Someone once remarked to me at a social function how wonderful it was that we were having so much by way of art, music, poetry, literature, sport, and culture in general, such a lot of it that one was at a loss for choice. And she was right, of course.

But the phrase “bread and circuses” did come to mind as well. “Bread and circuses” (from the Latin ‘panis et circenses’) is a figure of speech which in politics has come to mean “the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion, distraction or mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace.”

Bread and circuses

The term was coined by the satirical Roman poet Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, better known as Juvenal (active in the late 1st and early 2nd century AD), in reference to the ploy of providing free wheat and costly, blood-and-gore circus games and other forms of popular entertainment as a means of gaining and holding on to political power. It is a distracting device that has been successfully employed through history: it has been said of the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar that he diverted the minds of his population from his excesses by offering them “football, fado and Fátima.”

There is nothing ‘shallow’ about the arts, music or sport of course, but when we get a barrage of festival after festival, quite a few of exceptionally high quality, but do not get the governance and comprehensive planning and delivery of basic amenities to our populace, the discrepancy is glaringly evident.

This is obvious to even a short-term visitor to our state. We had over a hundred delegates from eleven countries descend upon Goa for the recently-concluded ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development) festival, at which I was invited to deliver the keynote address. While all of them were awestruck by Goa’s natural, built and intangible heritage, even during their short stay here they came face-to-face with issues that bedevil residents all the time: garbage disposal, sanitation, noise pollution, parking problems, a poor public transport system, exorbitant taxi fares and the lack of a basic airport bus shuttle transfer system in what despite everything is still India’s hottest and most iconic tourist destination.

The whole ethos of the global ABCD movement is one of “strengths-focussed, place-based and community-driven development”, the “power of communities, neighbourhoods and residents focussing on their assets, capacities and opportunities, as opposed to their needs, deficiencies and limitations.” I must admit that this definition flummoxed me when I first encountered it. Whenever I think of community-driven development for Goa, I can’t help thinking first of what I perceive to be our basic needs, and what is lacking in our day-to-day living (and we have enumerated just a few already above).

So let’s look holistically at assets, capacities and opportunities and at our strengths, the USP (unique selling point) of Goa and our communities. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we have to admit we have taken a wrong turn in our vision for the future. Our USP is our natural beauty, our unique position in history and our intangible heritage of art, music, dance and culture. It is the reason that the plethora of festivals, conventions, workshops, symposiums etc are held in Goa in the first place. It is this that we should safeguard zealously and jealously, instead of trying to mimic vacuous templates like Las Vegas.

The development should be holistic, inclusive, and should maintain our sensitive ecological balance. The pride we have for our land should be instilled and shared by all of us, not just a few communities, societal layers or enclaves.

Goa is poised at a crossroad like never before. If we choose the right path, we could become such an exemplar for the rest of the country (a true ‘Goa model’) and indeed the India-Pacific region. But if we choose our status quo, generations after us will hold us accountable for aiding and abetting Goa’s decline through complacency.

Which brings us to the opportunities we have before us. The looming election can be a watershed moment in our history if we collectively vote for true, clean, honest, positive, wholesome change. It is a change Goa sorely needs. It is a change that ought to have come so much earlier. But better late than never.

It is time to rethink the image of ‘brand Goa’ we are putting out into the ether, be it for tourism or in the more general sense. Goa is already taking centre-stage as a hub for the arts, literature, music, dance, and creativity in general, and for sport. But if we have a government that fails to deliver on basics, and that fails to protect what is still left of our natural heritage, this will by default be reduced to just ‘bread and circuses.’

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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