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Business News/ News / India/  Postcards from edgy post-lockdown Goa

Postcards from edgy post-lockdown Goa

Goa is among the first states to probe the 'new normal' in our age of contagion. What’s going right and what’s not?
  • While Goa is making progress on post-lockdown parameters, there have been difficulties in imposing new patterns on long-established ways of life
  • Clockwise from left: Govt employees on their way to work in buses with safe-distance seating arrangements; workers queue up outside Pilerne Industrial Estate; and road transport office staff at their office in Junta House, Panjim, on Monday. (Photo: Aarvi Pomburfekar/ Mint)Premium
    Clockwise from left: Govt employees on their way to work in buses with safe-distance seating arrangements; workers queue up outside Pilerne Industrial Estate; and road transport office staff at their office in Junta House, Panjim, on Monday. (Photo: Aarvi Pomburfekar/ Mint)

    This week kicked off in celebratory style with “Goa has become Corona free as on 19th April 2020" emblazoned across full-page advertisements in every newspaper. Goa’s chief minister Pramod Sawant posted on Twitter: “A moment of satisfaction and relief as the last active Covid-19 case tests negative. Team of Doctors and entire support staff deserves applause for their relentless effort. No new positive case in Goa after 3rd April 2020."

    And just like that, lockdown controls were lifted, government offices reopened, and streams of traffic poured onto the roads as tens of thousands of workers returned to their accustomed routines.

    These were startling scenes when compared to the inexorable rise of confirmed cases across the borders with Maharashtra and Karnataka, but health minister Vishwajit Rane cautioned this was no return to normalcy. In his own tweets, he wrote, “While we have good news of zero COVID-19 cases in Goa, it is too early to tag our state as a “green zone". It’s time to intensify the testing facilities..."

    Rane has led an admirably cautious response to the coronavirus pandemic from its incipient stage, lobbying to cancel the Ketevan Sacred Music Festival in early March, which was scheduled to fly in musicians from badly affected European countries. Then, before the state registered a single infection (since then there have been seven, with full recovery) he recommended Shigmo festival celebrations be cancelled.

    In that case he was overruled, and large crowds—including many foreigners—assembled in Panjim on 18 March. It could have easily been another Tablighi-Jamaat-type disaster, but sheer good fortune intervened, and nothing untoward occurred.

    Now, with nearly another fortnight remaining in the nationwide lockdown, India’s smallest state is again testing its luck. Along with parts of Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, and the notable example of Kerala in India, Goa is among the first states in the world to probe the “new normal" in our age of contagion.

    Conditions are admittedly close to ideal: months to prepare; an extremely stringent curfew; the curve of infections flattened to zero. So here begins the true stress test of governance, with the future of the country seeded in the outcome. If things work out, better days might be close at hand for everyone.

    Already, just a few days into the experiment, we can see some of the important challenges and opportunities lurking just ahead for all of us.

    The public debate

    This singular moment of reckoning didn’t come without considerable public debate. Many people questioned the wisdom of relaxing controls, considering that less than 1% of the state population has been tested. Others, like the entrepreneur Sanjeev Trivedi, who is the managing director of furniture maker Infiniti Modules, felt “It is a tough decision, but worth trying out. We all hope to return close to normalcy one day, and now Goa has the advantage to be the first to try it out. In any case, this phase-wise relaxation is in line with the central guidelines, and the MHA notification which indicated possible relaxations after 20 April."

    Here, the example of Singapore must give pause. The wealthiest society in the history of the world, and the byword for technocratic leadership, was forced to revert to lockdown after thousands of new cases exploded this week. As The New York Times concluded, “The spread of the coronavirus in this tidy city-state suggests that it might be difficult for the rest of the world to return to the way [it was] anytime soon, even when viral curves appear to have flattened…the trials of this intensely urban, hyper-international country hint at a global future in which travel is taboo, borders are shut, quarantines endure and industries like tourism and entertainment are battered."

    Those scenarios seem especially daunting for Goa, with the complicating factor of 20,000 crore in government debt (which has more than doubled since 2013). In February, the Comptroller and Auditor General insisted on “a well- thought out borrowing-repayment strategy to avoid falling into a debt trap." But now tourism has ground to standstill, depriving the state of its primary economic engine. “It’s like we have been hit by a tsunami" said Jack Sukhijia, the secretary of Travel and Tourism Association of Goa (TTAG), “all revenues have been wiped out. I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life."

    Incidently, Sukhijia’s grandfather was Jack Sequeira, the revered “father of the opinion poll" who led the campaign for Goa to remain its own entity after decolonization in 1961, which eventually led to an historic referendum in 1967 and statehood 20 years later. The younger Jack told me, “This is a reset button for all of us. What will come after this is unknown. We can presume people will travel, but when that will be is unanswerable. One thing we can be sure of is the very structure of tourism will never be the same."

    Back to business

    An interesting recent wrinkle to Goa’s economy is that tourism remains the lead employer by a considerable distance, but the pharmaceutical industry has surged ahead in revenue contributions. There are 81 licensed drug manufacturers, including 35 multinational companies (MNCs), which together account for 11% of India’s exports.

    When Prime Minister Narendra Modi reversed his own moratorium on selling hydroxychloroquine overseas, under very public pressure from Donald Trump, the first shipment was dispatched from the Israeli-owned Teva Pharmaceutical Industries factory at the Verna Industrial Estate, down the highway from the airport at Dabolim.

    The state’s premier industrial hub, and home to hundreds of corporations employing upwards of 12,000 workers, the sprawling Verna precincts serve as bellwether for Goa’s economic prospects. The president of Verna's Industries Association (he’s also chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Goa council) Blaise Costabir said he backs the government, “given the situation, I endorse the decision to open up. Lockdown is not feasible in the long run. We are no longer hunter gathers, which means that for survival we need a supply chain, which can only be provided if industry operates, and distribution channels function for smooth delivery to the end customers. We have to take our chances."

    Costabir added that “20,000 bus, car and bike passes have been issued. And approximately 1,600 industrial units started up, although some had resumed under the provisions for essential services, such as pharma and their associated packing concerns. Labour is going to be difficult, because many migrant workers would have gone home. But maybe there is a silver lining? Lots of locals depended on renting illegal rooms around the industrial estates, and others were employed abroad, including on cruise liners, and they will be home soon with no chance of going back for a while. So, at least theoretically, there might be people looking for work."

    At Costabir’s urging, I spoke with Arun Naik, the 40-year industry veteran, and former president of Goa Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, who told me “with mining stuck in limbo because of Supreme Court orders [from 2018, all leases were cancelled] and tourism and casinos also locked down, pharma is the only beacon of hope for Goa. If 20,000 people can continue to earn their livelihood, then approximately 100,000 or more will be supported as dependents. There’s no need for impositions of sanitization and social distancing in pharma as these concepts are routinely followed in our manufacturing and testing facilities."

    Naik added: “When the lockdown came, my family responded in toto. I wasn’t in favour of relaxing it. There’s no guarantee that we do not have asymptomatic carriers (those infected but not showing symptoms) and easing up now will definitely give an unintended wrong signal to people that they can carry on business as usual. Besides, I felt that the government was itself possibly wrongly believing that Goa is genuinely coronavirus-free, which might not be a fact."

    The return

    Coincidentally, earlier this week the World Health Organization outlined six conditions which governments should meet to consider lifting lockdowns: control disease transmissions; minimize “hotspot" risks (such as nursing homes); manage the importation of potential carriers; educate and engage communities to “live under a new normal"; establish preventative measures in schools and workplaces; and set up efficient health care systems to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact."

    There is positive evidence that Goa is making progress on these essential parameters, but the record also demonstrates the difficulty of imposing new patterns on long-established ways of life. Thus, over the past month, despite notably light presence across most of the state, the police racked up almost 30,000 lockdown violations, and levied nearly 40 lakh of fines, while impounding 366 vehicles and making 825 arrests.

    On the first day after restrictions were eased, nearly 750 cases were added to that total. In village neighbourhoods, where little surveillance penetrates, there are some worrying signs that people are going back to behaviours that increase the risk of infections.

    “Declaring the state corona-free was a rash and inane decision," said Valmiki Naik, the civil engineer who has twice contested (and lost) state elections to represent Panjim, on behalf of the Aam Aadmi Party. He added, “Every time our government veers off from MHA guidelines, or tries to outdo them, chaos has ensued. This can be a huge opportunity to reboot and reimagine many critical aspects in Goa, which visionary and honest politicians could use to create transformative change. But the closed-minded and heavily-politicized thinking of this government, even in the midst of such a crisis, gives me little confidence we will change anything for the better. One can only hope that it doesn’t make things worse."

    Naik strikes bullseye when he points out the Goa’s administration’s conspicuously mediocre record, with health minister Rane being something of an exception. But as the state emerges from lockdown, there are nonetheless some stirring reminders that the majority of citizens— by most measures the best-educated and wealthiest state population of India—are perfectly capable of acting responsibly to safeguard their own health and well-being.

    Masks have become ubiquitous, so that even the anglers on the riverbank outside my home are wearing them. While social distancing norms run directly contrary to deep-seated Goan gregariousness, there’s no doubt most people have begun to practise them.

    In conclusion

    There are other hopeful developments which bode very well for sustainability, with profound implications for the rest of the country. Many people are trying to grow their own food, and the government is distributing seeds. Neighbourhood support networks have revitalized. The usually invisible web of traditional bakers, farmers and fishermen finds itself appreciated once again. “It means a lot to me," says the entrepreneurial seafood vendor John de Sa, “I am proud to be a kharvi (fisherman in Konkani). We have always been the backbone of Goa, and now I feel vindicated."

    Fish has always been serious business in Goa, but this innovator has transformed his establishment into an essential lockdown lifeline. Via phone and WhatsApp and his unique “La Socorina" app, de Sa has been delivering fresh catch across South Goa (permission was just granted to extend to other parts of the state).

    Earlier this week, he emailed me at 2am, after finishing his hectic day’s work, “In just the last two weeks, we are doing our best to provide whatever people need. We pray the virus is contained, so people can live normal lives. But if it continues, we will up operations on a war footing, and ensure we can deliver to every single Goan who wants fish."

    Kaxtti bhizleabogor nustem dhorum nozo" is an old Konkani aphorism, meaning “you can’t catch fish without getting your loincloth wet," or, less literally, nothing worthwhile will be gained without effort. As Goa begins to navigate its way into the unknown, just ahead of virtually every other part of the world, we can already detect there really is some light at the end of this very long tunnel.

    Step by careful step, if we can get there it means that you will too.

    Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer

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    Published: 23 Apr 2020, 10:09 PM IST
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