On February 9, a video of a tourist urinating from the window of a bus on a busy road in Goa incensed Goa's agriculture minister Vijai Sardesai, who on Friday called domestic tourists arriving in Goa "scum of the earth" who want to create "a Haryana in Goa".
Two days later, he clarified that he was referring only to some sections of tourists and not all of them. "I haven't generalised or have been xenophobic. I am speaking for the people of Goa," he said. This has predictably sparked off a war on social media, with some people accusing domestic tourists of being arrogant and oblivious of the interests of locals, while some outrightly described the comments as sweeping and prejudiced.
Sardesai's comments are nothing new except that they sound artless and politically incorrect coming from a minister. He articulates what many people openly do in Goa, even though many of them are very much a part of the problem they are so vociferous about. Similar sentiments are expressed in practically every tourist destination in India even by the beneficiaries of the tourism revenue stream.
Ever since the so-called "liberation" of Goa, a way of life has been obliterated for what is known as the "sunshine state" of India. The old Gavkari system that pre-existed the arrival of the Portugese, and which was codified by the Portugese as Communidades where land was jointly held by all the villagers, women and men were considered equal under law and the moment a woman was married, she had claim to half her husband's property - is no more what it was. They are now controlled by the state government which leaves little scope for them to act as self governing units. Goa became a milch cow of the tourism industry - with all the attendant pollutants that industrialisation brings in its wake. The wetlands and agricultural lands of Goa are up for grabs for industrial parks and garish housing societies that stand out like a sore thumb. Rampant mining is destroying the ecology.
When one discusses pollution, the first images that come to mind are clogged, stinking rivers, plastic bags strewn carelessly, exhaust spewing from vehicles, and smoke from chimney stacks. And of course, noise pollution generated by loudspeakers and car horns. But there are certain intangible pollutants that escape our notice, especially when it comes to the tourism industry; pollutants that don't always have to do with dirt and filth of the physical kind. They manifest themselves as vague and disquieting disconnects that leave a metallic sour taste in the mouth, long after the last souvenir has been bought and the last tout paid.
A visit to any tourist destination in India leads one to realise that nothing is sacred, everything is for sale and negotiable, and moreover, one is perceived as nothing but a walking dollar, pound or euro. To be a walking rupee is to be a nuisance. The rupees haggle too much, they know far too much about the value of things, and they disburse themselves at an annoyingly slow pace compared to their foreign cousins. But in Goa, the stereotype of a hedonist's paradise with hard drinkers, women of easy virtue, and a drug addict's playground has been created over the years, by British historians and travellers such as Richard Burton in the 19th century, and more contemporarily by Nirad C Chaudhury, VS Naipaul, and Bollywood films.
One is aware of the lanky greasy-haired "guide" fiddling with the controls only to produce a succession of blaring Hindi film songs that shatter the peace of the rice fields rolling past. The rowdy family of seven that is so immersed in itself and their cell phone cacophony even as they are chasing terrified dolphins off Baga beach. And the "Tibetan semi-precious stones" near Fort Aguada, Goa, which are manufactured out of synthetic resin at a factory in Thane. When this is pointed out, the so-called Tibetan shopkeeper's eyes glaze over and he suddenly discovers a young foreign couple from Denmark behind us to bestow his 1,000 watt smile on. There's the obvious rivalry and jealousy of two neighbours in Shopora village in Goa as they vie to offer you their porch to drink the night away.
From conversations had, one realises that those who cater to the tourist trade in Goa (and elsewhere) think in terms of three distinct groups. It's us, Indians and foreigners. Every single native seems to be a vendor and every single tourist (and that includes "Indians" as apart from "Goans") a consumer in a large department store the size of a small state.
This kind of amorality and rank opportunism is normally associated with tourist spots the world over, from Bangkok to Kathmandu, and from Gangtok to our very own Colaba Causeway. The host population plays succubus to the tourist's incubus - if they seem greedy, lazy and completely uncaring about the corruption of their environment, customs, architecture and moral fibre, why then, the tourists are not far behind in their attitude either. On many occasions the tourists' determination to extract every pound of flesh from their hard-earned vacation, is nothing short of militant and they display none of the decorum they would back home.
They feel everything is on exhibit for their benefit and comes with a price tag - whether it's a family heirloom during a visit to a native's home, an endangered wild animal… or sometimes, a human being.
Sadly, they are often right. In today's Goa, behind the gregariousness and bonhomie of half-naked red-faced foreigners and cheerful guides, taxi operators, beach boys and sundry other "suppliers" greeting each other, there is often a profound lack of respect commingled with envy, contempt, avarice and lust.
The free and informal ways of Goans are seen by a repressed society as permissive and licentious - and an open invitation to shed their inhibitions.
The What-happens-in-Vegas-Stays-in-Vegas syndrome is convenient to a state which is desperately trying to push the idea of Incredible India as a premier tourist destination. It doesn't matter that drug peddlers and paedophiles operate with impunity. It doesn't matter when foreign nationals are lying in their own vomit on the narrow streets, after a night of partying, in danger of getting run over.
Oh yes, everyone wants a piece of Goa. The bright-eyed tourist munching Lays chips and listening to loud jarring Hindi music and creating a mess since it is an expression of his freedom. Why did they come here when they could have got the same thrills at home? The casino owners on the Mandovi who don't care how many families get destroyed. The Israelis. The Russian Mafia. The Nigerians who carry out a thriving drug trade in the name of medical tourism and academics. The Macho Man from the Gangetic belt with his SUV with the loud horn barging through the narrow village streets without a dipper.
The new faces of Goa are the faux Corinthian pillars of newly built gated communities that look like abominations in the middle of the rice fields. But we have to remember that for every buyer, there is a seller.