New Delhi: Russian backpacker Andrei arrived in Goa in December 2019. He was having a swell of a time in the tourist paradise until the 22 March ‘Janata Curfew’ and the Covid-19 lockdown kicked in last week.
The lockdown left Andrei struggling for food, he told ThePrint, and he was also allegedly beaten up by police when he tried to scour the markets for something to eat.
“I never imagined that a tourist could be beaten up in a country that claims to equate tourists to gods (‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ is the tagline of the country’s tourism promotions),” said Andrei as he waited for his evacuation flight to take off Tuesday. “Now, I will never return to India.”
Andrei is among an estimated 2,000 foreign tourists who were in Goa when the lockdown took effect last Wednesday, and the state’s BJP government under Chief Minister Pramod Sawant launched an allegedly ham-handed campaign to enforce it.
But it wasn’t just the dismal administrative conduct that left tourists at sea. Multiple tourists told ThePrint that friendly local residents turned hostile as concern about the pandemic deepened and restrictions on movements began. Some claimed tourists were addressed as “corona” and thrown out of some hotels as reports about the rising incidence of Covid-19 made local residents suspicious about foreigners.
A ‘horrible’ situation
As the state’s borders were sealed in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, no truck was allowed from Karnataka or Maharashtra into Goa to ferry the essentials that the government promised would remain in circulation.
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A few trucks did arrive, but supplies didn’t immediately reach shops.
Reports of low supplies, closed shops and long queues at the few open establishments were worsened by accounts — from tourists as well as residents — of assault by police as well as the paramilitary personnel called in by the state government to implement the lockdown.
It was only eight days into the lockdown that the Goa government relaxed transit rules to ease the supply chain, and issued more travel passes to pharma and factory workers.
French tourist Verona described the situation in the initial days of the lockdown as “horrible”. “Shopkeepers were scared to open shops… The only shop that was open in Arambol had a huge queue,” she said of her first night of the lockdown.
“When my turn came, only one pineapple was left. I had two meals from the pineapple… There was nothing except booze and biscuites. Local police threatened us not to come out again…” she added. “We have very sad memories and spent a horrifying night in Goa.”
A Russian couple holidaying in North Goa said it was “sudden and unexpected” how “local people who were usually extremely friendly, shining with smiles and amicability, became hostile and suspicious”. “Some started screaming ‘corona’ at foreigners, some were throwing stones and sticks,” said one of them. “Somehow, there are strong rumours in India that the coronavirus was brought to India by foreigners and that every foreigner is a potential threat and should be expelled.”
The couple said the situation was particularly grave in north Goa, particularly state capital Panaji, and islands like Divar and Chorao.
Russian tour operator Victoria backed the couple’s claims. “Used to a red-carpet welcome in India, foreigners have been at the receiving end of a hostile local population,” she said. “They believe foreigners are carriers of the coronavirus. In several parts of north Goa, villagers forced guest house owners to evict all foreign tourists over fears… Two tourists in Anjuna spent the night on the roads.”
Over 925 foreigners from France, Sweden, Finland and Russia, among other countries, have left for their countries from Goa since 25 March, with around 133 Russians leaving Tuesday. Around 1,000 tourists, however, are still to be evacuated.
The Union Ministry of Tourism woke up to the situation of tourists in Goa as well as the country at large on 31 March, when it set up an exclusive portal for ‘foreigners stranded in India’, which is said to have received hundreds of complaints since.
Writer Vivek Menezes, the curator of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival, said the state had implemented the “lockdown with zero preparation”.
“The Goa leadership managed this situation with extraordinary carelessness and chaos,” he added. “People were stranded, supply lines severed, bread delivery men stopped, fishermen not given passes, there were no groceries available for four-five days.”
Pointing out that Goa was the only state that had invited central paramilitary forces to implement the lockdown, he said, “Paramilitary personnel assaulted people and humiliated foreigners. Kerala implemented the lockdown with great precision but Goa was utter chaos.”
He added that the government did not publish any toll free number, and even police failed to act in a humanitarian way.
Following multiple reports of Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel assaulting people, local residents and foreigners, for alleged violations of the lockdown, the Goa Human Rights Commission asked the central and state governments to file a reply. The central government subsequently informed the commission that it had launched an inquiry into the incident.
CISF commandant N. Mrinal also told the commission that the force will take “proper action against erring officials”.
Goa Inspector General of Police Jaspal Singh, who is now getting praise for helping residents deal with the lockdown, said they had come to know about “two to three cases of foreigners being beaten up”. “We are ascertaining facts. Shortage of supply and abuse were reported from two-three pockets but not across Goa… a few cases were reported in North Goa,” he added.
Asked about reports of discrimination, he said stringent instructions had been issued to hotels and home stays against misbehaving with tourists.
Speaking to ThePrint, Goa Health Minister Vishwajit Rane acknowledged that there might have been some difficulties in supplies in the initial days of the lockdown. “But once supply was restored, the situation became perfectly fine… In every complaint, police personnel have been reaching out to the public to assist them.”
In light of the initial chaos, Chief Minister Sawant is now regularly briefing the media. The government has published toll-free numbers and also engaged civil society.
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