Mumbai: Goa has seen a sudden surge in Covid-19 cases after staying open for tourists, without much restriction, until earlier this month, even as the devastating second wave of the coronavirus took hold of India.
The state government’s argument for keeping Goa’s tourism open was that restrictions would damage the economy of the beach state, a tourist hotspot that heavily depends on the sector.
However, an investigation by ThePrint has found that for many of Goa’s lawmakers, there was a serious conflict of interest and the financial losses could have been too close to home.
Reason: Ten of the state’s 40 MLAs — one in every four, or 25 per cent — have stakes in the hospitality industry, mostly as owners or directors of restaurants and resorts, or as their spouse.
This includes Deputy Chief Minister Manohar Ajgaonkar, who also holds the tourism portfolio, and cabinet ministers Michael Lobo and Jennifer Monserrate, all from the ruling BJP. Four others among the 10 MLAs also belong to the BJP.
Two others belong to Congress, both former chief ministers, and one is an independent.
The delay in imposing restrictions on tourism and the alarming Covid surge has since led to finger-pointing.
Two opposition MLAs — a Congress member and an Independent — have raised questions on the BJP-led Goa government’s delay in imposing restrictions on tourism and implementing a lockdown despite the spurt in Covid cases.
Congress MLA Alex Reginald wrote several letters to the government through April asking for lockdown-like restrictions.
Independent Rohan Khaunte, who is among the 10 MLAs with business interests in the hospitality sector, too spoke about the need for some restrictions as early as March, when the assembly session was underway. Speaking to ThePrint, both alleged that members of the state assembly were looking out for their personal interests.
Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, however, denied the allegations and said there was no link between the business interests of the ministers and MLAs and the delay in imposing restrictions in the state.
“The priority is health and taking control of the Covid pandemic. There is no business interest of anyone that supersedes this in any way,” Sawant told ThePrint.
“Tourism is a big industry in Goa and there will always be someone or the other involved in it. Critics may say we are not closing down tourism because of someone’s economic interests, but it doesn’t work that way. We imposed restrictions in a phased manner and this (MLAs’ businesses) was not an issue in consideration at all,” the CM added.
7 BJP MLAs, 2 Congress, 1 Independent
While Ajgaonkar is Deputy CM, Lobo is the Minister for Ports, Rural Development, Waste Management, and Science and Technology, and Monserrate holds portfolios such as labour and employment, revenue, and information & technology.
Under the code of conduct for ministers in India — both at the Union level and in states — incumbents should, within two months of assuming office, sever all connections, short of divesting themselves of ownership, with the conduct and management of any business they were “interested in” before being appointed as ministers.
The code adds that the minister may transfer their interest, and even ownership and management, to any adult relative associated with the conduct or management of the business, except their spouse.
The other BJP MLAs with direct interests in Goa’s hospitality sector are Glenn Ticlo, Atanasio Monserrate (husband of cabinet minister Jennifer Monserrate), Pandurang Madkaikar, and Pravin Zantye. The list is rounded up by Naik and Faleiro of the Congress, and Independent Rohan Khaunte.
Faleiro and Khaunte stand out in this group because they had been calling for restrictions and a bar on the entry of outsiders.
ThePrint reached all the 10 MLAs for comment. Those who replied denied any attempt to influence the government’s decision regarding the lockdown.
Tourism open without restrictions until this month
Goa continued to stay open for tourists until earlier this month without any real enforcement of basic preventative measures such as wearing masks or social distancing.
On 21 April, the government imposed a night curfew from 10 pm to 6 am. The government also implemented some other curbs, such as allowing restaurants and casinos to run only at 50 per cent capacity. These establishments were permitted to function beyond 10 pm as long as their patrons stayed on the premises.
The state government subsequently put in place a weekend lockdown from 7 pm on 29 April, a Thursday, until Monday morning. Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant advised tourists to stay put inside hotels for the duration of the lockdown. He said essential services would be open and restaurants allowed to deliver.
As cases continued to climb and positivity touched 50 per cent, many village panchayats started imposing local lockdowns beginning May. Goa Chief Minister Sawant eventually imposed a full lockdown for two weeks on 9 May. On Friday, this was extended until 31 May.
The hotels and hospitality sector is exempt from the lockdown rules, but with certain conditions. Establishments are permitted to be open for in-house guests, residents and staff, according to a Goa government circular dated 8 May. However, most have been forced to shut down because of the other restrictions in place that have made operations difficult.
Until 10 May, the state government did not have a requirement for visitors to show a Covid negative report on arrival in Goa. The Goa government put such a requirement in place only after the Bombay High Court’s Goa bench ordered it to do so on 6 May.
Meanwhile, the state’s Covid tally ballooned. In the first week of March, the state, which has a population of 14.57 lakh, was recording 50-75 new Covid cases every day and had a test positivity rate of about 5 per cent or less. By the first week of May, it was adding more than 2,500 new Covid cases daily with a test positivity rate of 42 to 51 per cent, which means nearly half of all people tested were being diagnosed with the disease.
As of Thursday, Goa had recorded a total of 1,41,567 Covid cases, of which 20,808 were active. The state has so far recorded 2,272 Covid deaths. An estimated 1,104 of these took place in the first 20 days of this month.
While Health Minister Vishwajit Rane did not respond to ThePrint’s calls, text message, and email requesting comment, Goa BJP president Sadanand Shet Tanavade said the MLAs with tourism-related businesses had no impact on the state government’s decision regarding restrictions.
“It is not like that. And it would be wrong to say that cases rose because tourists were allowed,” Tanavade added. “There are other reasons too. All over India, cases were rising, and in Goa also they rose. Goa is a tourist place. Restrictions were not insisted on initially as, at that time, nobody knew the second wave would come.”
Speaking to ThePrint, Congress MLA Reginald said “everyone wanted to protect their own interests”.
“Hardly anyone spoke of a lockdown among the assembly members even as Covid cases were rising. I wrote a number of letters to the CM, Health Minister Vishwajit Rane, asking for restrictions through April, but nothing happened,” he added.
Manohar Ajgaonkar, Deputy CM
According to information from the Registrar of Companies (RoC), BJP leader Ajgaonkar’s son Trivesh and wife Megha are directors in Ajgaonkar Resorts and Hospitality LLP. His son is also a director in TMark Resorts & Hospitality LLP.
The companies own the Owl nightclub at Calangute, a floating lounge bar named ‘Watermark’ in Panaji, and Hotel Amani Vagator in the Vagator-Anjuna belt of North Goa.
The website for Owl nightclub says it is temporarily shut and the contact numbers listed for the club are out of service. From 23 April onwards, Watermark decided to shut at 10 pm to abide by the Goa government’s night curfew. It later completely closed its doors. Hotel Amani Vagator was open till 15 May. This information is based on inquiries made by ThePrint at the establishments.
In the run-up to the lockdown, Manohar Ajgaonkar did not make any statement about restricting tourists’ entry or enforcing Covid protocol. In the last week of April, a viral video of the minister dancing at a wedding created a controversy as CM Sawant had just appealed to people to avoid large gatherings. Ajgaonkar was wearing a mask, but many others dancing with him were not. In a statement, the minister said it was a family wedding and there were no outsiders present.
Reached for comment for this report, Ajgaonkar said the MLAs owning tourism-related businesses did not impact the state government’s lockdown decision.
“We have to look at everything. Businesses should run, we have to grow the economy. Economy is dependent on tourism in Goa, and last year people suffered greatly (due to the lockdown),” he said.
“The CM was under a lot of pressure and was taking steps after careful consideration of everything. We have imposed a lockdown now. Let us see what results we get. After the Covid cases come down, we will ramp up tourism again,” he added.
“It is not about our personal loss. The economy suffers. Jaise sabka loss, waise hamara bhi loss (our loss is just like everybody else’s),” he said.
Michael Lobo, minister
Portfolio: Ports, rural development, waste management, and science and technology
Cabinet minister Lobo owns a string of businesses in Goa’s hospitality industry. These include the De Baga Deck hotel and restaurant on the Calangute-Baga road, Resort Terra Paraiso at Calangute, and Cafe Looda at Anjuna, according to his election affidavit for the 2017 assembly polls.
He co-owns Calangute’s Nazri beach resort, which was under the state’s scanner for alleged illegal construction three years ago
Inquiries made at these properties revealed that most of them were open till late last month. The De Baga Deck hotel is still open, allowing patrons with a temperature screening and basic sanitisation, with the restaurant operating for deliveries.
While most BJP MLAs stayed silent on whether to impose restrictions on visitors, in April, Lobo advocated for tourism to be kept open despite prevailing concerns about the potential impact on the Covid situation.
He said on 2 April, “If you make SOPs stricter and you harass tourists, which tourist will come to Goa? We have to take precautionary measures, but at the same time, you cannot stop business because Covid-19 cases are increasing.”
Lobo did not respond to ThePrint’s calls and text messages.
Jennifer Monserrate, minister, and husband Atanasio, MLA
Constituencies: Panaji (Atanasio), Taleigao (Jennifer)
Portfolios: Jennifer’s portfolios are labour & employment, revenue, and information & technology
State Cabinet Minister Jennifer Monserrate and her MLA husband Atanasio Monserrate, both from the BJP, are directors in Raj Hospitality Private Limited, according to information from the RoC.
They own a hotel, Varanda Dos Mar, at Miramar in Panaji, which is also the registered address for Raj Hospitality.
While the couple was silent on imposing restrictions on the entry of visitors or the movement of people, Jennifer Monserrate put out social media messages requesting people to adhere to restrictions announced by the CM in late April.
Jennifer did not respond to ThePrint’s calls. Atanasio, popularly known as ‘Babush’, told ThePrint that they are “co-owners on paper, but our son runs the hotel”.
“We have not put any pressure or spoken to the government to not put a lockdown. We have not tried to influence the government’s decision in any way. All the decisions were taken on the wisdom of the CM. Even if the lockdown continues, we have no issues.”
Asked if he was in favour of a lockdown much earlier, Atanasio said, “If you see the caseload, when there was no lockdown earlier, there weren’t too many cases either.”
Ticlo, chairman of the Goa Industrial Development Corporation, stated in his 2017 election affidavit that he owns the eponymous resort in Calangute. One of his relatives is in charge of Hotel Vilena at Mapusa. Both Ticlo Resort and Hotel Vilena shut only this month after the lockdown was announced.
Ticlo did not respond to ThePrint’s calls and text messages.
The MLA courted controversy in July last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, for holding a lavish party at a beach house in Calangute, even as CM Sawant had appealed to people to avoid social functions and parties.
According to RoC records, MLA Madkaikar is a director in Madkaikar Realtors Private Limited, which has a resort unit — the Sea Mist resort at Candolim — that was open to patrons until this month. Madkaikar was silent on the need for lockdown-like restrictions, and did not respond to ThePrint’s calls and text messages.
Chairman of Goa State Horticultural Corporation Limited, Zantye has a stake in the Hotel Ashok Plaza at Panaji and his family’s business, Zantye Cashews, which thrives on tourists too. This information has been sourced from the MLA’s 2017 election affidavit.
Zantye did not respond to ThePrint’s calls and text messages.
Khaunte is a director in Samatma Estates Private Limited, which owns Hotel Salida Del Sol and Cafe Mojo in Panaji. Khaunte was one of the few MLAs who had been flagging rising Covid cases since March, asking for restrictions.
Khaunte, who joined the opposition after the death of former Goa CM Manohar Parrikar, said he has kept Salida Del Sol open for medical staff to stay, while Cafe Mojo has been shut since the pandemic began, except for a 20-day window earlier this year.
Speaking to ThePrint, Khaunte said, “When Goa was in the green zone, we allowed quarantine tourism. I was of the opinion that in the absence of proper medical infrastructure, let us go for a lockdown. But a lot of ministers, MLAs who have business interests in not just in hotels, but also in mining, had the impression that the economy is for their individual benefit.
“We are not making any money right now, but we need to first focus on the war against Covid. I know the value of money, but more importantly I know the value of life. We need more public representatives and industry stakeholders to say this, but unfortunately most of them spoke in the same tune as the CM,” he added.
Former Goa CM Naik and his wife are directors in Sungrace Estate Developers Private Limited, according to information from the RoC. The family owns Hotel Sungrace in Ponda, an industrial belt in Goa. The hotel was open till the lockdown was enforced.
Although an opposition MLA, Naik did not comment on the need for restrictions on tourism as cases rose. His sons, Ritesh and Roy Naik, joined the BJP in August last year.
Speaking to ThePrint Wednesday, Naik said, “Whatever happened in the past has happened. Now is not the time to criticise or look at personal interests or party interests. Everyone across parties must come together to help people. I am working for Covid patients in my constituency, arranging for ambulances, involved in social work because it is my duty. People have elected me.”
Former Goa CM Faleiro’s wife has a share in Kesarval Motels and Resorts Limited, which has now been renamed Cross Roads Realtors Private Limited, according to the Congress MLA’s 2017 election affidavit. The company owns the Fern Kesarval Hotel & Spa at Verna Plateau in South Goa.
Faleiro, along with Khaunte, was part of a group of opposition MLAs who, earlier this month, demanded a 15-day lockdown and restrictions on the entry of visitors to Goa.
Faleiro did not respond to ThePrint’s calls and messages.
Goa’s tourism industry
In July 2020, Goa became the first state in the country to start welcoming tourists once again after the nationwide Covid lockdown.
The state’s tourism sector directly accounts for 16.43 per cent of the nominal state Gross Domestic Product, and about 35 per cent of Goa’s population is directly dependant on the industry for employment, a December 2020 report by the state tourism department said.
The report estimated that the tourism industry may face economic losses of about Rs 2,000 crore to Rs 7,200 crore due to the nationwide lockdown announced last year.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)