Tuesday, 25 October 2016

COLONY LOST?



An article in The Guardian recently claimed “artists” and “hipsters” to be the new agents that drive the process of gentrification. Though the article was about the current situation in Britain, similarities could be drawn with Goa’s own fraught tourism-led development. According to the article, artists and hipsters “are the neoliberal state’s troops”. Artists first move into certain areas that seem to have decayed or have not developed, and “sow the seeds of cultural capital. ... Both artists and (some) of the hipsters – the ones who haven’t ‘settled’ yet – will move on, exploring, breaking away (again), developing new potential sites for capital investment. And so the cycle of gentrification starts all over”.

The Goan parallels with the quote above may not be obvious on first reading. Goa’s unchecked development of the tourism and real-estate industry started with Goa being exposed to the neoliberal economic setup of India. What has this to do with the influx of artists and hipsters in Goa? The idea of Goa as a ‘touristic heaven’ or a ‘pleasure periphery’ was constructed on a Goan landscape that was populated by agrarian villages, making the acquisition of  real-estate, in due course of time, elite status symbols coveted by the artists, writers, and the upwardly mobile professionals from Indian metros – or the catch-all desi misnomer, “culturewallahs”. The neoliberal economic setup and the easy mobility afforded by the Indian nation-state led to the large scale gentrification of sea-side villages that we are witnessing today – a process either exemplified by the rise of ‘mega projects’ or the emergence of ‘Portuguese houses’ as markers of chic and luxurious lifestyle.

Another parallel is how people who drive this gentrification in Goa can leave anytime for better pastures. Very often the “culturewallahs” who move to Goa claim that their commitment to Goa and its people is much deeper than a sudden decision to shift to Goa. It is not simply an investment in Goan real estate. However, a recent assertion by Deepti Kapoor, who had moved to Goa but has now decided to go elsewhere due to the deteriorating situation here, testifies to the skin-deep character of this commitment. It also reveals the disaster that gentrification is, for Goans, who unfortunately have to live in the mess that such a development leaves behind. What does Goa get out of this? Art? And what is the relevance of such art?

To say that the affluent global and Indian elites can move to Goa due to the financial resources available to them is only half the story. This is why we need to dwell on the notion of ‘colony’ in relation to gentrification. Like the colonies established during the height of European imperialism, the ‘colonies’ established by the real-estate industry have an element of exclusivity to them. One’s social location determines who gets access into these ‘colonies’. To think of gentrification as a process by which ‘colonies’ get established allows us to see that rather than being harbingers of modernization and progress – or of art or culture – they are, in fact, a recapitulation of South Asia’s age-old and timeless hierarchies. 

It is the emergence of such ‘colonies’ that defines the ‘brand value’ of Goa in recent times. These gentrified places, while a good economic investment, also simultaneously become a refuge for the rich…a utopia tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the world. Thus, while these places are physically enclosed by way of allowing access only to a privileged few, they are also cut-off from the social and political realities of the world. Only when these utopian places are threatened for any kind of reason – then one sees a remarkable outrage that gets blown out of proportion.
 
Pic: Vishvesh Kandolkar
Consider the recent case of the unfortunate murder of a perfume-maker who had made Goa her home. Her death was mourned by a huge outrage. The critique that the same attention was not paid to another murder which happened on the same day is insufficient. The reason why one person’s murder was discussed down to its last detail and the other was almost ignored was also due to the fact that the other murder occurred in a nondescript ‘vaddo’. To be fair, most of the gentrified neighborhoods that have emerged in Goan villages have been constructed in various ‘vadde’, but the gentrification makes all the difference. Compared to the genteel location of the murder of the Goa-based perfumer, the nondescript ‘vaddo’ in a Goan village is insignificant.

Juxtaposing the social and physical locations of the two murders allows us to see that the comments by numerous glitterati and literati to declare categorically that the crime against the perfumer signaled the demise of the once great Goa, is nothing but a fear of losing privilege. It is not an outrage marked by concern for Goa. For the same people couldn’t care any less when large chunks of Goan land were (and are) grabbed from ordinary, hard-working Goans. Considering that most of the land grabbed from Goans goes largely to build resorts, second-homes, and ‘colonies’ made available for the disposable pleasure of the same elites, one can understand why there isn’t any outrage.

Gentrification thus is a process by which localities get taken over by the rich, simultaneously pushing out the locals. It is also a process by which the locals are slowly rendered powerless. Goa’s problem with gentrification does not need any outrage or lamentations of demise, but to recognize first that the problem exists, and what and who engendered it. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 26 October, 2016)

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

CENTRES OF EXCELLENCE: EDUCATION AND SOCIAL JUSTICE



The villagers of Loliem-Polem in Canacona are up in arms. They are opposing, it seems, a ‘mega project’. Only in this case, the ‘mega project’ in question is a proposal for a new sprawling 120-acre campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to be set up in Goa. Considering that this is a plan for the development of cutting-edge higher education, some people are at a loss to understand the protest. However, given Goa’s history with large-scale projects that gobble up land and other natural resources, one can see why the villagers are anxious about the take-over of so much land.

That apart, those who argue for the IIT campus to be set up in order to bring quality educational institutions to Goa may have good intentions, but do not seem to see the larger picture of what education is supposed to do for society. Hence, there is another dimension to the issue, that of social justice in education; one that needs to be considered along with the land issue. Given that IITs have witnessed the emergence of pro-Hindutva lobbies, as well as the recent anti-caste assertion, one would expect that those who bat for the IIT in Goa will take these happenings on board as well.

If we ask ourselves what is the most basic function of education, the answer surely would be to enable a person to be gainfully employed due to the skills that he receives after years of schooling and college. Additionally, we can also say that the educational system needs to produce enlightened citizenry. To that end, everyone should have a right to an education. But in recent years, we have witnessed repeated instances of discriminatory practices that precisely undermine this right to education for all. While the issue of the Medium of Instruction (MoI) can be cited as an example of how primary education of young children is sacrificed at the altar of politicking, the unfortunate death of Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University illustrates how universities and higher educational institutions have a long way to go to secure social justice for the most marginalized of the population. This is why claims of excellence by elite Indian educational institutions need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

If we focus closely on the impact that the new IIT will have on Goa, it would seem that the benefits would not accrue to the majority of the locals as easily as one may think. Getting into IITs is not easy. Especially since admissions are done on the basis of the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) in which lakhs of aspirants try their luck. The preparation for the JEE generally requires specialized ‘coaching’ in private institutes, where the candidates have to pay lakhs of rupees. There was an argument that the new IIT campus in Goa will be a boost for the largely agrarian communities of Loliem-Polem and surrounding areas. However, considering the immense financial capital necessary to prepare for the entrance exam, would the children of such agrarian communities in Loliem-Polem – or for that matter any such communities in Goa – be able to fairly compete? One doesn’t think so.

While an IIT may spring up, it is no guarantee of equal opportunity. To add to it, majority of Goan students would be disadvantaged because they do not possess the resources necessary to “crack” the entrance exam. Implementing policies of social justice and inclusiveness has been a problem for all educational institutions in India. The idea that ‘merit’ trumps everything is at the root of discriminatory practices – often relating to caste – in Indian universities. While the universities oriented towards the humanities will at least be mildly embarrassed to peddle the argument of ‘merit’, even if caste-based discrimination goes on unabated, there are many technology institutes in India that still recruit students solely on the basis of ‘merit’. What ultimately this would mean is that if the ratio of a section of students in these elite campuses is low (such as Goan to non-Goan, or lower-caste to upper-caste), then these groups of students can be seen to lack ‘merit’, ‘talent’ or ‘ability’. Activists working on the issue of Dalit students in campuses have highlighted how they are discriminated against for lacking ‘merit’.

Speaking specifically of higher education in Goa, one cannot leave out Goa’s only university. For a small place like Goa, a centre of excellence should necessarily be one with a range of courses from the sciences to the humanities and social sciences. An establishment like the Goa University could be better suited, as opposed to an IIT whose focus is largely the sciences and technology. This is not to say that moving away from ‘only technical education’ to a combination of ‘technical-humanities education’ will make all the problems of discrimination, as discussed earlier, go away. Indeed, if the recent news reports and analysis of the manner in which affirmative action is scuttled in Goa University are to be taken note of, then it is indicative that having humanities-based courses does not guarantee a level playing-field. And yet one can make the case that having a range of courses from the sciences and humanities would allow a student access and choice to an all-round curriculum.

For if we are interested in bringing quality education and in making sure that the fruits of education reach all students, then our conception of higher education should be broader. The one-sided onus and value that is placed on technical and science-based education should give way to valuing the acquisition of various types of knowledges, even if it seems that such knowledge does not have an immediate market value. Indeed, fostering a community and culture requires that we also promote education in the humanities.

Making an argument for Goan students benefitting from centres of excellence set up on Goan soil, does not mean that one is making a ‘Goan v/s outsider’ argument, or that one is trying to suggest that non-Goan students are not welcome. Indeed, educational hubs can only be lively spaces when there is a diversity of scholars and students who interact with each other. However, there is something ‘colonial’ about arguments that completely ignore the fact that communities who lose their lands do not get much in return. ‘Colonial’ because giving up land can itself be extractive with guarantees of any returns being at best debatable.

Perhaps, we need to be open to the possibility that the people of Loliem-Polem are not just fighting to save a lush, fertile piece of land. 

Illustration: Angela Ferrao.

(A shorter version was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 12 October, 2016)