Food scarcity during lockdown leaves Goa in chaos

Published : March 31, 2020 17:53 IST

Residents panic-shopping ahead of the complete lockdown at Panaji Municipal Market on March 24. Photo: Atish Pomburfekar

Goa Chief Ministet Pramod Sawant. Photo: Atish Pomburfekar

Goa appears to be in a state of crisis. Reports suggest that the way Chief Minister Pramod Sawant is managing the lockdown has lead to a dire situation across India’s smallest State. Essential services are not in place, shops are poorly stocked, vegetable and fruit prices are at three times the cost, only a handful of chemists are open, ATMs are running low, banks are shut and there are still thousands of people stranded in the tourist-friendly destination.

To make matters worse, instead of trying to sort out the chaos, Sawant sent out personnel of the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) to control people on March 29. According to Rajendra Singh, a local resident, people became restive when essential commodities were not made available. “Two days ago, a group of people in the Calangute area took to the roads in protest. The police charged at the crowd. Later, a few men standing on the road were made to squat and walk. Some were hit with lathis. There is video evidence of this,” he says.

Sawant’s use of the CRPF has been criticised widely. Reports in Goan newspapers say Union Home Minister Amit Shah sanctioned the use of the CRPF. “I don’t understand the heavy handedness. Our local police could have just reassured the village people and given them correct information. People just want to know where they can get food. It’s as simple as that,” says Timothy McAllan, a resident of Calangute.

Alison Moreas, a social worker from Fatorda in South Goa, says: “The situation is difficult in all parts of the State, not just in Calangute. Very few provision stores are open because goods are not coming in to the State. Trucks are still blocked at the border and vegetables and fruits are very expensive—a water melon is selling at Rs.200 a piece, and if that’s not bad enough, the Chief Minister recently said only government vehicles can use petrol pumps. What kind of leadership is this?”

In what seems like a display of complete incompetence, Sawant has managed to create an environment of uncertainty and fear. To begin with, Sawant took a cavalier attitude towards the spread of the coronavirus. He insisted on going ahead with the zilla parishad elections that were scheduled for March 22. Party campaigners were allegedly out on the streets even as the nation was shutting down. Sawant himself reportedly made an announcement on social distancing one morning, but was seen a few hours later addressing rallies in different parts of the State and posting photographs of the gatherings on social media.

Sawant was perhaps pulled up by his bosses in New Delhi. A day after the lockdown announcement, Sawant shut down everything. Unlike in other States, which allowed movement of essential services, nothing was available in Goa, leading to chaos. Local residents, migrant labour, foreign and Indian tourists were seen wandering from one locality to another looking for food. Eventually, the government said the shops could open from 6 a.m. to 11a.m.

However, with trucks stuck at the border, provisions were not reaching the shops. If people ventured out after 11 a.m., they risked being beaten. Sawant then made an announcement that groceries would be delivered to homes. It did not work as as there was a shortage of personnel to do the deliveries. He then said panchayat leaders and members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) would be given passes to help with deliveries. Goans say that has not happened either.

Goa People’s Voices COVID-19 Response, a citizens’ group, issued a statement: “People are on the road due to the confusion caused by the constantly changing announcements about essential commodities and services, without systematic access to food. Their desperation levels are high. To blame this situation on the people is to absolve the state’s own responsibility.”

Meanwhile, Vasant Naik, a tourist cab driver, says he waited for two hours in a line to buy four kilograms of rice. This was six days after the lockdown. “My family has been eating just rice and dal twice a day. We cannot afford vegetables and fruits. But I feel we are better than those poor migrant labourers. They do not even have food. I think some arrangement has been made for them now.” Goa has a huge migrant population because of the tourism, agriculture and mining industry.

Adding to the chaos was the plight of thousands of foreign tourists who live in Goa on long-stay visas. Landlords were forcing many of them to leave and some of them could not change money. Although airports were shut, a flight with approximately 300 passengers took off for Germany on March 31.

Cobbling together a plan after receiving negative press, Sawant said his government had arranged food for daily-wage labourers, arranged for 2,500 COVID-19 testing kits, requested hotels to reduce tariff for stranded guests by 50 per cent and assured farmers that they would be given compensation packages.