Goan with the wind

29 December,2010 07:14 AM IST |   |  Pamela D'Mello

With holiday homes and resorts mushrooming all over Goa, the popular New Year destination is losing its quaint flavour and unique charm, fear locals

With holiday homes and resorts mushrooming all over Goa, the popular New Year destination is losing its quaint flavour and unique charm, fear locals

Mumbai's well-known couple, Deveika and Suresh Bhojwani are part of a tribe of people that are referred to as, "old Goa hands".

Fashion designer Wendell Rodricks (l) reads an excerpt from a book on Goa by the late Frank Simoes
at a function at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai a couple of years ago. Gerson Da Cunhau00a0 (in white) and food columnist Asit Chandmal look on. Wendell spoke about the need to preserve beautiful, old Goan bungalows at the event

They told acquaintances that since they discovered the place, the Bhojwanis returned often to Goa, rented a quiet Goan house in Saipem and spent rustic vacations away from the madding Mumbai crowds.

They were then part of a small clique of Goa lovers, who had discovered the region's indolent charm, along with a spattering of hippies, and Westerners who long leased houses from locals and braved the hardships of a back-to-basics existence for the mesmeric charm of virgin beaches and sheer quiet.

This year, the Bhojwanis returned, and rented their usual cottage. Part of a pretty ward that is tucked away from the main Candolim tourist hub has been nicknamed by someone as, 'millionaire's row' because it is lined with the second home or holiday pads of India's rich and famous.u00a0 Deveika Bhojwani confirmed that they are about to begin designing their own holiday home in Goa, on a plot of land they acquired across the river in Nerul.


The Bhojwanis will share their new neighbourhood with Mumbai industrialist Jaydev Mody, whose house stands near by, on land he purchased two decades ago. In 2005, Mody made major investments in real estate in North and Central Goa. Nearly 80 per cent of Mody's interests are in real estate, while 20 per cent is in gaming including ownership of three of Goa's off shore casinos. "I saw Goa as the only potentially international class destination in India with a great hospitality sector, culture and people. It could have developed into something big," says Mody.u00a0 Other corporates that invested at the time, included the Peninsula group and the Rahejas. The tide of land deals that escalated from 1995 to 2004, appear to be a third tranche of major sales in Goan real estate. Iron ore mine owning companies from the region set up their real estate arms in the late 1980s, following local politicians and senior bureaucrats in two earlier rounds of hectic purchasing and land conversions --- a number of these illegal purchases subverting the intent of the agricultural tenancy act.


In the surrounding bay area of Quegdevelim and Reis Magos, Spark Healthline and its director Benoy Berry picked up 30,451 sq m of land from local landowners, the Naique Panvelkars. While the media spotlight has focused on the big bad Russian 'mafia' bogeymen allegedly holding sway in Morjim, in North Goa, what is less known is that government records that emerged in the Goa Assembly show that Ravina Kohli of Bandra, Mumbai purchased 13,853 sq m in Morjim, Padmashing Finevest Pvt Ltd, Mumbai bought another 18,221 sq m in the same village in Goa's northernmost taluka of Pernem, Sigrun Realties of Mumbai purchased 2,64,137 sq m in neighbouring Chopdem, 20 lakh sq m in Mandrem was picked up by a Bengaluru based company, while the Saibaba Family Trust through its director Shyam Luthriau00a0 bought 1,05,931 sq m in seaside Mandrem in 2005. Luthria was in the news last week, when police arrested him along with Goa local Vernar Velho in a case filed by the government for alleged illegal encroachment on property meant for an oceanarium in Miramar, within the state capital Panaji area. Luthria had earlier told journalists that he had been mis-led over the ownership title.


Among the major buyers of real estate in recent years are Gold Resorts and Hotels Pvt Ltd, Delhi (10 lakh sq m), RPA Promoters and Builders, Kanpur (9 lakh sq m), Rajesh Hathi of Gujarat, Sarika Assests Management and Investments Private Ltd, through its director Piyush Patel and Ardent Infrastructure and Developers, Ltd, Delhi. Much of the big budget purchases of land are hidden from public gaze. Only when construction of multi-storied projects begin in villages, vocal protests erupt from residents, many of whom still retain a close affinity to their villages and are protective about its natural environment. A second home project of the Rahejas in south Goa, DLF's massive luxury apartment projects near Goa's Dabolim airport and the Dynamix group's Aldeia de Goa project in Bambolim, are among the bigger projects that have faced local protests.


Despite opposition though, high-rise constructions that jar with the region's hitherto low-slung building environment, are increasingly dotting the landscape, thanks to the region's eminently purchasable political class from village Panchayats upwards. Some part of the realty story though has actually had a positive spin-off, in conserving heritage houses, and building the base for heritage home stays and boutique hotels, lodged in converted old villas.

In the village of Saligao, just outside the tourist hub of Calangute in North Goa, several old Indo-Portuguese colonial houses have shifted hands from Goan Catholic owners to Western settlers, or people from Delhi, Mumbai and other parts of North India, with pockets deep enough to afford its costly upkeep. Author Sunil Khilnani, photographer Dayanita Singh, architect Ritu Prasad, writer and heritage activist Heta Pandit and former Mumbaikar Sanjeev Trivedi are among those who have given their heritage home purchases a new lease of life.u00a0 Prasad and Trivedi were active with local Goans who protested in 2006 to get a controversial Regional Plan (RP) revoked. The RP 2011 had threatened to rezone much of orchard, field, mangrove and forested areas into potential settlement areas. Since then, a new plan for 2021 with activists of the Goa Bachao Abhiyan on board under eminent architect Charles Correa, have prepared fresh blueprints to preserve eco sensitive areas.

Mumbai's Heta Pandit is scathing in her criticism of those who sell their land and houses. "What pains me is that the same people who talk about how wonderful Goa is want to destroy it," she says. The reality is far more complex. Subtle political and administrative sanction to encroachments and fake tenancy claims, coupled with tangled ancestral property ownership has meant non-resident Goans find it increasingly difficult to hold onto ancestral property.


"Prices of premium old housing stock have risen from Rs six lakh 15 years ago, to Rs 1.5 cr even for ruins," says restoration architect Hyacinth Pinto. Western settlers and Delhites were among the first to create a new heritage home conservation trend here that is quickly catching on. "High rises are wrong for Goa. My idea is to retain and maintain these wonderful old properties, after refurbishing them," says Delhi businessman, Dhiren Chauhan (60). In 2002, Chauhan bought a 100-year-old house in Siolim, renovated it and returns thrice a year with his wife. He had planned to buy a few more old properties for resale, but gave up after a while.


Not all buyers of homes or even resident owners are sensitive to heritage. Many as readily knock them down, opting for high-rise buildings with maximum FSI. The minute the monsoon abates, Goa is buzzing with activity, no longer the sleepy backwater it was.u00a0 All this frantic construction activity --- aside from gnawing at hills and shaving off trees -has spawned a chaotic in-migration oriented growth, creating worker slums and shanties in quiet villages, while ancillary hardware stores, hundreds of retail 'dukhans' and chai shops proliferate illegally.u00a0 The change is dramatic. Once clean villages are giving way to anarchic garbage strewn mini-townships, so characteristic of small town India.


"I would happily turn the clock ten years back, to what Goa was then. I can see the whole socio-cultural balance changing. It grieves me that the peace, quiet and beauty of Goa is speedily vanishing. Like every other beautiful place in India, once developers come in, it's gone," rues restaurateur Jamshed Madon. Jamshed and his wife Ayesha, resettled from Mumbai to Goa while in their mid twenties, opting for the quiet country life. Since then, the Candolim-Baga stretch where they run their Italian specialty restaurant J & A's Little Italy, has exploded into a forest of hotels, restaurants and shacks. "If we don't stop this artificial demand for houses, Goa will be messed up," says Rahul Deshpande, an engineer appointed on a Regional Plan committee.


The demand for second homes has Goaphile planners seriously worried. "There is a lot of money in Delhi and Mumbai, but Goa is far too small and ecologically fragile to withstand such pressure of speculative real estate investment. Second homes will destroy Goa," says Charles Correa.u00a0 Both have advocated imposing an immediate and prohibitive tax on unoccupied second homes that are not ancestral or locally owned. The clamour for special status like that granted to Himachal Pradesh is increasing.


Activist and medical practitioner, Dr Oscar Rebello recognises the growth explosion in Goa as no different from elsewhere in the country. "The only trouble is Goa is so small we have nowhere to hide." With urbanisation, the intangibles that lent the place its charm --- its close-knit, gentle communities, un-congested clean villages and towns, clear roads, low crime rate and safety, are now things of the past.


In response, developers are marketing self-contained gated communities/townships, with spas, malls, and 24-hour security and sewage systems. Houses at the exclusive 140-acre Aldeia de Goa property at Bambolim are selling for upwards of Rs five crore. The villagers that existed there before were simply paid off and shifted. The Bangalore based Nitesh Estates recently announced its 36 luxury villa project on 9.3 acres on the Sal river. Villas with private pools are priced at Rs 8-10 cr.


All this has sent land prices skyrocketing and out of the reach of locals. Rates have scaled from Rs 100 per sq m to Rs 35,000 per sq m in premium areas. Goans feel they are being written out of the script in their own state, with land ownership changing hands rapidly. "Second homes are destroying our first and only homes," says Dr Sabina Martins, teacher and convenor of the Goa Bachao Abhiyan.


It is a concern that fashion designer Wendell Rodricks is passionately vocal about. He says, "I am alarmed at the rapid growth rate without a thought for infrastructure. While I welcome residents who contribute to a vital part of Goa's social and cultural structure by residing here for almost half the year, I am against people who own a home and use it only over the New Year week. It is a drain on resources such as water and power. Goa should be immediately granted special status and like the hills of India, sales of homes and land must be monitored. Those who have bought land or homes should realise that they will eventually face a changed Goa. They have made an investment for peace and quiet but will not get that ideal Goan ambience."

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