Tourism, development seen as a threat to Goa

The once low-budget tourist haven of Goa is facing a crisis, environmentalists say, as developers force up land prices and a tourism boom threatens the delicate coastal ecology.

Environmental groups in this former Portuguese enclave, which became part of India in 1961, have joined ranks in an effort to slow the building boom in sleepy towns and remote villages dotting the edge of Arabian Sea.

Taken aback by swelling protests against hotels and apartments sprouting across Goa, the local government has promised to retain the colonial-era character of India’s most popular holiday spot.

“As a starter, we are scrutinising all property acquired by foreigners and we have decided to ban overseas purchases of real estate here,” Goa’s Town and Country Planning Minister Atanasio Monserrate told Agence France-Presse.

But environmentalists say unchecked building is a bigger problem and is angering local residents accustomed to a more sedate style of life.

“This issue is just a speck in the plunder of Goa,” said Dean D’Cruz of the privately-run Goa Foundation, which is spearheading the spirited environmental campaign in the state of 1,3-million people.

“This construction boom ... has stretched our infrastructure and the people here are deeply upset,” D’Cruz said in an interview in the state capital, Panaji.

A draft master plan that predicted a 30% rise in the settlement area between 2001 and 2006 had to be altered when values shot up by 21% between March and August this year, he said.

“Large tracts of forests and orchards are being taken over and converted into 400- or 500-villa complexes but these activities are largely speculative, aimed at creating a demand which currently doesn’t exist in Goa,” D’Cruz said.

The foundation says 70-million square metres of fertile orchards have been turned into concrete settlements in some of Goa’s 400 villages.

As a result, real estate prices have more than doubled in middle-class urban districts since 2004 to 3 000 rupees ($67) a square metre while in the beachfront Calangute enclave prices rocketed to 6 000 rupees ($133) from 1 500 rupees in the same period.

“It is a seller’s market in parts of Panaji or major cities like Vasco da Gama,” said real estate agent Menal Verma of the 16th century port, named after the Portuguese explorer and now quickly being smothered by a concrete blanket.

Besides accounting for 7,2% of India’s commercial drug production, Goa annually mines 25,4-million tonnes of iron ore in mines that cover 7% of the state.

The local pollution control board has warned that mining and tourism in Goa—which attracts 12% of the almost four million tourists who visit India yearly—have already caused irreparable ecological damage.

As the richest of India’s 29 states, Goa is also racing ahead with tie-ups with global brands by offering lower taxes on imported goods, a move that has spawned smuggling to other states, said Latino Noranha of the chamber of commerce in Vasco da Gama.

Monserrate argues that ongoing projects are well planned.

“Everything is according to procedures and we will protect our environment but some people are bound to have complaints,” he said.

“They complain when we build a highway or an airport but my town planners have taken all aspects into consideration,” he said.

But environmentalists cite a revamped master plan unveiled in April that aims to build six new cities across the state, each with luxury hotels and business districts.

“These cities will grow, and to what extent is not clear as they have no outlines in this master plan,” said prominent environmentalist Heta Pandit of the privately run Goa Heritage Action Group.

“Outside developers are fuelling growth and large settlements are coming from nowhere.

“As a result our forest cover, which was 34% in 2001 and projected to increase to 40%, has now shrunk to 31%,” she said.—AFP

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