Sunburn, the controversial Indian electronic dance music festival, will return to Goa this December, and the announcements look something like this: “Party People Might Have a Chance to Redeem Themselves this Year with Sunburn 2020.”
Wait, did I not get the memo about the Covid-19 pandemic being over? Does Goa not have one of the highest deaths per million rate in the country? To make matters even more confusing, the tagline for the event this year is “Live Again” — a bit on the nose considering the fact that there have been more than 82 lakh coronavirus cases so far in India.
Yes, Goa is Fun’s Own Country. We get it. But does it really need a potentially super-spreader event to prove it? Even as India scaled back on Ganesh Puja and Dussehra, Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to warn us against dropping the guard, and we brace for a possible spike in infections in winter, is the Sunburn Festival as unavoidable as, say, Bihar assembly election?
After months of things being on hold due to the Covid lockdown, state governments have encouraged a slow, phased opening of economic life. But cultural events have either adapted to the virtual format, or have been sensibly postponed to a faraway date — the Kochi Biennale and the India Art Fair have been pushed to 2021 and 2022, the Jaipur Lit Fest’s plans for 2021 are still tentative. Music festivals such as NH7 Weekender have announced online concerts, and even international electronic dance music (EDM) festivals like Tomorrowland will take place as virtual festivals.
Sunburn, and its parent company Percept, could have taken a similar route, considering they hosted a virtual concert earlier this year in August. But hosting a physical event clearly seems like the more profitable option, and Goans are livid.
I am a frontline healthworker and I do not think the sunburn festival is a good idea at all. Protests are a right of the citizen to ensure good governance, please be reminded of constitutional rights. Having a music festival is not one. Goa will lose a lot more than its economy! https://t.co/MHxZJxIhlS
— Tu Kaun Hai Bey (@radzzzzster) November 2, 2020
Shame on you. And shame on @bookmyshow for supporting such a dangerous and stupid move.
Don't you guys have any morals or a conscience?
— Joanna #SaveMollem (@thatdoggonelady) November 1, 2020
.@bookmyshow life is a bit beyond your comissions and percentage of profits on overpriced tickets for a festival does not deserve.
You are literally putting people's life at risks here.
It's beyond me to understand why can't corporates and goverments be a bit cognizant!!!!
— . (@wordsonmorphine) November 1, 2020
The organisers claim that there will be several special protocols to ensure ‘good vibes’ — private pods to hang out with friends and family in groups of 4-15 people, mandatory downloading of the Aarogya Setu app, thermal scanning, and possibly asking guests to carry negative Covid test certificates. Strict norms were put in place by the Election Commission as well for Bihar. One look at the visuals of crowds and voting lines will tell you nobody listens.
But with the growing number of cases and moderate health infrastructure in their state, Goans are unconvinced that the festival won’t spell anything but doom. Especially considering how months of preaching directives about wearing masks and maintaining social distance have not exactly worked — a walk in any city in India today will tell you that safety ‘protocols’ are not being strictly adhered to.
“People continue to die, but Minister wants Sunburn…” This headline from 2019, which came after three Sunburn attendees reportedly died of an alleged drug overdose, seems to have renewed significance. In September this year, state Tourism Minister Manohar Ajgaonkar admitted that Goa’s tourism sector would really pick up only after a Covid vaccine hits the market. He has also explicitly stated that Sunburn would not be given permission till a vaccine was available. But he’s now singing a very different song, claiming that since two sectors of the Goan economy have been ‘dysfunctional’ due to the pandemic-related restrictions — mining and tourism — a festival like Sunburn could help revive Goa’s fledgling state revenue.
The fact that Sunburn’s organisers have promised an upfront payment of all its dues before the festival starts might also be what prompted a change of heart. Ajgaonkar claims that many restrictions have been put on the event this year, which is why the government has given an “in-principal approval” for the event — this includes limiting the number of attendees to 12,000-18,000.
Tourism is slowly trickling back into the state. Casinos are opening up. Restaurants are considering adapting to dine-in services, but these guest estimates are still alarmingly large numbers, considering that Goa’s Covid-19 tally peaked just last month.
Goans are angry, expressing their distaste at the government’s move everywhere — from social media to letters to editors — calling the decision “disastrous”, and claiming, “EDMs will not dance away Covid”. Some are even upset that in wake of the Covid-hit economy, the government is “encouraging and promoting activities such as casinos and Sunburn, which are of no benefit to the locals”.
Additionally, Goa is also in the thick of huge citizen protests as part of the Save Mollem campaign. On 1 November, thousands of people blocked the railway track at Chandor, South Goa to protest the South Western Railways’ double-tracking project, which is reportedly being carried out to transport coal from the state to steel plants in north Karnataka. Protesters claim the project will make Goa a “coal transportation hub” and serve a threat to both livelihoods and the state’s ecological diversity. The government’s apathy towards the campaign, which has been garnering momentum for months, and its move to approve Sunburn despite Covid-19, might further signal that its priorities are skewed.
A contentious festival
For many years now, Goans have had a love-hate relationship with the EDM festival — thankful for the business that came in, but scornful at the drugs, booze, and rash tourists it brought along. When the festival moved out of Goa to Pune in 2016, over the issue of non-payment of dues, there was a palpable sense of relief: one headline read: Sound of silence, not EDMs this December. After moving to the Pune-Ahmednagar highway, Sunburn ran into trouble again, facing objection from the locals and members of the Right-wing Hindu Janajagruti Samiti.
In 2019, when there were three reported deaths at the December festival, it ended in a political war between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over which party’s government was most responsible for turning a blind eye to the narcotic trade in the state. Matters grew worse when one of the co-organisers of the festival was arrested in August 2020 by the Goa Crime Branch over his alleged connection with a rave party.
Sunburn’s organisers tried to win brownie points partnering with the Goa government and Chief Minister Pramod Sawant in the state’s Covid-19 relief efforts by fundraising through a virtual concert. It even launched “trendy” Covid-19 face masks (pandemic merchandise?). But all that conscientiousness seems thinly veiled now.
Apart from the potential risk to those who attend the festival, the safety of hundreds of people employed in security, maintenance, and production might not be as paramount to organisers compared to attendees who are willing to shell out a pretty penny to have some fun in the sun. By risking health hazard for the state by allowing an (avoidable) event of up to 18,000 attendees, the Goa government has made an undeniably irresponsible move. But the organisers of the festival, irrespective of the fact that they are private players whose sole function is to make profit, also need to be held accountable.
Views are personal.
This article has been updated to reflect a correction.