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Risky escapist flows as Urban Youth Culture in India

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

This post considers the ways in which the Indian urban middle class and elite engage with the tourism destination, Goa in India through the assertion of power that colludes with capitalist behaviour.

Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

Through this blog post I wish to reflect on events that have unfolded over the course of the pandemic and relate to my work on young people’s employment in the tourism industry in Goa (India) and Lisbon (Portugal). Although not unique to the duration of the pandemic, what this specific situation has offered is the inability to ignore the polarising nature of interaction amongst youth through this industry.

My research focuses on youth who are not classified as minors. That is, those between the ages of 18 – 35 years old so as to account for youth postponement amongst populations – arguably a focus on trends in urban spaces. While my research has been on those employed in the tourism industry, their thoughts, stories and reflections, what I want to focus on here is the act of consuming tourism, or rather partaking in it. Here, I focus on urban youth flows for tourism consumption purposes as a culture of escapism enforced on some geographies – here Goa – albeit seeing culture in a rather crude sense. The pandemic adds a ‘risky’ nature to the same. The exclusionary nature of tourism has already been understood through critical perspectives that highlight concerns of the locals being subjected to the tourist’s gaze.

Additionally, as the blog call relates to the Global South, for the purpose of maintaining a focus, I will exclude a reflection on the situation in Lisbon, Portugal where the other part of my research is located. I will however say that the way in which I have found these dynamics to play out has placed – or perhaps continues to keep – those employed in tourism in a position of precariousness in both geographies. As such, I suspect that what I present may not be unique to Goa or Lisbon, but in many other ‘South’ geographies.

Story context

In the late evening of March 23rd, the Government of India called for a complete and strict lockdown of the entire country to begin at midnight. Everything came to an abrupt halt, including the stalling of trains and other services. The weeks that ensued saw a mass exodus of migrant labourers all rendered unemployed by this disastrous move by the government. A large section of the Indian population was stranded for about 40 days without any provision to return home amidst a sudden, strict, heavily securitised lock-down resulting in numerous lives lost. This section referred to as migrant labourers labelled as ‘unskilled’ or ‘low-skilled’, have existed with severe job insecurity and poor salaries prior to lockdown and were left stranded during the same. It was only in the first week of May that the government finally called on states to make provisions to let migrant workers return to places of origin so that they may be in safer – or at least more caring – conditions amidst this health crisis. Yet this grossly delayed provision was nothing short of dismal, and satiated with classism, casteism and racism. In Goa too, the anti-migrant sentiment directed at the so-called unskilled labourers reared its head ironically, seeing as migration is endemic to Goan society.

As soon as the borders reopened, a different flow occurred. In addition to those returning home to Goa, there was an onslaught of tourists visiting the state, ‘escaping’ the situation in their own locations. Unsurprisingly, this movement brought with it the first cases of COVID-19. Within this context, I want to focus on two incidents that took place in August and September of 2020.

The first was a video circulated via the platform WhatsApp, featuring a fight that broke out in a party held in Vagator, attended by a mixed group of youth from amongst the Goan and Indian elites including the children of politicians, and foreign nationals – this was in direct violation of the rules. It received a range of reactions including questions raised regarding corruption amongst the police, the risk that flouting of rules by moneyed people during a pandemic imposes on others and the differential treatment of people with regards to failure to adhere to rules under the pandemic.

The second incident was when a young ‘influencer’ travelled to the state and used the social media platform Instagram to encourage people to visit Goa, saying it is empty. In none of the posts was the individual wearing a mask which was punishable by a fine in the state. This received an onslaught of comments highlighting the problem of the rise in cases and how locals were staying home to keep this in check, only to be unmade through tourism. The general sense was frustration and a demand for responsible behaviour on the part of tourists. The individual posted an apology, saying she intended to support the tourism industry thought sharing that locals find this reopening of borders a problem. However, the individual continued to post content as evidence of people coming to the state because of her post during her stay of over a month, often without masks on. Clearly, she missed the point.

What is curious to observe for the purpose of this piece is that actions in both cases can be summed up in this caption of one of the posts by the influencer, encouraging people to visit the state:

“Most restaurants and hotels are shut. Everything is empty. Just feels like it’s us alone in Goa. It’s so refreshing to be out in the open with absolutely NOBODY around” (emphasis from original post).

Image 1 Cropped screenshot of influencer post.

To the locals and those without access to copious amounts of money –the “NOBODY” in the quote above – there is nothing refreshing about having to sit locked up at home while fearing the spread of a virus during a global pandemic. In Goa, as in many other parts of India, the lockdown was marked by food shortage which went on past the relaxing of the lockdown. It was at the same time that, through my research, I spoke to local youth confined to their homes due to the pandemic. Many feared the loss of their jobs, others having lost work were looking for new sources of income to be able to stay afloat, all the while forfeiting social interaction or severely limiting it to comply with regulations. The behaviour of the elites who were in both instances affluent youth, particularly from megacities like Delhi and Bombay, seem a sheer display of power to consume and perform as per their desired lifestyle, inadvertently or otherwise. Here is the essence of the risky and escapist tendency, an urban youth culture, pit against the precarity of the local young people in the tourist destination.

The other side

Running parallel to this, since June 2020, children and young people of Goa launched a campaign mobilising to reject infrastructural projects that the government alongside corporate giants like Sterlite (Goa Tamnar Transmission Line Project) and Vedanta, Jindal and Adani seem adamant on implementing despite their potentially serious environmental and social impact. These projects run through the Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and broadly through the Western Ghats in which Goa is situated. This is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Yet, this problem has been side-lined despite physical and virtual presence of this issue. Young people whose modes of challenging and refuting these projects have been art and peaceful gatherings – including social media presence (@SaveMollemGoa or #SaveMollem, #AmcheMollem) flash mobs in the capital and press conferences – have attempted to use popular and traditional modes of conveying the problem in the state. Illegal detention of Goan youth activists for paying their respects to martyrs through a peaceful gathering on so-called Liberation Day of Goa reiterated that the state continues to be a colonised geography, albeit with new rulers.

Of course this is not intended to absolve youth from Goa contributing to or fuelling such activities – of which there are many, including parties taking place at popular venues as well as newly-established ones. Elsewhere, I have attempted to think aloud about the contradictions of being employed in an exploitative industry. This has created a ridge between the population in a different manner. Those living with parents with potential conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus will not just need to take care but may also have to suspend working altogether in this particular industry – or at all.

The focus however must be returned to the risky and escapist culture lived out in Goa by urban youth from India. This concern is not new. In terms of the real estate sale of Goa, a number of scholars from the region have criticised the way in which Goa is sold to the elite Indian, including offering up ‘a piece of Goa’ (Fernandes, 2016) to the monied classes of India. In an article in 2016 in the Guardian, an urban Indian who had moved to Goa flagged why she was choosing to leave Goa as it no longer serveds as a pristine getaway, and has instead become a polluted, crowded place. The irony, as pointed out to by Ferrão (2016), is that the option to leave remains open to this group of migrants.

To return this discussion back to youth, it is imperative to ask what implications such actions and treatments of people have on young people who must make their way through to employment in the state. As they work, they will confront this risky escapist experiment of Urban Youth from other parts of India. It may be tempting to explain such behaviour as attempts by young people constrained by a conservative Indianness elsewhere. However, this is not the case as de Groot and van der Horst (2014) highlight, the narrative of performing “true selves” in Goa is too commonly used, and thus reveals a more established idea amongst Indian youth regarding the intended ‘experience’ or performance of modernity they wish to reproduce. In this way, I believe that interaction with Goa by the Indian population is rarely more than a scripted cultural performance of the tourist, but particularly the Urban Indian youth who may also employ differing tactics to be exclusionary.

Power flows and Urban Youth cultures

Although I said I would not touch on what exactly constitutes the ‘South’, and intend to stay away from the discussion here, I cannot help but raise questions about geographical position as presumed innocence. The flows of capital in this regard tell us more about urban youth cultures than do analyses of the patterns of participating in tourism or coffee consumption amongst this demography - which although do shed light on important social practice must be coupled with a context. This allows us to observe:

1. The perverse use of pandemic to reinforce enclaves of privilege and revelry that cater to Urban lifestyles of risky escapism

2. A culture of power-wielding by (rich) urban youth within the broader national context of India and their wilful ignorance regarding the lives of those within the tourism destination of Goa

It is for this reason that youth studies, especially those about cultures, must observe the middle class and elite alongside those who come to be impacted by their actions. In particular, it is worth considering the position of the youth elsewhere who must receive these groups. Perhaps a useful point of departure can be taken from Ferreira (2014) who, on youth subcultures argues against the focus on youth always resisting, dominant in literature on youth and has recently made a come-back within the social justice discourse. Instead, a way to understand this can be through youth ‘existence’ through, on the one hand the arts of a good living (in the consumption sphere), and on the other hand, arts of making a living (in the production sphere). However, even in this instance, I would argue for a political economic focus of these motivators.

Until then, I will continue to listen to the stories that young people share as they attempt to make sense of being employed in the tourism industry, their thoughts for the future and their sense of place.

Sinéad D’Silva is Research Fellow at Instituto de Ciências Sociais – Universidade de Lisboa (ICS-ULisboa), whose research titled Youth negotiation of tourism-based employment in Goa and Lisbon focuses on young people’s futures and sense of place while employed in the contentious industry of tourism in their respective local contexts. Sinéad’s PhD at the University of Leeds (2019) focused on young people’s decision-making as they transitioned from STEM degrees to their graduate lives. Overall, their academic research relates to work in society, youth futures and sense of place, alongside critical approaches to social stratification and spatialised inequality.

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