PARADISE LOST: Foreigners at Ingos night market at Arpora
Picture by Michelle Frenandes
In Arambol, along Goas northern beach belt, Dominick, an Italian restaurateur, is ready to pack up and leave. Frustrated with living in an uncertainty orchestrated by the Goa government, Dominick says he is tired of what seems like a losing battle.
Suddenly, Goa, which thrived on the presence of foreigners, has had enough of aliens. The state that found its place in the sun on the international tourist map courtesy the hippy movement of the Sixties is now telling foreign tourists that they are free to come and visit — but not to overstay their hospitality. In real terms, it means they should not stay in Goa for more than 182 days at a stretch — the golden number under the law that gives them residential status, making them eligible to buy property.
Land in Goa is up for grabs, and the state government, after witnessing and seemingly encouraging land sales worth millions of rupees to foreigners and non-Goans, has decided to stem the sale of land to foreigners. The land crisis has come along with widespread reports on the deteriorating law and order situation in Goa. Oust foreigners seems to be the governments solution to the twin problems.
Though the governments movement against foreigners has been carrying on for two years or so, Scarlett Keelings brutal death seems to have opened up a fresh can of worms. After the British teenager was killed in March, allegedly by locals, questions were raised on how foreigners were being allowed to stay on for long periods in Goa, and had no difficulties in extending their visas.
So visas are now being looked at very carefully, and applications for extensions are being viewed with suspicion. Under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA), 1999, a foreigner would have to come or stay in India either for taking up employment, carrying on business or vocation in India or for any other purpose that would indicate his intention to stay in India for an uncertain period. For a foreigner to be defined as a resident of India, he or she would have to live in the country for over 182 days of the preceding financial year.
Getting a visa extension is not the foreigners right, says Rina Torcato, deputy superintendent, whos in charge of the Foreigners Registration Office (FRO), which conducts investigations into applications for visa extensions.
The governments moves have clearly frightened several foreigners in Goa, bringing land or property sales to almost a grinding halt, says Michael Lobo, CEO, Homes and Estates, a real estate consultancy service.
Lobo claims that 400 of his clients, all foreigners who purchased houses, are now being harassed by the government. These people, mainly retirees, have invested their lifes savings in Goa and are harming nobody but are being harassed by the Enforcement Directorate. Theyve been grilled and scrutinised through policemen, who, in turn, demand bribes. Till investigations are over, these foreigners are not free to sell their property.
Mary, a 40-something Englishwoman who has been living on a long term visa in Calangute, North Goa, for over five years with her Indian boyfriend, says she has seen several friends leave their property in Goa and return home to England, unable to sell.
Mary, like many other European retirees, is on a two-year long visa, but has to leave the country every 182 days — in keeping with her visa requirement. But what happens when were too old or to make this mandatory trip out of the country, asks Emily, an elderly British tourist from Devon, who has chosen to retire in Goa.
Torcato admits to asking more questions — more than those asked about five years ago when foreigners applied for visa extensions. For instance, in deciding on the extension of a business visa, the FRO will check if the business had been started while the foreigner was on a tourist visa, says Torcato.
The campaign doesnt quite have the support of the locals, who believe that foreign tourists and residents are important for their livelihoods. But the state government seems to have decided that the foreign presence in Goa has to be curtailed. We are merely following the guidelines of the ministry of external affairs, says the states special secretary, home, Diwan Chand. Foreigners tend to overstay, disappear or buy property while on tourist visas, he adds.
Records at the states sub-registrar of properties offices bear ample testimony to the Goa governments zooming in on foreigners. While sale deeds for property bought by Indian developers continue to be recorded, those involving foreigners are conspicuous by their absence. In the Mapusa office of the sub-registrar in North Goa — a region heavily populated by foreigners — the number of sale deeds involving foreigners registered in 2005 fell from 43 to nine in 2007. This year there was none.
While the home office claims not to have statistics related to visa applications granted or refused, the FRO says 965 applications were received for extension of long and short stay visas in 2007. This year saw 433 such applications.
According to the FRO, the total number of foreigners registered in Goa was 2,919. Of the 136 foreigners arrested in 2005, 48 were arrested for invalid visas. By this April, 17 of the 56 foreigners arrested were for visa offenses.
Yet foreigners have added value to Goa in their own way. Many of them are creative people, though they tend to stick together. This is visible at Ingos night market on Saturdays, at Arpora, where they sell products they make.
But some believe that Goa has been colonised by foreigners. Goa, many insist, is being overrun by Russians, Israelis, Germans, Brits and others. Recently, the sarpanch of Morjim in north Goa looked into complaints that a Russian nationals property had blocked peoples access to the beach. According to local reports, the Russians security guards assaulted the sarpanch when he went to investigate.
The government, clearly, agrees with those who believe that the outsiders have outstayed their welcome. Its time, it says, that foreigners went home.