Goa, Munnis Naa!
A lot of large international companies operating out of China want to leave. Perhaps, under political pressure from their home countries to punish China — in part — for initiating a global trade war against them, as also its part in allegedly perpetuating the current pandemic. Many developing nations see this as an opportunity to attract this moving foreign capital and enterprise to their shores. So far, Vietnam has benefited the most from this economic shift, especially in the manufacturing sector. Not to be left behind, India and its many States have openly expressed implementing a “whatever it takes” policy to reel in the big fish. Goa is one such State, that is almost perfectly poised to compete with India’s southeast Asian neighbors from a holistic relocation point of view.
The State Government, under instructions from the Chief Minister, has commenced approaching those companies on the move — offering them land, one-stop clearances, and enacting necessary policy changes to facilitate a smooth and expeditious set up of base in Goa. With the Central Government of India too promising to address draconian anomalies in the land, labour, investment, and corporate laws, it does read as an ideal situation for attracting the MNCs on the move.
Strategically, Goa, the smallest Indian State (by size), does have many advantages besides being a paradise for beach tourism. It is India’s wealthiest State, posting the highest per capita income and GDP — ranked 3rd in population literacy and blessed with an abundance of natural resources. In terms of infrastructure, be it roads, rail, port, airport, communication, electricity, it is way ahead as compared to the rest of the country. And yet, in the last 18 months have seen many local companies shut shop or ship out thanks to confounding — often contradictory knee jerk changes in various tax, industrial, and financial policies, raising levels of unemployment. The State is desperate to reignite the fire of its manufacturing engine. To do so, it will have to find ways to get its act together, and one part of it is to check — and reverse -the exodus of migrant labour that carried out the bulk of the construction, manufacturing, and even the agricultural functions.
Without exception, the COVID led exodus of migrant labor exposed every State in the Indian Union as guilty in terms of treatment met out to them. Apart from the public and very-large private sector enterprises, none have created the infrastructure to accommodate and care for their workers. With no dedicated transit housing or labor camps available, the migrant labor has to fend for itself, leaving them with a choice of creating temporary shanties near the place of work, or finding a home in the slums.
Each State has its housing-board tasked with addressing the housing needs for every income level social strata. Goa Housing Board is no different. It does build accommodation for the LIG (Low Income Group) class. But to avail benefits of such schemes, one has to be a State resident. The view shared by many residents of the State is one of fear of being “taken over” — that is, jobs, education, and other facilities reserved for the economically challenged residents of the State being taken over by the — growing in might — migrant workforce. The fear stems from the fact that the rich from other parts of India already owns the bulk of the prime real estate and industries in the State, and they prefer to employ “outsiders” rather than locals. There is a belief that these “outsiders” are the ones responsible for the increase in crime and adverse law and order situations. Then, accused of displaying scant regard or respect for local customs, heritage, culture, sentiments, or resources, these so-called “outsiders” are tolerated but not welcomed by the locals. Like it or not, all this does not take away the usefulness of the menial daily wage earner in the everyday lives of Goans, a point proven by the recent events. Unable to earn money during the lockdown, hence unable to pay rents, migrants had to forcibly vacate homes, prompting the exit of many migrants to their respective home States. No sooner the lockdown eased, realization struck Goa that it now faced a phenomenon called “Munnis naa” (no people). Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers, farmhands, and many other tradesperson or even general help is nowhere to be found, leaving the State helpless. All of a sudden, the plight and treatment of that discriminated “outsider” has become an important one to address. Not just for Goa, but for other States of India too.
In a way, the State and its residents have an opportunity to correct the situation. There is a growing call for making all Indian Citizens feel at home anywhere in India, and building suitable accommodation to meet the social and economic needs of the non-Goan working class may be a step in the right direction. It’s not an alien concept for Goans. Many of them work as highly skilled labour in Middle-Eastern countries, where the set up of transit labour-camps by employers is a mandatory requirement to import labour. Smalled countries in that region (some as small as Goa), have created dedicated townships for foreign labour. Perhaps, Goan developers could play a role in creating a disruptive labour-housing solution on the back of unsold or slow-selling inventory sitting as dead weight on their financial fortunes. After all, real-estate is all about yield-based economics.
In any event, addressing transit labour housing needs is no longer a topic of debate. The Government of Goa will have to cure this problem of “munnis naa” if it wants to revive its economy, leave alone attract foreign capital to it.
Umesh Luthria — investments, hospitality & real estate consultant and commentator.