Tuesday, 19 July 2016

PUBLIC HEALTH AND THE CITY OF GOA



The piles of garbage across Goa remind me of an event in Goa’s history. Goa’s recorded history does provide us with instances that enable us to draw a parallel and see the disastrous effects of waste management when not checked properly and seriously. While my attempt in this essay will be to draw parallels with the past, it must also be stated that the problem of garbage management is a recent one associated with factors of rampant urbanization, large-scale use of non-biodegradable materials, and lapses on the part of the State.

After becoming the capital of the Portuguese Empire in Asia, the City of Goa or Velha Goa was ravaged by epidemics at least a couple of times. The fortunes of the City as a great entrepôt or a metropolis were impacted by these epidemics. The Goan scholar José Nicolau da Fonseca writing about the city in his book An Historical and Archæological Sketch of the City of Goa (1878) makes a mention of the devastating epidemic of 1570.

Along with the siege by Ali Adil Shah’s large army that led to food shortages, Fonseca argued that it were the unsanitary conditions then prevailing in the City that were responsible for the outbreak of an epidemic. “The city was in the first place surrounded by marshes and stagnant pools, emitting noxious exhalations, whilst little or no attention was paid to the hygienic conditions essential for the preservation of public health. The muddy banks of the river outside the city were generally covered with the detritus of animal and vegetable matter, which being exposed at low tide to the tropical sun underwent putrefaction, and thereby bred the germs of disease” (p. 150).

Moreover, Fonseca wrote that open defecation took place (with the permission of the Government) within the limits of the City, that there was a lack of access to potable drinking water (due to Governmental neglect), and that garbage littered on the main thoroughfares of the City so much so that “nobody was prevented from throwing any quantity of filth he chose into the streets” increased the devastation. Even before the epidemic, the dirty streets and lack of clean water had contributed to creating unhygienic living conditions.

If one drives around Goa, one is quite shocked (or not) to see piles of garbage dumped along the sides of roads. What is also alarming is the manner in which places close to habitation or water bodies are used as landfill sites. The garbage dumped at the Campal Parade ground in Panjim is a case in point. That garbage is dumped in an area that hosted exhibitions and events, or was an open space for the public is a shocking lapse on the part of the authorities, not to mention an acute health hazard. There are more examples in Panjim itself that enable us to see parallels with the conditions then prevailing in the City of Goa.

The area close to the new building of the Central Library at Patto is being used as a landfill for quite a number of years. Apart from a lack of planning or vision that the authorities and the city administration have displayed, there is also the danger of noxious gases poisoning scholars and general readers or fires causing permanent damage to an institution that houses some of the rarest books, newspapers, magazines, and manuscripts in Asia. Such a premier library should have had a prominent place as an institution symbolic of intellectual production in Goa and not enveloped by the stink and danger of garbage.

It is precisely such State apathy and a crisis of management that increases the danger to the lives of citizens and reduces the quality of life. Recently, O Heraldo reported that the newly operational Solid Waste Management plant in Saligao was functioning only up to half of its capacity. There were talks about transferring the garbage from Campal to the new plant in Saligao, but it is evident that bureaucratic insouciance and an attitude to pass the responsibility to some other department or individual would result in more garbage piling alongside roads and open spaces right in the middle of cities.

The case of the epidemic of 1570 and the rising problem of garbage management today seems to have striking similarities. For one, the then administration which had a duty of regulating and enforcing laws regarding public health had failed miserably. It can be argued that the present administration is also failing in a similar duty. Secondly, people then as today have no qualms in dumping garbage along the roads. There are also important differences in terms of technology and the manner in which it contributes to the generation and the disposal of waste. But it does appear that history is coming full circle. One may think if this is a case of ‘history repeating itself’ or if it is a case of cyclical history wherein things move from being good to bad and back to good again. For many would recall that public order and civic sense was prevailing in Goan towns and cities during the last few decades of Portuguese rule. Whatever may be the case, it cannot be denied that all of us are facing a major crisis of public health if the status quo in the functioning of public affairs is maintained. And perhaps thinking about such instances in the past might help us in being alert to problems of the present that are increasingly threatening us.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 July, 2016)

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

TROUBLED TIMES AND THE LIBERATION BUGLE



Over the past few weeks, I have been reading with much interest a few letters addressed to the editor of O Heraldo. These letters, in one way or the other, argued for the necessity of ‘liberation’ for Goa. While Victor Ferrao, the Dean of the Rachol Seminary sought a “second liberation”, others rather felt that Goa needed a proper or true liberation. These letters were sparked off, as one may remember, by the highly objectionable statements made in the press by some freedom fighters, calling for punitive action against Goans who have registered their births in Portugal.

Calls for liberation coming in the wake of such statements by the freedom-fighters (FFs) can tell us a few things about Goan politics. To begin with, we need to understand that the FFs have an authority and legitimacy in Goan politics that is generally not questioned. Their role in the anti-colonial movement against the Portuguese Estado da Índia (EI) is what gives them this legitimacy, to such an extent that they have come to epitomize freedom from colonialism. Thus, when Ferrao asserted that there were “several un-freedoms” that the FFs refused to acknowledge – and thereby also played on the word ‘freedom’ in FFs – it enabled us to see the regressive role that some of these FFs play in contemporary Goa.

The letters addressed the sorry state of Goan politics and the manner in which the State in Goa had mismanaged governance and public resources. It is in this context that one needs to see the calls for liberation being pitted against the image of the FFs. Contemporary calls for liberation are a challenge, I argue, to a nationalist understanding of Goa and its history.

Liberation in the Goan context is used to describe the departure of the EI after the military annexation of Goa to the Indian Union. Thus, Goa and its people were understood to have been freed from foreign dominance, and also to have arrived at a culmination of history with their integration into the Indian nation-state. The FFs have, or claim to have, actively contributed to this integration. Thus according to the nationalist version of history, liberation as a project, or as a movement in history, is understood to be complete, with no necessity for further work or improvement. The departure of the Portuguese, coupled with the arrival of the Indians, was equated with the liberation of Goans. And yet we see renewed calls for liberation.

What we need to recognize is that anti-colonial movements that led to the formation of many nation-states across the colonized world also came as a promise for progress and modernization, apart from mobilizing to overthrow foreign yoke. The colonial state could not ensure the progress and betterment of the people because it oppressed and enslaved people. The colonial state denied rights to people in their own land. It also obstructed the cultural efflorescence of the people, and imposed Western culture on them. Such a position was articulated by TB Cunha, noted for his contributions to Goa’s anti-colonial movement.

However, progress and betterment is precisely what the nation-state that emerged from anti-colonial movements have failed to give to the masses. Even if the nation-state has been able to bring about modernization it has been at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of the marginalized masses. We have recently seen this in the manner in which land is sought or is grabbed in Tirakol, Mopa, Vanxim, Betul, and elsewhere across Goa, the brutal police action on peaceful protesters, unending scams that deplete the State exchequer or public money by many thousands of crores, and the mammoth mismanagement of public resources and properties.

Thus, to many it does feel like, rather than having the freedom to live and earn a decent livelihood, one is still colonized by the nation-state and its partners in the name of development. In such a contemporary scenario, the presence of FFs who hark back and depend on a legacy that is constantly failing us in the present is rendered meaningless. What is the point of having FFs if we do not have freedom? This is why calls for liberation today make more sense than celebrating some (imagined) national glories.

Which is also why calls for liberation should also be seen along with another more famous (or notorious) movement called ‘Liberation Theology’. In this context, liberation is cast as an emancipatory project. Begun as a movement within the Church in Latin America after Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez published his seminal text A Theology of Liberation (1971), ‘liberation theology’ sought to address the poverty-stricken lives of many in Latin America due to an unjust social system, and rampant capitalist development. The poverty in Latin America made the Church there face a crisis of its own relevance in that society. Fr. Gutiérrez argued that such a moment was precisely the time that the Church had to change by putting the poor and the oppressed first and actively supporting their struggles – the poor after all were at the center of the Christian message.

Listening to calls of liberation coming from various quarters one could argue that the State as well as the Church in Goa needs to put the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed at the center of politics and planning. The State more so as in a secular, liberal democracy the welfare of the citizens is entrusted to the State. With the State opening the doors to rampant development, the common masses and the marginalized will be further pushed in the corner and the calls for liberation will only grow. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 July, 2016)