Sunburn: The Dance of Death?

By Ashwin Tombat
07 January 2020 00:32 IST

On Friday 27 December, two tourists from Andhra Pradesh – Sai Prasad Malayala and Venkat Satyanarayana – collapsed while waiting in a queue to enter the Sunburn Electronic Dance Music (EDM) Festival in Vagator. They were taken to a hospital where doctors declared them dead.

On Sunday 29 December, Sandip Kotta complained of extreme uneasiness at the festival venue. An ambulance was called and he was rushed to the Asilo Hospital in Mapusa, where he died minutes after admission. 

The police – awaiting the viscera report following the post mortem – are yet to confirm the cause of deaths. But it seems very likely that an overdose of drugs is responsible.

The Sunburn festival returned to Goa this year after a three-year gap, during which it had moved to Pune. It attracts high-profile performers and music enthusiasts from across the globe. But the deaths have triggered a high-octane political debate.

The Congress has claimed that the deaths indicate the sale of narcotics at the venue. The party demanded that permission for the annual festival be revoked. It is a hypocritical demand.

The Sunburn Festival started in 2007, when a Congress government was in power in Goa. The first unnatural death took place in 2009, when 23-year-old Meha Bahuguna died of a drug overdose at the Sunburn Festival. The Congress was in government then too. Did they stop the festival…?

A section of the ruling party is also concerned. BJP leader Rajendra Arlekar tweeted: “Do we really need events like Sunburn to promote tourism? Can we not redefine our priorities in this sector? Let’s ponder.”

Mr Arlekar may ponder, but his mind doesn’t have far to wander. The fact is that the festival had moved away from Goa to Pune after 2015, and was brought back by his party’s government on the insistence of the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa (TTAG), the representative body of stakeholders in the state’s tourism sector. They should know better whether Goa needs events like Sunburn.

The Goa Police Anti Narcotics Cell (ANC) deployed drug sniffer dogs and three undercover teams to search for narcotics inside the festival venue. However, not a single medical team equipped to treat drug overdoses was at the site. Even one such team could have saved lives.

Scientific studies conducted in the USA have found that 67.5 per cent of EDM concertgoers consume drugs or alcohol at music shows. More than three fourths of EDM fans say they use drugs and alcohol to enhance their enjoyment of the music.

Another study by the US-based Rutgers University reported that one-third of people at EDM events experienced a drug-related adverse effect. Of these, 14 per cent felt the need to go to a doctor, and half of those people sought medical help. Dancing for hours, hot temperatures, and dehydration appear to exacerbate the risk for adverse effects among those who use drugs.

Though these studies were conducted in the USA, EDM concerts are much the same all over the world. The situation cannot be radically different in India.

The substance of choice for EDM rave parties, MDMA (3,4-Methylene-dioxy-​methamphetamine) commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly, is a psychoactive recreational drug. It alters sensations, increases energy, empathy, and pleasure. Effects begin in 30 to 45 minutes and last 3 to 6 hours.

In his book ‘e, the incredibly strange history of ecstasy’, media theorist Dr Douglas Rushkoff writes: “The music, lighting, and ambiance were all fine-tuned to elicit and augment altered states of consciousness. The rhythm of the music was precisely 120 beats per minute, the frequency of the foetal heart rate, and the same beat believed to be used by South American shamans to bring their tribes into a trance state… Rave dancers sought to reach group consciousness on a level they had never experienced before.”

Regardless of the constant anti-drug messages and warnings put out by EDM festival organisers – like at Sunburn – the fact is that drug use is intimately and inextricably part of the entire EDM experience.

Studies conducted by Drugfree.org – the American anti-drug campaign – show that the number of American teens who reported taking Ecstasy or MDMA increased by 67 per cent between 2008 and 2011. The campaign has publicly acknowledged the relationship between MDMA and music festivals.

Unlike other hallucinogens like LSD, which can be very unpredictable, there are no ‘bad trips’ with MDMA. There’s only the lights and the music, more vivid and symphonic, and the people.

But if used recklessly, MDMA has serious risks. It takes 1.6 grams – about eight times the normal dose – to cause an overdose that can result in a serious toxic reaction or death.

The risk isn't only in the drug; it’s in the party too. Ecstasy-filled ravers have an insatiable energy. If there’s music, they dance like hell. The exertion pushes heart rates up to dangerous levels. The water that the body needs pours out as sweat. Sometimes, they are so euphoric that they neglect the pounding heart and the dehydration until, suddenly, hyperthermia – an internal temperature of about 107 degrees Fahrenheit – begins to shut the organs down. A few succumb to Polydipsia or excessive thirst, and drink enough water to fatally intoxicate themselves. With enough Ecstasy, ravers can literally die dancing.

But despite this, no advanced country in the world has banned EDM concerts. It stands to reason; one does not ban all cars just because a few drunk drivers kill people on the roads.

But, in these circumstances, for the government to merely send in the ANC division of the police and not ensure that medical teams properly equipped to tackle drug overdoses are deployed at the spot is akin to an ostrich burying its head in the sand and believing that ‘all is well’.

If this policy continues, we will have deaths at the Sunburn festival next year too.

Blogger's Profile

Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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