Tuesday, November 5, 2019

MISPLACED PRIORITIES: PROFIT AT THE EXPENSE OF GOA


Of all the misplaced priorities of successive Goan governments, the most recent is the Vibrant Goa summit. The summit aimed to attract investment in the areas of pharma, tourism, IT, and real estate. Even a cursory glance at the industries that the Goan government is promoting should make the alarm bells ring. For it is precisely these industries and their unregulated promotion that causes economic, social, and cultural problems in Goa.

The problem with the government’s promotion of such business schemes lies in the non-recognition of the environmental cost on Goa and its people. Some weeks back, a tanker carrying the poisonous naphtha chemical, docked at the port in Vasco, drifted and ran aground in Dona Paula, posing a severe threat to the lives and livelihoods. We are still anxiously hoping that the poisonous chemical will not leak in the Goan waters, which are already polluted by MPT’s coal handling. The tanker drifted because the October retreating monsoons brought with it the cyclone Kyarr, causing much damage to life (in addition to trees and animals) and property.

The government’s response to disasters, whether man-made or natural, is inadequate. Governmental authorities do not display the initiative that one expects of their government to regulate and prevent disasters. It is not the first time that a ship has run aground. The infamous MV River Princess at Candolim and the barge hired for a wedding reception at Arossim have cause irreparable sand erosion at both these places. Cyclone Kyarr is not the first time that cyclonic winds have battered the coastline of Goa as well as caused floods. The government’s preparedness is almost nonexistent, which is to say that in times of crisis Goans can only depend on good fortune and the divine.

When the government is so inefficient to provide disaster management as well as the usual utilities like clean water (recall that Ilhas had no drinking water for 8-9 days in August and Ponda for even more this year) and regular electricity, it is beyond ridiculous that it promotes business and investment in Goa. How do you expect people to work if they do not have clean water to drink?

A note also on the Vibrant summits, the brainchild of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and a ‘Gujarat model of development’ is in order here. The claims of economic boost through the Vibrant Gujarat summit are at odds with the realities on ground. There is simply no accountability of the investment brought in by the thousands of MoUs signed in Gujarat. Compared to Goa’s 17 MoUs, Gujarat Vibrant summits have signed thousands of MoUs with business houses since its inception in 2003. The most recent assessment of the Vibrant Gujarat summit, with about 28,000 MoUs, confirms that it has not delivered on its lofty promises. And so, the question emerges: why does the government, assisted by the business community, engage in such shambolic ‘development’ and business practices?

The answer is startlingly simple: profit at any cost. By ‘profit,’ I do not only mean ‘greed’ of individuals but also a systemic problem wherein the social and political order rests on the extraction of natural resources by displacing the poor communities and an absence of fair redistribution of wealth. Demands for job creation or abysmal employment rates are then used as a smokescreen to promote businesses that do not care about worker rights and welfare. The government also does not display any seriousness in protecting worker rights. The result is an economic system that can collapse at any moment with catastrophic effects. Hence, it is a systemic problem that causes the most damage. Here’s how.

The government makes laws, such as those that create Special Economic Zones (SEZs) or Investment Promotion Boards, which give businesses incentives like tax breaks and a free hand to operate how they choose. Through its policies, such as trying to attract investment, the government abdicates its regulatory role—otherwise business houses refuse to participate in ‘boosting’ the economy. The government, as well as the business houses, circumvent the will and consent of the people on whose lands or in whose immediate vicinity these industries are established. Ignoring the irregularities, or rather actively promoting them, leads to massive losses to the exchequer. The exchequer also loses cash if the projects fail as the government, through a contractual binding, frees the business houses of all liabilities. In the case of the failed SEZs in Goa, the Goan government owes damages worth crores to the private business houses!

The systemic promotion of profit through law and policy is today, unfortunately, sustained by electoral democracy. Most people participate in the electoral democracy for basic amenities such as water, electricity, roads, and job security. But the result is opposite: both the government and business houses fail to deliver a stable economic system. Hence, the blame that individual voters are responsible for voting for the wrong guy by taking bribes, even if it is the case, does not explain the cause of my present situation. The vote of the honest voter also results in a systemic failure. Every government in power does the same thing, without fail.

Thus, we need to change our thinking about profit and economic growth. Stock market statistics are not a sign of progress and prosperity. As long as businesses demand unfair incentives, and as long as the government (party affiliation notwithstanding) humors such demands, the economic and social ills will continue unabated. Both the government and business houses must think of a ‘slower economy of life,’ meaning not a slow down of economic progress but a stable system that offers redistributive justice.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 November, 2019)

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

IDENTITY AND BELONGING IN INDIA


As it happens now and then, papers published in reputed scientific journals receive media attention because the findings impact politics. Last month, two papers published in Cell and Science reopened debates about the origins of Indian civilization and consequently the cultural identity and belonging of contemporary Indians. The bone of contention was the ‘Aryan migration’ theory. In other words, the debate was whether Indian culture was indigenous or a result of foreign influence thousands of years ago. Surprisingly, while the written, peer-reviewed papers did not dispute the said migration theory, two of the authors, in a press conference, claimed otherwise. As embarrassing as the contradictory statements were for the professional reputation of the scholars, the incident also suggests the misuse of history and archaeology for political gains.

That India’s history is being misused for political gains is a concern that is as old as the nation—which is to say, about 70 years. Scholars, public intellectuals, and lay citizens worry that communal readings of history may compromise the secular credentials of the Indian nation-state. For these intellectuals committed to secularism-as-religious-equality, the idea of belonging—that is, what makes one person ‘Indian’ in relation to other Indians—rests on fealty to a multicultural past. Even if it is true that the history of the subcontinent witnessed prolonged episodes of multicultural tolerance, the linking of this diversified history by scholars and pubic intellectuals to the present-day Indian nation-state may be hasty. While it may be true that ancient and pre-colonial history of India witnessed episodes of great cultural efflorescence in addition to tolerance, it is also equally valid that this history was marked by violence of various sorts.

That is why the present-day Indian nation-state, or, the Union of India, to use the technical term, was a political project aimed at extending civil liberties without the hindrances of religion, caste, class, creed, and ethnicity. Thus, the Constitution of India emerging out of an experience of anti-colonial struggles took its inspiration from models of western liberal democracies. The idea, then, was not to go back to an ancient and glorious past but to rectify centuries of injustice suffered by the marginalized through colonialism, caste, creed, and gender.

Many scholars forget the recentness of the democratic project in India when they suggest that the proper way to understand contemporary belonging in India depends on an accurate understanding of ancient history. In the last five years scholars such as Jonathan Gill Harris (The First Firangis, 2015) and Audrey Truschke (Aurangzeb, 2017), and writers like Manu Pillai (Rebel Sultans, 2018) and Siddhartha Sarma (Carpenters and Kings, 2019) write, in elegant and accessible prose, that pre-colonial India which contained persons of different identities and belonging did not depend on narrow religious or sectarian conceptions like today. The lesson, therefore, is that contemporary India should emulate pre-colonial India. These writers are partly right, and the lessons they teach have value.

One of the key ways in which many recent authors talk about belonging is through the figure of the migrant. It may be the European migrant ‘who became Indian’ in Harris’ work or the Persian or Central Asian migrants (or invaders as they are popularly called) who established the Mughal and Deccani sultanates in the works of Truschke and Pillai, or it could be a ‘migrant’ religion like Christianity in Sarma’s book. The figure of the migrant provides historical evidence of a malleable pre-colonial culture, one that contemporary Indians need to emulate. Though, the extent of the malleability of this pre-colonial Indian culture is still open to debate.

While these authors are not wrong in making such an assertion, they run on the wishful hope that the political vision of the Indian nation-state must also be the political vision within pre-colonial polities, such as the Mughals or the Marathas. Only Truschke’s work departs from such a view. This thinking is patently inaccurate as the political agendas of various polities of the past, separated by vast amounts of time, were different from the political agendas of the Indian nation-state. Merely by arguing that a secular and welcoming culture existed in the past does not strengthen the political vision of the Indian constitution, neither does it excuse shortcomings of the nation-state. On the contrary, such arguments only leave history vulnerable to misuse.

To understand the problems with present-day disputes regarding belonging, one needs to look no further than the various amendments to India’s Citizenship Act, 1955. While the Act initially granted citizenship to all based on birth or jus solis, subsequent amendments have restricted this right to citizenship only if one’s parents, either one or both, are Indian citizens. The amendment of this act, to the best of my knowledge, has so far hardly been part of debates on belonging in India. To state it simply, an eminently modernist project of granting citizenship under the nation-state is being eroded for several decades.

Debates about belonging or the ‘Aryan’ migration theory always contain an immediate political purpose, as seen in the politics surrounding the National Registry of Citizens across India. The observation that pre-colonial realities and belonging are different from the way belonging is conceptualized in present-day India, should make historians and public intellectuals ask different questions. Not so much “what makes an Indian Indian?” in a cultural sense but “why does religion or ethnicity or any other marker become the rallying point for conflict and legal exclusion at various moments in time?” By asking different questions, one would guard against the misuse of history – whether Indian or Goan.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 2 October, 2019)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

ERA UMA VEZ, OR WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

The late Paulo Varela Gomes, former delegate of the Fundação Oriente in Goa and an architectural historian, always emphasized Goa’s difference, and thus uniqueness. In his crucial intervention in the debates on Goan church architecture, Whitewash, Red Stone (2011), he emphasizes that rather than interpreting church architecture in Goa as Portuguese-European or Indian, Goan architecture is simply Goan. A few years before his untimely demise from cancer, Gomes turned to write fiction and memoirs. In one of these works, a novel titled Era uma vez em Goa (2015, Once Upon a Time in Goa), Gomes returns to his obsession of Goa as different, as unique.

Reading Era one is struck by the impact of the English novelist, Graham Greene on Gomes’ writings. One can consider Greene as the first British writer to think of Goa as different and “unique”. Greene jotted his brief impressions of Goa from his short stay in 1963 in an essay he wrote for the Sunday Times in March 1964, “Goa the Unique”. In this essay, Greene contrasts his experiences in Bombay to the one in Goa—the stark poverty and utter squalor of Bombay was completely different from the clean air, emerald fields, and the small but decent houses he found in Goa. The destitution in Bombay was in stark contrast to the poverty in Goa.

Greene traveled to Goa in the footsteps of many British predecessors. The most (in)famous of them all was Richard Burton who wrote Goa and the Blue Mountains (1851). Burton was followed by more charitable British travelers such as Isabel Burton (his wife) and Evelyn Waugh, a contemporary of Greene. Most of these British travelers were Catholics by faith and came to Goa to observe the lived Catholicism here. Filipa Lowndes Vicente’s Entre Dois Impérios: Viajantes Britânicos em Goa (2016) suggests that Goa’s links with Catholicism were one of the main motivations for many British travelers to visit Goa.

One can consider Gomes’ novel as an engagement with Greene’s travel account, for Greene’s Sunday Times article is translated as an annexure in the novel. Gomes fictionalizes the very brief visit of the English writer; he imagines the conversations that Greene may have had, regarding culture, history, and politics, that led him to write his brief impression of Goa. Accordingly, Gomes casts the semi-fictionalized Greene in various scenarios: his incomprehension with any of the local spoken languages at that time (Portuguese and Konkani), his encounter with the Indian security forces and the remaining Portuguese secret agents, his travels in the caminhão, his reception into Goan hospitality, the relief that literally washes over him when he enjoys a hot bath after a long time, his appreciation of the clean water and air, and his lengthy conversations about the architecture and culture of Goa.


Greene visited Goa immediately after India’s annexation of the territory, and it was also a time when the first hippies had started trickling in. In imagining the conversations of Greene, Gomes demonstrates the prescience of Greene’s observations for Goa’s future—albeit in hindsight. Green’s encounter in the novel with the first flower children is a portent of the destructive way Goa was opened for global tourism. His encounter with the famed Goan hospitality is another portent of the havoc that the tourism industry would wreak in the decades to come. Thus, Greene’s visit occurred at a momentous present when the past was being undone, and an uncertain future loomed. In such a moment, Greene asserted Goa’s difference from the rest of India, and thus its uniqueness.

While the real Greene confined his observations to “Franciscan Goa” and “Jesuit Goa”—the North and South of Goa, the semi-fictionalized Greene engages more strongly with the non-Catholic Goa. After all, the semi-fictionalized Greene enjoys the benefit of hindsight and progress in historical research. He talks about Betal at length, the feisty non-Brahmanical deity, as much as he enjoys talking about church architecture (as indeed Gomes the architectural historian would have loved!). He also speaks with upper-caste Hindus about religion, caste, and their connections with Portuguese culture. And in this context, the semi-fictionalized Greene continually reflects on the question of identity—what gives Goa its character? Religion? Culture? State? History?

It is remarkable that a short piece on travel writing has such an impact half-a-century later. Even more remarkable as Greene did not consider himself as particularly knowledgeable about matters of the subcontinent. Greene told Maria Aurora Couto, who wrote Graham Greene: On the Frontier (1988, rep. 2014), that “India rather frightened me by its size. I have enjoyed myself very much during two weeks in Goa, but to write about India in a novel I would have had to live there over a considerable period of time…” Yet, his one insight, ‘different and unique’, sparked in Gomes a life-long obsession, so much so that Gomes’ academic writings seek that which was different and unique about Goa.

Era uma vez, or once upon a time, is a phrase that invokes happenings in the past. It is also a phrase, as Gomes uses it, that hints at possibilities, or ‘what could have been’. Gomes indulges in thinking of possibilities in the guise of telling a once-upon-a-time story.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 3 September, 2019)