes towards persons whose labor makes our society possible. Yes, there are no good jobs in Goa. Which also means that there is an absence of good working conditions in Goa. Hence, one can understand the desperation which causes Goans to migrate abroad, and also the desperation which causes others to migrate to Goa.

The outrage over Rane’s comment is welcome, but its usefulness and the terms in which it is being posed is a matter of debate. Rather what we do with this outrage will make all the difference between our present condition and a better future, between casteist practices and decent work with a fair wage. Otherwise demeaning and humiliating attitudes will continue to proliferate. Sadly they are a way of life in India.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 5 September, 2018)