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High stakes in the race for Panaji

High stakes in the race for Panaji

19 May 2017 No comment 15 hits

For the first time in well over two decades, Goa's pocket-sized capital city takes centrestage in the state's political scenario. Ever since Manohar Parrikar won in 1994, Panaji has remained just one part of the star campaign of the BJP's overall vision and ambitions, which eventually saw him reach the Indian cabinet as minister of defence.

Now, Parrikar is already chief minister of Goa, even as he bids to occupy the Panaji legislative seat opened up by the resignation of his acolyte, Sidharth Kuncalienker.

This race, run in isolation, opens up a rare and excellent opportunity for voters to focus properly on what is at stake for the future of India's smallest state capital. As chroniclers of Panaji always point out, the city's old world charm and riverside quaintness is actually highly deceptive. In fact, it was the first rigorously modern urban project in the subcontinent, a self-conscious "world city" purpose-built by native Goans for the benefit of native Goans to enjoy what city historian Vasco Pinho describes as "freedom from fear the like of which has existed perhaps nowhere else." The rise of Panaji in the 18th century neatly graphs and illustrates the increasing self-confidence of assertive native Goans, and the consequent decline in power and influence of colonialist Europeans within the contours of their own Estado da India Portuguesa.

This is a formidable heritage and legacy, which must be remembered and built upon, and first of all, properly understood and appreciated. Panaji is decidedly not just another subcontinental urban disaster. Its DNA is good governance, scientific management, and visionary civic responsibility. Its city corporation is among Asia's first. The first girls' school in India was established in Panaji, two years before Jyotiba Phule's pioneering effort in colonial Pune. The first public library in Asia opened its doors in Panaji in 1832. It was also the first city in India to be laid out on a grid, with broad user-friendly pavements on all main roads.

All this makes a difference. It is why Panaji is so beloved to Goans, and the reason the city can be accurately described as the crowning civilisational achievement of the deeply confluential, many-layered Goan culture. It also explains why major cultural events fit so comfortably into the capital city's ethos: the International Film Festival of India, the D D Kosambi Festival of Ideas, Carnival and Shigmo, the promising Serendipity startup, and the seven-year-old Goa Arts and Literature Festival. No city in India is nearly so beloved to filmmakers and advertising image makers.

Look at the economic and demographic data, and there's plenty to marvel about there, too. Amongst several hundred cities in India, Panaji boasts the second highest per capita income (Goa ranks the highest state), and is in the top 10 in terms of both, percentage of high income families, and non-corporate tax collection from individuals. Within India, Panaji is home to the highest number of television sets per capita, second in the size of bank deposits per capita, and third-ranked in terms of vehicles per capita. It also features the highest density of telephone penetration in the entire subcontinent.

Look just below the surface of "Panaji Shining" however, and a murkier picture emerges. The city is on the brink of ecological collapse. The Mandovi is polluted to a level that the National Institute of Oceanography warns its water is unsafe even for bathing or swimming. The interior waterwaysmost notably the St Inez creekhave been criminally neglected, thoroughly choked with refuse and toxic pollutants. Miramar beach has never been so filthy, so comprehensively mismanaged. The city market is a disgrace. Unchecked traffic into the city has led to alarming deterioration of air qualitythe Goa State Pollution Control Board has repeatedly warned about respirable particulate matter (which directly affects breathing) levels that are more than double of what is considered unhealthy by national standards.

Other kinds of pollution are also proliferating. Despite nigh-universal opposition, deeply unpopular casinos continue to fester in the Mandovi river, and have taken over the best part of the city's historic waterfront. It is no secret this pernicious so-called "industry" flourishes with direct political support. Meanwhile, many parts of the city have been aesthetically devastated by egregious scam infrastructure, such as the absurd giant toilet in Azad Maidan, and the astoundingly hideous "renovation" of the state-owned Panjim Residency. The Smart City project looms just ahead, with massive budgets and even greater potential for disaster.

These are very high stakes. Panaji voters must choose carefully and well.

The writer is a photographer and widely published columnist. Views expressed are his own

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