Tourism, Development Seen Threatening Goa’s Environment

By Pratap Chakravarty
Agence France-Presse

PANAJI, India ~ 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 scrutinizing 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 AFP.

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 that is spearheading the spirited environmental campaign in the state of 1.3 million people.

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

A draft masterplan that predicted a 30-percent rise in the settlement area between 2001 and 2006 had to be altered when values shot up by 21 percent 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 meters of fertile orchards have been turned into concrete settlements in some of Goa’s 400 villages.

Changing Faces

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

“It’s 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 percent of India’s commercial drug production, Goa annually mines 25.4 million tons of iron ore in mines that cover seven percent of the state.

The local pollution control board has warned that mining and tourism in Goa – which attracts 12 percent of the almost four million tourists who visit India yearly – has 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 masterplan 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 which extent is not clear, as they have no outlines in this masterplan,” 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 percent in 2001 and projected to increase to 40 percent, has now shrunk to 31 percent,” she said.

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