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This Goa election, parties hedge their votes on thriving casinos

For many Goans, casinos are the most visible symbol of the unaccountable nexus between politics and big business.

assembly elections Updated: Jan 25, 2017 16:52 IST
Aman Sethi
Aman Sethi
Hindustan Times, Panaji
Goa elections,Assembly elections,2017 Assembly polls
For many Goans, casinos are the most visible symbol of the unaccountable nexus between politics and big business.(HT File Photo)

On any given night at Strike, Goa’s newest casino in a cavernous gilded basement of a luxury hotel, a lissome Russian dealer slides playing cards out of a custom-made plastic contraption and places them face down on the pink felt table before her.

Each time she deals a card, a scanner at the mouth of the contraption scans the card-face and projects it to a set of electronic tablets placed before a group of wealthy patrons.

The games — poker, blackjack, baccarat — proceed like in any casino, except here the players and dealer do not gamble with the actual physical cards, but with scanned representations of the cards projected on the screens before them.

“If the physical cards are turned face-up at any time, even once, the game is over,” says Narinder Punj, Strike’s manager. “We lose our licence.”

The reason lies in Goa’s arcane gambling laws that allow “electronic amusement machines”, rather than gambling, in the luxury hotels along the coast. The games at Strike, Punj argues, fall within this definition: the Russian dealer, the scanners, the tablets are supposedly all parts of a high-end slot machine, rather than a gambling table.

A more authentic gambling experience is available a short drive away on one of five ageing ships anchored in the Mandovi river in downtown Panaji. “A clause in the law allows for proper old school gambling on offshore vessels,” says a casino promoter with an offshore boat. “Offshore means off the shore, so we just bought a boat, anchored it and set up a casino.”

Such subtle interpretations of the law have turned Goa — the only state with casinos apart from Sikkim — into a major gambling destination, with tens of thousands of visitors flocking to its 14 casinos (offshore and onshore) each year. Supporters claim the industry is a responsible contributor to employment and taxes. Goa’s casinos paid Rs 127 crore in state taxes 2015-16.

But for its many critics, Goa’s gambling industry is the most visible illustration of how a nexus between politicians and big business is destroying the social fabric and fragile eco-system of this coastal paradise.

“In 2012, the BJP vowed to close casinos if they formed a government. Manohar Parrikar even led anti-casino demonstrations,” says Aires Rodrigues, an advocate and anti-casino campaigner. “But in five years, they haven’t shut a single casino. More have opened. It is the same with every party.”

With elections scheduled for February 4, both the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress have made the closure of casinos a major campaign plank. The laws around casinos were framed by successive Congress governments, but the party’s election manifesto pledges to shut all floating casinos. “Those on the shore will be closed at a later stage,” says state Congress chief Luizinho Faleiro.

“It is a myth that casinos play a vital role in the economy,” says AAP spokesperson Ashutosh. “Casinos have brought drugs, prostitution and pollution to Goa.”

Read | ‘Ready for change’: Underdog AAP fancies chances in Goa elections

While the casino industry claims it provides 10,000 direct and indirect jobs, Ashutosh says his party’s research suggests the industry provides as few as 2,500 jobs. The Goa government has produced no statistics on the industry’s economic footprint.

Chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar says his BJP government is opposed to casinos but powerless to shut them down. “These casinos are a gift of licences given by the previous Congress government,” he tells HT. “A business is set up here. It has followed formalities and obtained a licence, can we just kick it out?”

Yet the gambling industry has also found pockets of support among Goa’s thriving tourism industry. Goa has a population of only 1.8 million, but attracted 2.9 million tourists last year.

“Most tourists head to the beach, but in Panaji, a lot of hotel business comes from people who have come to gamble,” says the manager of hotel that has an in-house casino.

“When the election comes around, every party suddenly wants to shut down the casinos. It is a terrible idea,” says Anand Chauhan, a 28-year-old taxi driver who ferries visitors from Dabolim airport to Goa’s scenic beaches, “Tourists only come for three months in winter, but gamblers come all year round.”

Statistics don’t necessarily support this assertion. Goa’s gambling industry began with a minor change to the law in 1992 that allowed slot machines in onshore resorts. Offshore casinos were permitted in 2002, and the Caravella was the first offshore vessel to be granted a licence. Another five gambling licences were granted in 2008. Yet tourist arrivals didn’t show any appreciable increase in the following years. Arrivals actually fell in 2008, suggesting tourist arrivals in Goa were driven by broader economic trends – like the 2008 banking crisis – rather than the casinos themselves.

“Right now, the casinos are only on the Mandovi River, so its fine,” said Shailesh Gaude, who runs a small business in the inland Ponda district,“But if they try to float such a boat on any other river in Goa, there will definitely be a protest.”

In 2007, for instance, a floating casino on the Sal river was moved to Mandovi after vociferous protests by local fishermen. “Casino owners are outsiders, the workers are outsiders, and most gamblers are outsiders,” says Gaude, who is also from the fishing community. “Then why are they here in Goa?”

First Published: Jan 25, 2017 06:55 IST