Goa: One afternoon in December, Roy Patrao peered through a sturdy iron gate and scanned the ruin of an old stone house. Only a shell of the house had survived, with thick columns holding up a portico. On this plot of land, Patrao sawhis dream.
He would build a villa here, with cool limestone floors and a modern kitchen. In the backyard, he pictured a family gathering around the barbecue, as they might on a summer’s evening in Southern California, where Patrao once lived. But this time, the domestic scene would take place in Goa, the sliver of a state on India’s western coast.
The site was perfect. The village itself, called Aldona, was long on Goan charm, surrounded by rolling hills with the beaches of the Arabian Sea less than an hour’s drive away.
Patrao hadn’t bought the plot yet, but he was already picturing that this would be the first of 10, maybe 20, houses that he would build across Goa. He would use his own money and that of friends, who like him would be banking on the appeal of Goa’s lore.
Goa, like much of India, is in the midst of a real-estate frenzy, and Patrao, nearly 60 years old and a veteran of the construction business in California and New York, is nothing if not an entrepreneur.
The houses he imagined building would sell for at least $180,000 (about Rs79 lakh) he reckoned, or more than twice the investment in the land and construction costs. Real estate was the way to go in India. “One billion people. Limited land supply. It’s a no-brainer,” he concluded.
Sudhir Kakar, a psychoanalyst and novelist, says that to the Indian mind Goa has long signified freedom, particularly of the sexual kind. “Goa is associated with free sensuality,” he said by way of explaining its real-estate lure. “That I think is a very big attraction—and the keeping up with the Joneses. It’s a party place, a place to let go of your inhibitions.” Kakar himself let go of his two homes—renting out one in “aggressive” Delhi, in his words, the other in “cold” Berlin—and moved to Goa four years ago. He and his wife, Katharina, set about restoring an old Portuguese-era house.
The makeover of Goa into an upscale vacation spot—for the upwardly mobile Indian—began in the late 1960s, when hippies came to conquer Goa’s beaches. Over time, it became a mandatory stop on the Israeli post-military-service circuit. A string of five-star resorts opened in the 1990s. One-time visitors, both Indian and foreign, began restoring old houses. Then, over the past few years, as private airlines added new flights to Goa, affluent urban professionals from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and elsewhere began coming in droves.
In Goa, the boom started with tycoons. Eight years ago, Vijay Mallya, chairman of UB Group that makes Kingfisher Beer, hired Dean D’Cruz, one of Goa’s best-known architects, to design what Mallya dubbed the Kingfisher Villa, spilling down to the Arabian Sea. “When people walk into my house, I want them to go weak in the knees,” was Mallya’s instruction to D’Cruz.
Somewhat less-wealthy seekers followed, but their real-estate fantasies burnt just as hot. Gated communities with clubhouses and pools began to go up. Hillsides were carved out for condominiums. Cashew groves were cut for a road. Recently, some of the country’s biggest developers have put forward plans for apartments, golf courses, hotels, shopping malls and a software park.
Prices have swiftly climbed. In April, DLF Universal, one of India’s largest builders, bought a patch of land near the capital, Panaji, for more than $1,100 a square yard. Just two years ago, the state government, which owned the land, could not dispose of the property for a sixth of that price. DLF plans to build a mall and office complex on the site.
All this construction has not been greeted with universal joy. Last year, after the Goan government approved a five-year regional plan that opened new swathes of land to development, some of them hillsides with coveted views of river and sea, residents of laid-back Goa were roused to action. Builders welcomed the plan as relief from overly stringent restrictions on construction, including a ban on buildings taller than the nearest coconut palm. But critics in Goa, including D’Cruz, saw it as an open invitation to destruction. Goa’s ecology would be destroyed, its magic would be gone, they said. Protests were organized, and a Save Goa campaign was started.
By mid-January, the Congress government in Goa voted to scrap the regional plan and draft a new one.
Menino Peres, the director of the department of information and publicity, said it was because of the “sentiment of large numbers of people in Goa, and on environment and congestion considerations”.
Spread across 140 acres along a wooded ridge on the edge of the water some 11 miles from Aldona, Aldeia de Goa, a lavish gated community, is the postcard for a new Indian aspiration—the country house, which had been the province of Indian blue-blood families, and even for them it meant a cottage in the hills, bought from the departing British. In Aldeia, completed houses can go for as much as $700,000. Prices of bungalow plots have more than doubled in two years.
Kalu Ganesh Shetgaonkar, the 75-year-old patriarch of an extended family of 60 in Morjim, said he regularly wards off buyers and brokers who come to inquire about his property on the hill. There’s nothing up there, not even water, Shetgaonkar said—just cashew trees. “It’s our ancestors’ land,” his son, Ganesh Kalu, injected. “Why should we sell it? We didn’t buy it.”
As attached as many Goans are to their ancestral lands, the money can’t always be so easily declined. Saba Bhiva Shetgaonkar, another Morjim resident, said he was compelled to sell 1,200 square yards of his cashew hills, so poor and indebted had the family become. The sale paid for the weddings of some of his eight daughters.
Kaur was keenly aware of the roiled waters she was entering as she searched for perfect plots on which to build.
But then, the reality of Goan real estate hit them. First, their broker told them the owner had chosen another buyer. Then the buyer backed out, because, as Patrao explained, two of the owner’s sisters refused to relinquish their claim on the family property.
Under Goan law, which dates back to Portuguese times, the sisters could lay claim at any point in their lifetimes, bungling any future owner’s plans. Six weeks later, the place was still on the market. The agent said the asking price had nearly doubled. The family, he reckons, would eventually sell.