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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 March 2008, 18:07 GMT
The perils of Goa's party scene
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Anjuna, Goa

The average foreign tourist to Goa these days is a British citizen, usually on a budget holiday, staying for a little more than a week in one of more than 2,400 hotels, guest houses and paying guest homes that dot this tiny Indian state.

Drug warning in Anjuna  (picture: Frederick Noronha)
Indian authorities are keen to curb Goa's reputation as a drugs market

Its famous sun-washed beaches are seeing ever more foreign visitors, up from 314,357 in 2003 to 380,414 in 2006.

But there has also been a corresponding increase in foreigners, like 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling, dying from unnatural causes.

Official records show that a total of 61 foreign tourists died in Goa last year. Sixteen have already died in the three months of this year.

One third of the dead are British.

The police say most of these deaths appear to be related to drug use. The rest are caused by road accidents, electrocution, drowning, suicide, and natural causes.

The easy availability of drugs has become a major problem in Goa, where tourism contributes handsomely to the exchequer.

'Drugs transit-point'

Scarlett's tragic death could have been possibly averted if drug peddling was not as rampant as it is now, especially in Anjuna, a hangout for foreign tourists and famous from its drug-fuelled beach parties.

Anjuna beach, Goa
Anjuna beach is famous for its sandy beaches and party scene

"Drugs are a serious problem in Goa," admits senior police official Kishan Kumar, who is leading the investigation into Scarlett Keeling's death.

In the last two months, Goa police claim to have seized over 5m rupees ($124,000; 61,000) worth of drugs and arrested eight people, half of them foreigners for peddling drugs.

This is up from 8m rupees ($198,000; 97,500) of drugs seized during the whole of last year when 30 sellers were arrested, 13 of them foreigners.

Popular drugs include hashish, cocaine, opium and ecstasy. Supplies are easy to get at the more popular beaches.

Lawyer Jos Peter D Souza, who handles a lot of drug related cases, says Goa may have become a "mini-transit point" for drugs coming in from Europe and other parts of the world.

"It's become so brazen that I remember a parcel packed with cocaine was openly marked to an addressee in Anjuna from a sender in Colombia. It was intercepted and the receiver nabbed here," he says.

No wonder drugs are peddled and consumed pretty openly on some beaches.

Reports pending

Senior police officials privately say that the beach shack serving alcohol and food where Scarlett landed up on the night of her death was infamous for its drug-taking crowds.

Anjuna beach (picture: Frederick Noronha)
British tourists account for a large number of foreigners visiting Goa

But they have no answer as to why places on the beach with such notorious reputations are not closed down.

"It is a very complicated story. It has wider ramifications," a senior police official, who prefers anonymity, said.

He hints at influential local politicians being involved in the flourishing drug trade on the beach.

To make the picture murkier, investigations into suspected drug-related deaths are often stalled for months on end because vital chemical analysis reports on the victims take so long to arrive.

Goa does not have a forensic laboratory, so samples have to be sent to overworked federal laboratories in the southern city of Hyderabad and the neighbouring western city of Mumbai (Bombay).

So the causes of the 25 of the 61 deaths of foreigners in 2007 are still "pending" in police records because the "chemical analysis reports" have not come back to Goa.

For the same reason, police remain in the dark about the cause of death of six of the 15 foreigners - before Scarlett Keeling - who died in the first three months of this year.

'Brief lull'

To make matters worse, slipshod investigations by the police into many of these cases have raised suspicions of cover-ups and or cases being concluded with undue haste.

Graffiti sprayed during a rave in Goa
The beach party scene has left its marks on Anjuna
Kishan Kumar says one sub-inspector of the Anjuna police station has been suspended for "serious lapses" in the investigation into Scarlett's death.

But that measure may be a reaction to the intense media scrutiny - both in India and the UK - of the case.

There is already a controversy about the death of 39-year-old Martin Neighbour, a British tourist, who was found dead on the beach at Arambol, some eight miles from where Scarlett died, in the early hours of 3 February.

His girlfriend, Rosalind Sheherlis, says she believes her boyfriend was murdered in a dispute over card game winnings.

But the post mortem report of Mr Neighbour, which this correspondent has seen, says that "death is not homicidal".

Anjuna flea market (picture: Frederick Noronha)
Foreign tourism provides a vital fillip to Goa's economy

"How could the police come to a conclusion that it was not homicide even before the post-mortem and asked the autopsy surgeon to record that?" asks lawyer Jos Peter D Souza, who is pushing the courts to re-open the investigation.

Goa is also highly popular with Indian tourists who make up the bulk of the 2.4 million visitors in 2006 - an increase of nearly 25% in three years.

"Scarlett's death will dent the image of tourism in the state only temporarily," says Goa's tourism minister, Micky Pacheco.

"There may be a brief lull, but after that, tourists will come in again."

The only statutory warning for the tourist, quips a local, is: If you walk the wild side in Goa, be prepared for the worst consequences.

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