Harsh penalties in poisoned paradise

Goa used to be an idyllic island of free and easy lifestyle. But the tourist trade and police corruption are tainting the one-time hippy heaven.

The boy from Leytonstone in East London was young and thin and out of his depth. He had a stubbly beard and thick glasses and wore a Chelsea strip, and was sandwiched between two friends, a girl and another boy, and the funk of fear came off him in waves, like heat. From the shadows of the gloomy office of the Anti-Narcotics Unit came the clattering of big old typewriters.

A smile twitched across his face: something bitterly comic had struck him. "I was done recently in London for a deal of grass," he said. "But the cop gave it back to me. He said it wasn't worth the paperwork."

In Goa, that deal is worth 10 years.

Last week a Sunday newspaper reported that Alexia Stewart, the daughter of an Oxford don, and her boyfriend Gary Carter, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison in Goa for possession of cannabis, and had begun serving their sentences in Aguada prison in the state. The couple, who maintain that they were framed by the police, are the latest in a long line of young people from Britain whose trip to one of the world's cheapest yet most convincing versions of tropical paradise ends in disaster.

Goa is one of the most beautiful holiday destinations in India, and arguably in all of Asia. A Portuguese colony until forcibly taken over by independent India in 1961, it has everything one could wish for in a tropical resort. The beaches are long, broad and golden; those away from the greatest press of visitors are still fairly clean. Behind each beach is a grove of tall coconut palms, then a strip of paddy fields, then more palms, shading villages of handsome old Portuguese houses; hazy in the distance, framing the idyllic scene, are the slopes of the Western Ghats.

Goa has scenery, architecture, history, an extraordinary former capital full of immense churches abandoned hundreds of years ago; it has brilliant, balmy weather most of the year, and the style and poise of a place that still hangs on to its Latin urbanity.

Yet, as a result of commercial greed and myopia, instead of conserving and capitalising on its unique heritage, Goa has become one of the cheapest and most downmarket tropical destinations in the world. During the season, that lasts from November to the end of March, thousands of young European holidaymakers fly into Dabolim Airport every week on charter flights, more than 60 per cent of them British. From there they fan out north and south across the state, the package holidaymakers sticking to the intensively developed tourist hot spots such as Calangute, the backpackers, the students, the dole vacationers and the tractor drivers and grape pickers on furlough renting Enfield motorbikes, and heading north to Anjuna, Vagator and Arambol, south as far as Palolem.

For now, there is no beach in Goa that the visitors have not colonised. Some, like Calangute, have been so heavily developed that the increasingly squalid sand has become just an appendage to the sprawl of bars, boutiques and cafes under the palm trees. Others, like Arambol, still look virginal. But everywhere, from the busiest beach to the quietest, the necessary services are provided: shack cafes on the sand selling cold beer, fish curry and banana pancakes; dirt cheap rooms, some providing a mattress on a concrete floor for little more than pounds 1 a night; rental motorcycles - and drugs.

In Goa there is no need to go looking for drugs: they come and find you. Anyone lying on the soft sand at Anjuna or Arambol has their reverie interrupted every few minutes by an amazing variety of hawkers: selling T-shirts and trinkets, offering beach umbrellas for rent, offering to clean the wax out of your ears (there is a sheaf of testimonials), offering "pineapple, sandwich, cold drinks, [sotto voce] dope..."

In the cafes in the lee of the rocks at Vagator, the hippies may seem a little self-absorbed, but unless you look outrageously out of place, sooner or later the joint will come round your way. At Arambol, as a Yorkshireman fresh from cutting and sorting tulips in Holland put it, while still finding his feet in Goa: "They really like chillums here - they stick a big fat chillum in your face, and it seems a bit rude to turn it down."

Then there are the trance music parties all night on the beach, where Ecstacy or Acid are as much a part of it all as the music, and the cold, and paranoia, and heavy policing of Britain seem a million miles away.

Drugs have been integral to the Goa experience ever since Allan Ginsberg and his fellow proto-hippies discovered the place in the early Sixties. Soft drugs, particularly marijuana, have long had an ambiguous position in India.

At religious celebrations, like last year's Kumbh Mela on the banks of the Ganges, the holiest men of Hinduism, the naked ascetics called sadhus, openly smoked chillums or joints. In the Dionysian spring festival of Holi, a drink of bhang (made from the leaves of hemp) is a popular (and apparently legal) way of getting into the mood of abandonment. In the big cities, soft drugs are very readily obtained.

Yet it is this ambiguity that has proved disastrous for many visitors to Goa. The weather, the idyllic setting, the seductive sense that everything is easy and cheap, all conspire to create a sense of security. Yet the Indian law against cannabis possession is both clear and draconian. For possession of 25 grams or less, the sentence is six months. For more than 25 grams, it is 10 years. The sentences are mandatory. The judge has no leeway.

For many years, the main point of the drug laws appeared to be to provide the Goan police with a useful extra income. The saturation level of illegal drugs made the abuse of police power easy and tempting. There were various popular scams: the simple plant followed by threatened arrest and backwards- extended hand; the dodgy dealer, making money at both ends, selling drugs on the beach then informing the police. More ambitious wheezes involved extracting large sums in protection from the organisers of trance parties.

But, from time to time, the protests of big hoteliers and package tour operators prodded the police into trying to tackle Goa's "drug paradise" image more strenuously. This is what has been happening during the past two years, following the appointment of a new Inspector General of Police, and the decision by the state government to do everything in its power to frighten off the backpackers and rid Goa of its druggy image. Today, unlucky drug users on Goa's beaches no longer get just a nasty shock, the loss of a few thousand rupees in bribes and an abrupt end to their holiday. "Two or three years ago," said the frightened young Londoner awaiting interrogation in the central police station in Panjim, the state capital, "the police were really corrupt; you'd pay them and just leave the country." Today it is very different - or so they would have us believe.

The tale of Alexia Stewart and Gary Carter is certainly a cautionary one. The couple met in Goa four years ago, when Alexia was taking a break from teaching English in Japan. Like many before them who have been ravished by Goa's beauty, they decided to build a life around the place, spending half the year making money by teaching in Tokyo, and the rest running a cybercafe and clothes shop in Vagator, north Goa.

The dream ended and the nightmare began on 20 March last year, when police barged into the house they rented in Vagator and said they were looking for drugs. Another officer entered from the garden, holding a bag of cannabis which he claimed to have found in the house. Alexia told the Sunday Times that the drugs had been planted and that they were innocent.

"We kept telling the police we were long-term visitors to Goa and had spent pounds 10,000 on setting up a local business. Why would we risk it all for pounds 100 of cannabis? They said we could buy our freedom for pounds 2,000, but we never believed the charges would stick, so we didn't pay. Now I would say to anyone that if the police ask you for money, pay them whether you are guilty or not."

After carrying out an inquiry into operations conducted by the officers who arrested the English couple, the head of police in Goa, Rajan Brar, asked for the charges against the English couple to be dropped. The judge, who hears all drugs cases in the state and is getting a name for severity, chose to ignore his advice and instead applied the mandatory sentence. Now the pair face the prospect of many years locked up for 22 hours out of every 24 in gloomy, airless cells, permitted only two letters and one visitor a month.

Goa's beauty has somehow survived the onslaught of developers and tour companies, but on the beaches the mood is souring. "Goa is much worse than it was," says the youth in Panjim police station. "It's much more crowded. Anjuna's pretty well gone. And they're busting people all the time."

The beaches such as Anjuna, formerly known as peaceful hippy havens, are thronging in the season, the winding lanes under the palms nose-to- tail with rented motorbikes driven much too fast. And the police, bent as well as straight, make hay. In my guest house in Anjuna, two young French women, huddling by themselves in the restaurant, seem to be having a moody, joyless holiday. We get talking, and it transpires that their best friend is in jail, awaiting trial on drugs charges. They spend their days trying to drum up support for her, soliciting letters from home, drafting appeals to the judge, citing their friend's academic distinction and aristocratic family.

Also near Anjuna beach, in a nice old house behind the Orange Boom Restaurant, is a man who has seen it all. With dreadlocks to his waist and a comfortable paunch, Goa Gill looks the part of hippy patriarch. Around a log fire on his patio, as the sun goes down over the paddy fields, and the cicadas shriek in the palms, he recounts his journey here. He first came to Goa, he says, in 1970, after the original hippy scene in San Fransisco's Haight- Ashbury district fell apart. He played music, studied meditation, tramped around India, ended up here.

"Back in those days there were so few of us in India that everywhere you went you were surrounded by people pointing and jabbering," he says. "But in Goa, where the Portuguese had been for 450 years, they were completely relaxed about foreigners, and they let us get on with our own thing without bothering us at all."

Goa Gill reminds one what Goa used to be all about. People like him have been arriving in Goa for 30 years, finding something intensely sympathetic in its beauty, its hybrid culture, its relaxed, Latin attitude to pleasure; finding it easy to stay put and become part of the weave and the warp. (Goa Gill's contribution, he claims, is to have been the inventor of the music known as Goa Trance.)

Mass package tourism has blasted a hole in Goa's charm: now the place is crawling with people who have come here for no reason other than that it is cheap. And now a brutal police initiative in the service of a cruelly rigid law threatens to kill off the charm altogether.

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