Battle of Morjim Natives vs Russians

Russians felt so much "at home" at Morjim and had become so overbearing, dominating and unmindful of native cultural sentiments that they had put up Russian signs at various spots in the village. That made villagers who had lived at Morjim for generations feel like strangers. But last week, the Morjim Gram Sabha passed a resolution to remove Russian signboards, which was a demand put forth by many locals

By Arti Das | NT NETWORK


In the past few years, Morjim, the quiet village with a beautiful beach in North Goa, had become such a favourite haven for Russians wanting to live in Goa or buy land or do business of all sorts that it earned the nickname of ‘Mini Russia’.

But this is beginning to change. Locals are mobilising to fight the Russian takeover.

Russians felt so much "at home" at Morjim and had become so overbearing, dominating and unmindful of native cultural sentiments that they had put up Russian signs at various spots in the village.

That made villagers who had lived at Morjim for generations feel like strangers. A perception was built that Morjim was exclusively meant for Russians, where others are not welcome.

But last week, the Morjim Gram Sabha passed a resolution to remove Russian signboards, which was a demand put forth by many locals.

"We are planning to remove Russian boards and replace them with either English or Marathi signboards. Also we will not allow any Russian to conduct any business here. They own restaurants and shacks here and as a result we locals do not get a chance," states Morjim sarpanch, Mr Dhananjay Shetgaonkar.

Rajan Savllo Ghate, national RTI awardee, says "Russians are running restaurants and shacks in Morjim. They are also involved in traditional businesses of Goans. But, for this Goans too should be blamed as we are the ones who are selling our land to them. There is need for long term awareness."

Also, many believe that locals do not have that much money to run a shack or a restaurant and Russians take advantage of this fact.

"For locals it is not feasible as it requires an investment of ` 5 to ` 6 lakh. There is also the risk factor; the business may or may not work. So many locals prefer to give their place to these people to run. Also, Goans do not want to do hard work," laments Dadi Shetgaonkar, a villager of Morjim.

He also brought to light that Russians are a close knit community and that is the reason why one will not come across other European tourists in the Russian belts of Goa.

Goans are not new to tourists and have always welcomed them with open arms. But, there are apprehensions about Russians. Locals find some activities of Russians highly suspicious. They do not much like their behaviour. Many of them are rude and violent and have assaulted people. They are suspected of running businesses in violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). There are also allegations that they are involved in buying properties in benami names.

Ghate, who has done extensive research on foreigners buying properties in Goa, maintains that there is a nexus between revenue officials, land mafia and politicians in the illegal transactions and that CBI inquiry into the matter is required. Right from the year 2005, he has been working on such cases and has brought to notice many such instances involving foreigners buying land illegally.

"Russians are engaged openly in activities that should attract action under law by police and anti-narcotics authorities. In the year 2006, Russians purchased agricultural land of an area of 20,000 sq mts without the knowledge of 14 tenants. On July 16, 2006 I called for an All Party Meeting. This meeting provided the much-needed encouragement to activists, a positive crystallisation of the lines of approach and gave concrete direction for further action. Soon, thereafter, followed the historical ‘tilling of the Morjim fields’ illegally acquired by foreigners and the rude awakening of the Directorate of Enforcement, which till then was keeping itself on the sidelines. Subsequent inquiries, confiscations and widespread awakening of people are now a glorious part of our Goan history," states Ghate.

He expresses that there is a dire need to study the FEMA. He claims that there are around 483 properties in Goa bought by foreigners.

Rovino Rodrigues, Coros restaurant, in Ashvem opines that he personally has not come across any rude behaviour from Russians.

"We cater to higher end tourists and that’s why maybe we have not come across such tourists. They are always well behaved and better spenders."

He, however, pointed out that there is a need to curb illegal activities.

There is increasing apprehension about the growing numbers of Russian tourists. Last year they outnumbered British tourists who were number one in terms of numbers visiting Goa.

The financial year 2011-2012 had a record 4,51,998 international tourists visiting Goa; with Russians topping the list at 1,33,999 compared to 1,17,942 British tourists.

The financial year 2010-11 had recorded 4.41 lakh international tourists visiting Goa, while in the year 2009-10 the number of foreign tourists visiting Goa stood at 3.76 lakh.

Statistics for the 2010-11 season reveal that 889 charter flights arrived in Goa bringing 1.71 lakh tourists. Russians topped the tourist arrivals at 87,921 passengers, while tourists from the UK ranked second at 57,848.

Nearly 1.34 lakh Russian tourists helped Goa in receiving the highest ever number of foreign tourists (nearly 4.46 lakh) last year, which was nearly 3,000 more than the numbers recorded the previous year. Russians accounted for 30 per cent of the total foreign tourists coming to the state as compared to 26 per cent Britons (nearly 1.18 lakh).

Russians who accounted for 13.83 per cent (48,549 in numbers) in 2008, rose in numbers slightly in the following year (2009) to 49,251 but their percentage fell to 13.07 and further to 13.06 in the year 2010 despite the number of tourists from that country increasing to 57,623. In the year 2011 the number of tourists was more than 1.20 lakh.

But, what’s the reason that more than 1 lakh Russian tourists love to come to Goa?

Vikram Varma, advocate for the Russian Consulate, Mumbai states, "Russians come here for sun and sand. In their country, they have a huge land mass, lakes and rivers. But, they cannot enjoy it as the climate is very cold there. So, they come here. With a budget of 2500 to 3000 dollars which is like ` 1.5 lakh they prefer places like India, Sri Lanka and Thailand."

He further said that the bilateral relationship between India and Russia also plays a big role in this. "Russia has a special bond with India. Whenever India was in trouble with the United Nations, Russia has come to its help. Also 50 per cent of our defence comes from Russia and they are helping us with four nuclear plants," adds Varma.

Defending various issues related to Russians in Goa, Varma maintained that Russians tend to congregate at one place and do not interact with others because of their language barrier. "The biggest disconnect is because of language. They do not understand English and that’s why we have Russian signboards. Also they prefer going to Morjim as they come across fellow Russians and it becomes easier for them to interact," maintains Varma.

He also rubbished the claims that no Indians are allowed on the beach or in some restaurants. He, however, stated that this practice must have come in due to some circumstances. "I think there is a huge cultural gap between Russians and especially domestic tourists. They (domestic tourists) keep staring at bikini clad Russian ladies on the beach and because of that they must have complained to shack owners and that’s why they must have not allowed some Indians there," confirms Varma. He also informed that they do conduct surveillance to keep a check on this.

On the issue of land grabbing he stated that under FEMA a foreigner is not supposed to take any agricultural land nor conduct any agricultural activities. He also suggested that there should be more clarity in terms of FEMA. "Rule of land should be equal to all," he stated.

The first impression about Russians is they are rude and are involved in drug trade and are a threat to Goans. Varma mentioned that there are around 108 families residing in Goa and questions how such a small community could be threat to a State. On the point of being drug peddlers, he elaborates that it is next to impossible for a foreigner to indulge in such trade.

"It is not possible without a local network. So, how does a foreigner new to this place get involved in crime," states Varma.

Regarding Russians outnumbering British tourists in Goa, he informed that it is quite a small number. "In a country like Japan the number of Russian tourist is 2 million. We get around 1,50,000. If we had better infrastructure in terms of roads, hotels, etc, the number could go up to 500 thousand Russian tourists," he concluded.