If you head north-east from Margao, away from the beautiful beaches of south Goa, you will soon come upon something that gives you an idea of the state of the state as it prepares for a legislative assembly election on 4 February. Chances are you will smell it before you see it. Some five kilometres from Margao lies the Sonsoddo dump, a hillside that has collected waste from Goa’s commercial capital for over 40 years. When the veteran environmental activist Claude Alvares’s Goa Foundation took over management of the site in 2008, he estimated that it contained 120,000 tonnes of garbage. That amount has only grown, as over 50 tonnes of unsegregated waste is trucked in every day. As you would expect, the dump attracts legions of flies and other pests, and is home to over 400 stray dogs.
Every year, monsoon rains mix with the garbage, causing toxic leachate to pollute the area’s groundwater. Many residents have been forced to leave as a result. There is talk of “scientific capping” of the dump, but the ad hoc measure applied so far has been to cover the garbage with tarpaulin sheets. This costs the Margao municipality over Rs 10 lakh a year, and is not very effective. Over the years, there have been numerous allegations of overbilling and corruption in the process. The exercise is also inevitably delayed until after the first rains, the sheets are sometimes blown off by the wind, and the resident dogs often chew them up.
This is part of a long history of dysfunction in the dump’s management. In the last two decades, responsibility for it has passed, with alarming frequency, between the Margao Municipal Council, the Goa State Urban Development Agency, several companies with little or no expertise in waste management, and the Goa Foundation. The foundation has been brought in twice, and, despite making significant progress in treating the waste using earthworms and effective microorganisms, has pulled out both times: in 2006, alleging non-cooperation by the MMC, and in 2009, with Alvares accusing the municipality’s chief officer of interfering to ensure “that Goa Foundation does not get Phase II of the project.” In 2008, the MMC terminated an expensive contract, awarded earlier by the urban development agency, for the construction of a waste management plant by an industrial equipment manufacturer. The termination was opposed by Joaquim Alemao, then the state’s minister of urban development. Three years later, two Bharatiya Janata Party leaders—Damodar Naik, then an MLA for the Fatorda constituency, which neighbours Margao; and Manohar Parrikar, then the state’s leader of the opposition, who gave up the state’s chief ministership in 2014 to become the country’s defence minister—accused Joaquim of corruption based on irregularities in the tendering for the project.
In 2011, a unit of Fomento Resources—an “alliance of companies in the mineral resource industry,” according to its website—was contracted to build a treatment plant and manage waste at Sonsoddo. The plant came up, and now handles a share of Margao’s daily garbage, but waste deemed untreatable still finds its way to the dump. Naik, who is the BJP candidate for Fatorda in the upcoming polls, has alleged corruption in the Fomento project. Vijai Sardesai, an independent who defeated Naik in the constituency in the 2012 state election, has said that a High Power Subcommittee formed to resolve the problems at Sonsoddo should be renamed the “Hype Powerless Subcommittee.” Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenco, a Congress MLA from nearby Curtorim, has stated that he is “still not convinced that the plant can handle daily garbage.”
Sonsoddo has become the biggest election issue in the three constituencies affected by it—Margao, Fatorda and Curtorim. All the candidates contesting them promise that solving the area’s waste problems would be their highest priority if elected. There have been few concrete measures proposed, however, beyond the usual blaming of political opponents. In this, and in exposing corruption, administrative dysfunction and the sacrifice of civic concerns in the interest of political expediency, Sonsoddo brings into focus issues facing all of Goa. The big question in voters’ minds is who will clean up the mess.
Yet it probably will not matter who has the best plan to deal with waste, or with pressing concerns over mining and casinos—for elections in Goa tend not to be fought and won on such issues. The smallness of the state’s 40 legislative assembly constituencies—candidates generally only need around 10,000 votes to win—and the outsized role of MLAs in the delivery of governance combine to foster clientelism, making incumbency a major advantage. (Promises of patronage are often supplemented by outright “gifts” to voters, including liquor, cash, household appliances and even combine harvesters.) This allows legislators to continue winning elections despite dismal performances in office, and even implication in corruption and other criminality. Local authorities such as the MMC are casualties of this structure, as MLAs treat them like personal fiefdoms, populating them with loyalists, misappropriating funds and manipulating tender processes to benefit cronies. Meanwhile, unbridled capitalism is left to devastate the state’s resources, environment and quality of life.
In this scenario, the heavy lifting of winning elections takes place long before a single vote is cast, as parties seek to induce Goa’s notoriously peripatetic politicians to switch camps. The five-term Margao MLA and former chief minister Digambar Kamat, for instance, started out with the Congress, switched to the BJP in 1994, then returned to the Congress in 2005 with four other BJP legislators, triggering by-elections that ended Manohar Parrikar’s first term as chief minister. These four, like Kamat, were recent imports to the BJP from other parties, and one of them, Isidore Fernandes, was jumping ship for the second time in eight months. More recently, in October, Joaquim Alemao’s brother Churchill, a former chief minister and the leader of a powerful mining family, left the Trinamool Congress for the Nationalist Congress Party—his seventh party in a political career spanning 32 years. Such behaviour means that the average duration of a chief minister’s tenure in Goa since 1987, when the territory achieved statehood, is just 470 days.
If shifts of allegiance are any indicator, the incumbent BJP seems to have the best chance of returning to power. Three of the nine Congress MLAs elected in 2012 have since left the party—Mauvin Godinho and Pandurang Madkaikar to join the BJP, and Atanasio Monserrate to join the United Goans Party. (Monserrate’s wife, Jennifer, however, is running on a Congress ticket.) Despite exhortations by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president, to find new faces to take the party forward, its nominees are still mostly old hands and their relatives. Possibly sensing defeat if it chooses to fight the election alone, the Congress sent out feelers to the NCP, the United Goans Party and the Goa Forward Party, a former coalition partner, about forming a grand alliance. Although disagreements over seat sharing prevented such an alliance, the Congress is backing GFP candidates in Fatorda and Siolim, as well as Monserrate’s bid to win the Panaji seat.
But it has not exactly been smooth sailing for the BJP either. Both Godinho and Madkaikar have been accused of corruption by Parrikar in the past, and are widely perceived to have joined the ruling party seeking protection from future prosecution. (Such contradictions are not new to Parrikar. In 1998, he accused Godinho, then the state power minister, of abetting power theft by defying a cabinet decision to discontinue unpopular rebates to steel mills. A year later, he extended BJP support to a rebel government that included Godinho. When he became chief minister in 2002, after withdrawing support to this government, he attempted to stop a case against Godinho regarding the rebates.) Also, the present government—elected following mass disgust at the extraordinary corruption of the preceding government, headed by the Congress’s Digambar Kamat—is seen as having failed to deliver on a number of its campaign promises, such as abolishing value-added tax on petrol, easing traffic congestion, solving garbage problems, cracking down on illegal mining and shutting down casinos.
As the leader of the opposition, Parrikar declared casinos to be “dens of vice,” and, after becoming chief minister again in 2012, declared that the government did not require revenue from legalised gambling to carry out development work. However, his administration prevaricated—an early excuse was that getting rid of casinos would send a bad signal to potential investors—and, despite several assurances that all casinos would be shuttered by 2016, their number has actually grown. Similarly, after complaining to the president and the Central Bureau of Investigation about a huge mining scam in the state during his last tenure as leader of the opposition—a commission of inquiry appointed by the central government put the amount involved at Rs 36,000 crore—in 2012 Parrikar told the legislative assembly that “there are no illegal mines operating in Goa.” Two years later, he favoured the renewal of existing mining leases in place of fresh auctions for them, since, he said, the leaseholders had “trusted the government when no one else did.” Despite his diatribes against a drug mafia during the 2012 campaign, in 2014 he told the assembly that there are no organised drug gangs in Goa. For all his talk about having zero tolerance for corruption, the present government took almost the entirety of its current term to appoint an anti-corruption ombudsman.
This record can really hurt the BJP because Parrikar, despite his current position as defence minister, is still seen as the real centre of power in Goa; Laxmikant Parsekar, who replaced him as chief minister, is considered little more than a stand-in. In a move unprecedented in the state, the ruling party is not projecting Parsekar, the incumbent head of the government, as its chief ministerial candidate. Instead, it has announced that it will wait until after the vote to nominate a candidate for the post in collaboration with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent body.
Matters have been complicated further by a brewing rebellion among the Hindu right. The state unit of the RSS, which supports school education in regional languages, has stirred up a controversy over the state government’s funding of Church-run English-medium schools. The RSS has now floated its own party, the Goa Suraksha Manch, which will fight the election in alliance with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, a former coalition partner of the BJP, and the Shiv Sena, whose relationship with the BJP in Maharashtra has been fraught of late.
In response, most of the Goan public, as well as most of the local media, has adopted a pox-on-both-houses attitude towards the current political class. This provides an opening for a third party to challenge the hegemony of the BJP and the Congress, and the Aam Admi Party is seeking to do just that. Unlike in Punjab, where it is also campaigning for the first time, in Goa the AAP has not peaked too early, and has so far avoided the infighting inevitable in a party likely on the cusp of power. In Elvis Gomes, a career bureaucrat who was the state’s inspector general of prisons and secretary for urban development before taking voluntary retirement last year, it has found an experienced and credible chief ministerial candidate. The party has promised to combat clientelism by drastically reducing the discretionary powers of MLAs, and to pursue sustainable models of mining and tourism, the two lynchpins of the state’s economy.
Following its successful strategy in Delhi, the AAP has promised to release specific manifestos focussed on local issues for each of Goa’s 40 constituencies.
The party is fielding political neophytes to take on seasoned veterans in most constituencies, but Gomes told me in December that the public is demanding leaders like the ones the AAP has put up—“professionals in their own fields, who have come out to serve society, who are clean, transparent, honest and sincere.” To support them, the party has invested heavily in publicity, and Goa’s highways are now dotted with posters introducing local AAP candidates. It is too early to say how well this strategy is working, but the AAP has rattled the BJP enough for the party’s workers to have vandalised AAP hoardings in various parts of the state.
Meanwhile, the problem of waste management is assuming ever more disturbing proportions, beyond Sonsoddo as much as in it. Goa’s population has grown threefold since 1961, and, aided by the massive boom in tourism since the turn of the century, the amount of waste generated in the state has ballooned—to 400 tonnes a day, half of it plastic, according to the state pollution control board. And, thanks to the decline of community land-ownership and a booming real-estate market, there are precious few places to dispose of it; villagers burning their waste, releasing toxic fumes into the air, are a common sight. Whoever wins the election, Goa is in desperate need of reform in the way that it is governed, whether regarding trash or anything else. Until it comes, festering sores such as Sonsoddo will continue to belie the state’s image as an earthly paradise.