An effort to achieve sustainable development for those who care for Goa

The Divja traffic circle in Panjim, Goa. Photo: iStock
As societies develop and grow, change is imminent. But how does one ensure that the change is for the better, conscious and inclusive? It was with this in mind that Joanna Pyres and her husband Tamer Salameh set up Circlewallas in Goa, a body that hosts circles of conversations and interactions to nurture conscious evolution. 

In 2016, Circlewallas started to bring people together to discuss what affected them most, structuring the discourse in a way where everyone gets a chance to speak, confront the problems a community may be facing and come up with possible sustainable solutions. Goa – a state that was dealing with an influx of tourists and new settlers from all parts – was developing new and unique problems everyday ranging from unchecked garbage to maniacal traffic. A visible deterioration in the quality of life for its citizens has been evident for over a decade. 

It was around 2017 that Joanna began to notice a few other things. One, she and a few others could see that there was a plethora of bodies working towards sustainable development and problem solving in Goa but many were working in silos. Quite often, these outfits ended up replicating each other’s efforts, unaware of the other’s existence even though the similarities in work, ethos and practices was glaring. There was no common platform that brought everyone who “cared” for Goa together. 

“Lots of efforts were on but were usually dispersed. People who wanted to act didn’t always know what they could do and those who had the information on what needed to be done didn’t know how to access others who wanted to act. A vital link was somehow missing”, she says.

Second, every time a problem came up in the state that needed civil society involvement, it was the same bunch of activists who’d come forward. For each problem – be it garbage, water scarcity or management, traffic issues, degradation of the environment – it would be the “same old faces one came across”. “Participation needed to grow and become more diverse. Otherwise, a tiredness creeps in”, explains Joanna of mixed lineage who moved from England where she was born to settle in Goa in 2008.

Moreover, community involvement was critical for the success of any effort. Joanna – whose own work is with global consultancy organisations in the development space – was acutely aware of the fact that much too often in the field of development, solutions are top down and do not emerge bottom-up. Communities that they are aimed are not consulted and solutions remain half-baked.

Joanna found her primary concerns echoed with several others in the sustainable development space in Goa. It was finally in 2017-18 after two years of discussions, a core bunch of people besides Joanna and Tamer came together to set up ActforGoa. This included Jessica Mayberry and Stalin K. of Video Volunteers who work in community media, Tushita Varma, Reboni Saha (industrial designer) and Dean D’Cruz (architect and planner) who run Kokum Trust and Jill Ferguson, an activist and independent consultant. Advising and keeping the group on the right track is social entrepreneur and environmentalist Felly Gomes, the only fully Goan member of the group, who worked closely with Circlewallas for a project in his own village Assagao. 

The aims of ActforGoa as currently envisaged are three: learn, connect and promote. In an era of fake news and misinformation, finding authentic information can be a challenge, to set up a directory of who does what and how to access them – a sort of go-to list and to promote projects, research and collaborations for sustainable living. The site will also highlight inspiring stories of good work being done everyday.

Almost all the residents – local or outsiders (as they are called) – have been witness to the deterioration in the state’s infrastructure over the years – be it the roads, traffic or sanitation. That development and unchecked tourism is taking a toll is evident to the naked eye. Unlike Kerala, known for its citizen action and awareness from the bottom up, Goans are relatively laid back. Moreover, the state has a weak panchayati raj system in place. “Governance in the state is lackadaisical and patchy. We’d all love to see more Kerala type of bottom-up activism happening here in Goa that pushes the authorities to act”, says Rahul Basu, who moved from Mumbai a decade ago, is an active citizen in the state and has been witness to a steady deterioration in the quality of living in the state.

The website for ActforGoa is a work-in-progress but is now active. During the COVID crisis – where Goa has fared better than most states despite a high influx of tourists and foreigners - for instance a special icon on COVID-19 allowed citizens to directly get involved in the fight against the virus and highlight the work of those who have helped Goa become COVID free. The site tells you how to volunteer, donate and lists helplines and relief kitchens for migrants and marginalized communities in need of food. It also lists numbers to be called if you have symptoms or even vets who will do house visits if your per has a problem during the lockdown.

Similarly, in normal times, there is comprehensive information on the growing problem of garbage. Government messaging on this is poor and doesn’t always reach the audience. In Goa, many citizens are willing to segregate and do what needs to be done to manage their waste footprint better but not everyone knows how to do it. There are a number of waste management experts but they don’t know how to reach the citizens. So, the need for fact based, authentic information emerged as one of the areas of lacunae. The platform would also act as a link between those who want to volunteer and the projects that need volunteers. “Many youngsters or citizens are happy to volunteer in a drive to clean up or prevent cruelty to animals in some form but don’t know where to go”, explains Jessica Mayberry of Video Volunteers. Mayberry hopes that ActforGoa will amplify the ability of NGOs and civil society movements to respond to emergencies like the present one, raise funding, connect with one another, find volunteers and share their successes more easily. 

In addition, a separate vertical in the platform will work to strengthen the panchayat system. Two years ago, some of the platform members had worked with the Forca Goa Foundation on a campaign “Take a Selfie at Your Gram Sabha” to encourage higher attendance at the meetings. “Improving the effectiveness of the village development committees is a big opportunity for protecting Goa’s villages” adds Mayberry. 

But perhaps the biggest test for the initiative will be how it manages to pull in local Goans to take ownership, so that the effort is not labeled as one by “outsiders”, something that often tends to happen in a state overridden by new settlers and brimming with local resentment. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

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