Benaulim, Goa: For the past four hundred years, the second week of October is usually the time South Goa gears up for its biggest religious event, and when thousands of pilgrims pour in from the rest of the state and abroad. This year, the festival will get a lower profile as all security personnel have been pulled in to stand guard every few metres on the same road where Infant Jesus would have been taken on a procession to ensure that the sanctity of the cordon around the eighth BRICS summit is not breached.
Since Wednesday, 48-year-old Louise De Silva has been watching the motorcades whizz past her road-side daily needs shop in Colva the entire day. This is a far cry from her yearly front-seat view for ‘Colva Fama’, when the gold-leaved statue of Infant Jesus is taken on a public procession. But with leaders scheduled to leave on October 17, the day of the Fama, this year the festivities may be limited to the church.“I have never seen this much security every in my life. Maybe, they chose South Goa deliberately as there are so few tourists and it is easier to protect,” she muses.
“All this is so chakachak. Just like before elections, but bigger,” said Edwin Menezes. A taxi operator, he is rather pleased that the main road from the airport to his part of the town has recently got a smooth coat. “Of course, this is only from the airport till Leela hotel. You should see how bad the roads are in North Goa,” he says.
The official jets of the world leaders will only start landing at Dabolim airport on Friday night, but rehearsals are underway to ensure that the 42-km route for the 11 motorcades are completed in 20 minutes. The narrow road to the airport has already seen some traffic jams – as the opposite road has been cleared for the red-beaconed cars.
Most leaders will arrive at the coastal city only in the evening. They will see the recurring yellows of the newly-installed decorative street lamps on the winding two-laned highway and catch glimpses of the colourfully-painted colonial homes amidst lush tropical landscape.
They will be securely whisked in to the Taj Exotica, Leela and Park Hyatt hotels for their two days in Goa, all hermetically sealed off by air defence guns, dog squads, 6000 Goa policemen, seven companies from the CRPF and two each from Maharashtra and Karnataka.
On the lawns of the Taj Exotica, overlooking the white sandy beach, a giant hi-tech dome has conspicuously take pride of place. This will be the venue for the summit plenary, as well as the informal dinner hosted by the prime minister on October 15. Both the inner and outer white surface of the ‘dome’ will have projections of blown-up representations of Indian landmarks and artistic traditions.
The security forces will not just be looking out for terror plots, but also for protesters – a tricky job, given Chinese president Xi Jinping is in town. By Thursday night, 22 members of the Tibetan Youth Congress had been arrested by Goa police at Colva and produced before a sub-divisional magistrate.
With security forces fully deployed towards BRICS, it was an opportunity for some enterprising thieves. The Goa Herald reported on Friday that the police quarters were robbed of water metres by thieves taking advantage of the “vaccum” in the policing system.
An air ambulance has been flown in and kept on stand-by at Dabolim airport, along with an on-site intensive care unit and advanced life support ambulances. Five nearby hospitals have also been put on high alert.
“The government has ensured that there is uninterrupted water supply with the continuous testing of the quality, resurfacing of roads, refitting streetlights, ensuring uninterrupted power supply with the lines being monitored 24 hours a day,” says Goa secretary (protocol) Manoj Kumar Sahoo.
At the Goa secretariat, chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar estimated that around Rs 70-75 crore has been spent on preparations. “The bulk of the money has been sent in by the central government,” he told reporters on Thursday evening.
Parsekar, of course, has a balancing act to perform. A successful summit would be electorally useful, with Goa scheduled to go to the polls next year. Rajya Sabha member Shantaram Naik even complained to the election commission on Wednesday that the BRICS logo was too similar to BJP’s symbol and demanded that the use of the lotus icon be frozen during polls.
At the same time, with strict security measures required to be in place, Pansekar has also had to ensure that no locals are inconvenienced, especially given AAP’s presence in the state.
However, he still made a lot of people unhappy by forcibly installing mobile towers to ensure that BRICS delegation members get uninterrupted connectivity. South Goa is notorious for its bad connectivity, which would have been a hassle for the high-powered delegations, who will essentially be running 43% of the global population from a small village in coastal India.
The department of telecom had estimated that 100 new mobile towers had to be installed for the BRICS summit. The village panchayats were not happy. “Our villagers did not want the mobile towers as they believe that mobile towers emit harmful radiation,” Viola Costa, the sarpanch of Cavelossim village told The Wire.
With the assent of the village panchayats required to build the mobile towers, the chief minister himself got into negotiations with the local body members. A central team was even sent down in late September to measure the radiation level at 10 places along South Goa near the venues. They found that the electromagnetic frequency emissions was just 1% of the prescribed norms.
The findings got a mixed reception. While some of the panchayats agreed to temporary mobile towers, others relented to permanent ones and a few villages still kept up the fight.
Mobile towers were stationed along the route on rolling grass paddocks, while workers were still installing other towers along the roadside – trying to complete the job before the delegations arrived on Friday evening.
Meanwhile, Goans were getting a taste of the dissonance that takes place during any big multilateral diplomatic event around the world. At the Xavier’s Centre for Historical Research, civil society activists at the People’s Forums on BRICS railed that the group was turning into a “free market ploy”. In another part of Goa, finance minister Arun Jaitley expressed worry that the US was “becoming increasingly more and more protectionist”, with a nod towards the divisive US presidential elections.