Panjim riverfront’s urban green lungs under pressure from entertainment tourism

Children playing cricket in Goa.

.Photo by Joegoauk Goa/Flickr.

  • Among three major projects planned in Panjim are repurposing of the Campal children’s park, a passenger ropeway project and leasing out of a park area for tourism purposes.
  • Residents and NGOs claim that the projects, all of which are along the city’s iconic waterfront, will lead to privatisation of public spaces.
  • The expansion of the entertainment tourism industry in Panjim, including casinos and cruises, has come with traffic gridlocks and loss of public waterfront spaces.

Former councilor of the Corporation of the City of Panaji (CCP), Patricia Pinto (66), is on a mission again. An environmentalist and waste management crusader, Pinto has been holding awareness meetings across the capital city of Goa over multiple projects planned across the city that would lead to privatisation of public spaces.

“If we don’t react now, the government will drown us in projects and in its pandering of the casino and entertainment industry. Residents will be forced to leave the city and be displaced,” an impassioned Pinto tells her audience of city residents.

In October 2022, Pinto and a core group of the Save Panjim’initiative got wind of several projects being planned for the city. The new government proposals are along the open, public, waterfront, recreational and sports spaces of the city, which had been preserved and earmarked by the first chief minister of Goa for these purposes only, according to architect and core team member Arminio Ribeiro.

“They all seek to privatise and enable construction of high rises, directly on or very close to the waterfront, through modification of policies and changes in the city’s Outline Development Plan zoning. And all seem to facilitate expansion of casinos and entertainment tourism, by packing the city with “fun” activities,” adds Ribeiro.

The projects flagged by the Save Panjim initiative include repurposing of the Campal children’s park; a Passenger Ropeway Project from Panjim over the mouth of the Mandovi river to the opposite bank; and the leasing out of another Panjim public park area for jetty, hotel, casino and allied tourism purposes. A recent Niti Aayog recommendation suggests that government privatise its service assets, including stadiums, ports, jetties and public transport, for revenue.

Campal children’s park saved

Acting swiftly, the group was able to get local legislator Atanasio Monserrate to retain a major urban green area – the Campal children’s park – as its current, much-loved open, public space. The government had proposed repurposing the expansive, tranquil park, run by the Forest Department, into a ticketed, Waste-to-Art Display Park. The success of such ticketed theme parks in New Delhi has led to interest from other municipalities in setting up similar models.

“Tourists are free to share our space. We welcome them. But developing it for them and locking us out, is a definite no-no. These are our spaces, for now and future generations,” asserts Pinto.

Save Panjim initiative was able to stop the repurposing of the Campal Children’s Park, into a ticketed, Waste-to-Art Display park. Photo by Pamela D’mello.

Ropeway project gets clearance

The 1218-metre long and 50-metre high (above the high tide sea level) Miramar-Reis Magos passenger ropeway project promises to connect the two sides of the Mandovi river, Panjim and the Reis Magos riverbank, with a five-minute cable car ride for 220 days in a year.

According to documents presented in court, the project which was first mooted in 2001 at the cost of Rs. 340 crore, was finally tendered and allotted to the Jammu and Kashmir based Menus Adventures Pvt. Ltd., which created a special purpose vehicle called Royal Rides Pvt. Ltd. and entered into a concession agreement with the Goa Tourism Development Corporation.

Under the Design-Build-Finance-Operate-and-Transfer (DBFOT) model, the Goa government will receive a five percent revenue share in the public-private partnerships (PPP) project, which involves the transfer of varying amounts of government land, as well as the setting up of two terminal buildings on both riverbanks and construction of three towers (two at the Panjim end).

But the scope and site of the project in the quiet, residential Miramar-Panjim area, on a 5200 sq. metre open space that presently serves as a campsite for sporting events when needed, has got citizens worked up. “It’s a high tourist volume project, for a projected 2.5-3 million tourists, smack in the middle of a quiet residential area, surrounded by sports facilities and along roads that have no capacity to take the load,” says Pinto.

Marked as a “recreational” zone in the Outline Development Plan (ODP) of 2011, the site’s zoning was changed to “institutional” in the controversial Panjim 2021 ODP that was floated in 2016. For its controversial zoning changes that would increase floor area ratio (FAR), de-green and concretize the city further, several NGOs and citizens – including the Goa Bachao Andolan, Goa Foundation and eminent town planner Edgar Ribeiro – challenged the Panjim 2021 ODP before the High Court.

Reis Magos Fort as seen from the Mandovi river. The ropeway project, which is expected to connect the two sides of the riverbank, has got citizens worked up. The scope and the project site lies on a 5200 s. metre of open space that is currently used a campsite for sporting event. Photo by Rajib Ghosh/Wikimedia Commons.

“The ODPs are being manipulated to facilitate privatisation of public recreational spaces and convert them to overbuilt commercial ventures, under the garb of PPP partnership, which will exclude the common people and benefit only a few,” the Goa Foundation said in court.

When the court stayed operation of the 2021 ODP, the ropeway project halted as well. The Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC) then attempted (via the court and inter-departmentally) to have the project cleared as a “public utility” project, therefore exempting it from the court stay order.

“Tourism contributes 16 percent of Gross Domestic Product and provides 40 percent direct employment to the economy. This ipso facto renders it as a public utility. The ropeway will earn Rs. 65 crores in annual revenue, Rs. 15 crores in GST and concession fees per annum and provide 500 jobs,” tourism director Nikhil Desai said in a court affidavit.

In on-going court arguments, the NGOs are arguing that the ropeway project’s claim of being a public utility are inaccurate. As per the detailed project report, to make the passenger ropeway financially viable, the project involves creating a high-rise terminal building, that envisages subletting the terminal building’s 18,616 sq. metre built-up space for “allied commercial/premium tourist entertainment activities” like a multiplex, artificial skiing, tubing, artificial sky-diving, aquarium restaurant, kids’ area, in addition to waiting lounges.

Stalled from 2016-2022, the Ropeway Project is being accelerated by the current BJP regime in its third term in office. In April 2022, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) gazetted an amendment, excluding aerial ropeway projects from Environmental Impact Assessments requirements, on grounds that they ease pressure on road transport systems.

In June 2022, the Planning and Development body for the city, approached the High Court for an exemption for the project from its stay order, and in September 2022, the Goa Coastal Zoning Management Authority (GCZMA) granted Coastal Regulation Zoning (CRZ) clearance for the project.

Panjim’s branding as a casino and entertainment hub

“Earlier, recreational zones were left untouched, but they are now being rezoned, usurped, privatised or built upon. The open vista waterfront, that had been preserved for sports, recreation and culture, and which is so emblematic of this unique city, is vanishing by the day,” rues Ribeiro.

In place of the serene, refreshing, iconic waterfront view that generations travelling along the main riverfront road (Dayanand Bandodkar road) took for granted, there are now high enclosures of casino lounges that are aiming for hyper visibility and run animated neon advertising.

Casinos are not the only problem. A waterfront sports gymkhana space had been rezoned, commercialised and semi-privatised with expensive membership rates, the Save Panjim initiative points out. The business, realty and entertainment sector have the city’s 7 km long promenade, as well as the 3.2 km long Panjim-Ribandar causeway in its scope, especially after nationalisation of the Mandovi and other rivers have amped up the development pace in the inland waterways area.

“We understand that progress, development and opportunities are necessary. But capacities have to be respected. As citizens, we are concerned with the chaos from unregulated traffic, loss of our public waterfront spaces and the image of our city from a heritage and cultural city to a casino and entertainment one,” Ribeiro adds.

The entrance/embarkation to a casino on the foreshore area. The nationalisation of the Mandovi river has amped up the development pace in the inland waterways area. Casino lounges with neon adversiting and hyper visibility dot the main riverfront. Photo by Pamela D’mello.

Developed as colonial Goa’s capital in 1843, after its former capital at Old Goa fell to the plague, Panjim city sits on the confluence of the Arabian sea and the Mandovi river and cradles around 8 beaches and coves. It was slowly built up by the colonial administration over marshes, mudflats, sand dunes, salt pans and fields, into a riverfront administrative capital, and remained a charming town of stepped streets, colonnaded pavements, human scale heritage buildings, tree-lined avenues, residences and gardens, until the early 2000s.

Modern Panjim in 2022, is mutating from the grid planned, orderly city it was even as recently as 2010. There is increasing urbanization, traffic congestion, monsoon flooding and haphazard building construction rules that have permitted commercial high rise FARs in residential areas. As residents steadily move out, realtors have moved in to convert residential buildings into hotels and offices, altering the city’s character.

Government foreshore facilities leased to casinos 

Casinos, in the form of electronic slot machines, were first permitted in five-star hotels in Goa around 1993 by amending a gambling prohibition law. In 1999, a single off-shore casino license was granted to a pleasure cruise ship. Further expansion came after 2007, when five licenses were granted for off-shore casino boats after a Nepal gambling partnership split and both sections, scouting for newer locations, landed in Goa.

The gaming casinos set down anchor and no amount of protests from citizens, residents, NGOs or opposition has dislodged their permanent mooring location in the Mandovi river, where they impede movement in the navigation channel, create traffic gridlocks and parking logjams along arterial waterfront roads and in residential enclaves. The government, in 2013, capped offshore casinos to five vessels, but permitted one more influential owner in 2019.

Many agree that despite promises of the ruling BJP to shift casinos to a gaming zone around a greenfield new airport in Mopa, North Goa, Panjim city and the Mandovi River is stuck with the offshore gaming vessels. “It is the capital, there is high visibility and footfalls and they don’t want to shift to other rivers or sites,” Captain of Ports James Braganza told Mongabay-India.

“While there is a cap of six vessels, there is no cap on size. Initially, the vessels were small. But owners have been replacing them with larger and larger ships and floating hotels,” says former bureaucrat and Congress candidate for Panjim assembly segment Elvis Gomes. “The logistics required for increased passenger load has increased tremendously. So they keep needing larger areas for land operations, and more jetty space for feeder boats, and this is coming from public and government areas in the city.”

All available foreshore space is clogged in the 8.12 square kilometre city. While the chaos spills into the nightscape with music-blaring cruise boats and onto the city streets with touts, taxis and tourists and casino employees jousting for road and parking space with regular commuters and its 40,017 residents (2011 census).

Currently, the six casino ships have a combined capacity of 1885 passengers per trip, while the tourist cruise boats have a combined capacity of 2971 people per trip. Tourist footfalls still fall short of full capacity.

Successive governments have acted as enablers for the industry. Government foreshore facilities and jetties of the River Navigation Department, the Fisheries Department and Captain of Ports offices have been repurposed and leased for casino lounges.

Six casino operators run feeder boats from 1133 sq. metres of jetty space rented from the Captain of Ports and River Navigation Departments in Panjim.  Where earlier casinos made do with 120 sq. metres of jetty and foreshore space apiece, at least two have managed to rent double the space from government departments, including a recent presence at the iconic passenger ferry ramp.

Offshore gaming vessels still operate on the Mandovi river despite the current state government’s promise to shift the casinos to a gaming zone near the new airport in Mopa, North Goa.  Photo by Balou46/Wikimedia Commons.

“Even city corporators are not taken into confidence. We don’t know what is being planned for the city,” seven-term Panjim city corporator Surendra Furtado told Mongabay-India, complaining about the increasing opacity around projects, their specific details and financials.

Alongside the negative press the government gets, it also earns over Rs. 300 crores from six offshore casinos annually (in annual license fees of Rs. 30 crores apiece, service charges, lease rents and other taxes).

Privatising Panjim’s waterfront

In September 2022, the Department of Tourism (DOT), put out tenders for a PPP project to Develop-Operate-Maintain-and-Transfer, a 5854 sq. metre prime waterfront area known as the Panjim Park (Mandovi Riviera), just opposite the city’s landmark Mandovi Hotel that had leased out the property. After its 27-year lease ran out this year, the DOT took over the premises and invited bids for a 15-year lease, extendable by a further 15 years.

What has irked citizens though, is the DOT’s proposing conversion of the park from recreational into commercial zoning and its overt invitation to bidders to repurpose the site for foreshore facilities. This includes either floating pontoons, open jetty areas, with built-up terminal buildings, hotels, banqueting areas, restaurants and/or commercial areas, all of interest to casino operators.

The recasting and rebranding of Panjim into an entertainment tourism hub, has meant developers and their political backers are eyeing the city’s public spaces, according to architect Elsa Fernandes. With over thirty 30-year leases given out to private operators, large chunks of the waterfront are being privatised, says Fernandes.

Read more: Who is extracting Goa’s groundwater?

Banner image: Large chunks of Goa’s waterfront are being privatised. A waterfront sports gymkhana space had been rezoned, commercialised and semi-privatised with expensive membership rates, say citizens. Photo by Joegoauk Goa/Flickr.

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