Land rights and the environment top the electoral agenda in Goa, India

GOA – India’s undisputed tourist hotspot, and the smallest state in the world’s largest democracy, votes on Monday to elect a new government in a bid to restore a pandemic-ravaged economy and save the environment threatened by an unbridled housing boom.

More than 1.1 million voters in the western state of Goa will decide who among 301 candidates can help save their environmentally fragile coastal land which is struggling to cope with unchecked tourism.

It is one of five Indian states to vote in phases in February and March in what is seen as a test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata party ahead of general elections due in 2024. The results will be announced March 10.

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“People can no longer afford an apartment, house or land in Goa as property prices have been soared by those who want a slice of this paradise,” said Atish Fernandes, who runs the popular Joseph Bar in the capital Panjim.

The state has less than 2 million people but welcomed more than 8 million tourists in 2019, before the pandemic shuttered restaurants and put thousands out of work. Hundreds of people died last year due to frequent interruptions in oxygen supply at Goa Medical College’s COVID-19 facilities.

The travel and tourism industry, the lifeline of Goa’s economy, is slowly recovering, but not all the jobs have returned.

Goa has also become a favored secondary destination for India’s affluent middle class, fueling frenetic construction activity. Fernandes said land rights are a major issue for every Goan since new wealth is mainly generated through the sale of ancestral lands, property development or brokerage to meet growing demand.

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At a campaign rally in the heart of Goa on Thursday, Modi offered voters his vision of a “Golden Goa” with prosperity fueled by tourism and infrastructure. The opposition Congress and the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party promise sustainable development, jobs and corruption-free government, while the Congress in Trinamool, West Bengal, provides generous welfare packages for unemployed.

The two leading regional parties have joined the fray to explore their national ambitions.

For Goa’s indigenous communities, such as farmers and fishermen, what is at stake is a distinct way of life that for centuries has been in tune with its verdant environment and coastal biodiversity.

The state has seen intense political turmoil in recent months, with popular candidates, including former chief ministers – the key elected officials – switching sides in their quest for appointments, often switching loyalties between parties with contradictory ideologies.

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Goa has set a record, ‘unprecedented’ in the history of Indian democracy, with 24 assembly lawmakers from 40 member states switching parties in the past five years, according to a report by the Association of Democratic Reforms, a non-governmental group working for electoral reforms.

To prevent its candidates from partying after the election, the Congress party made them take a loyalty oath.

“Here, in just a few weeks, each party has disgraced itself by mocking its own declared platforms and ideals,” writer Vivek Menezes told the weekly Outlook.

Goa’s turbulent politics is a microcosm of India’s chaotic political landscape, where a diverse mix of religious and caste identities shape elections.

The BJP under Modi has emphatically won twice on the national stage with its Hindu first policy which has alienated Muslims and other minorities as well as secular parties. But his grip on power has been challenged, most recently by rising unemployment and a year-long protest by farmers on the outskirts of New Delhi.

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In Goa, which is often described by Bollywood as a Westernized enclave with foreign tourists partying on sandy beaches and vistas dominated by its historic Catholic churches, Christians make up just 25% of the population. Over 66% of Goans are Hindus.

Despite controversial statements about the reconstruction of Hindu temples destroyed by the Portuguese, the BJP’s majority Hindu program had to accommodate the minority Christian community in its quest to win the elections.

The BJP in Goa fielded 12 Catholic candidates in Monday’s election, while the Congress party nominated 17.

In the quaint neighborhood of Fontainhas in Panjim, the narrow, winding streets are lined with Portuguese-style houses and bars. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fontainhas is steeped in the colonial history of Goa, Portuguese territory until 1961.

At Joseph Bar, nestled between the old buildings of Fontainhas, many lament the inevitable change that the free market brings, especially in an economy where one in three people is engaged in tourism.

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“The locals who are the stakeholders and the voters here are always looking back at what they had and what they lost,” Fernandes said. “If you ask an average Goan what he wants, he wants a life he had 15-20 years ago.”

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