Over the past decade, the demand for shuttering the casinos of Goa — the only place in India where they are legal, apart from in Sikkim and Daman and Diu under relevant Public Gambling Acts — has become an issue for the Assembly elections. As the state goes to polls probably in February-March next year, the BJP and Congress have both made a departure from positions they took earlier — while the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), debuting in the polls, has come out strongly against casinos, and made their closure a top election promise.
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The BJP flip-flop
Casinos were allowed after the Congress came to power in the early 1990s, and were intended to give the state’s tourism a leg up. Before the 2007 elections, the BJP assailed casinos as dens of corruption, and promised to shut them immediately if it came to power. It lost the election, but kept up its attack on the Digambar Kamat government on the issue.
In 2012, the BJP renewed its anti-casino campaign, but did a volte face after coming to power — then Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar explained that although the BJP had opposed casinos in 2007, “Congress gave 6 licences and made casinos a fait accompli of the government that we formed in 2012”. Parrikar and his successor Laxmikant Parsekar also made a case for letting the industry run unhindered to prevent job losses and fall in revenues, and promised to relocate casinos to deeper waters off Goa within four years — a deadline that has long expired.
The current position
The incumbent BJP government is no longer opposed to casinos in principle, even though it has repeatedly clarified that it is not issuing new licences, and is “committed to move out casinos from River Mandovi”.
The opponents of the casinos are the Congress and AAP. Goa Congress chief Luizinho Faleiro has said allowing casinos had been a “mistake”. His party, while calling for a public opinion poll on whether casinos should be banned entirely, has also demanded a ban on casino ads like the one on cigarettes and alcohol, so that they are not able to “influence young minds”.
The AAP, which is running a fierce anti drug-addiction campaign in poll-bound Punjab, is playing the BJP’s 2007 and 2012 card — promising to root out the casino industry altogether.
Why target casinos?
There are 6 off-shore and around a dozen on-shore 5-star hotel-operated casinos in Goa. Roughly, the industry contributes Rs 180 crore in revenue to the exchequer — less than 2% of the state’s annual budget of Rs 10,000 crore. The net worth of the casino industry is estimated at Rs 1,200 crore, and it employs around 3,000 workers, most of whom are migrants from neighbouring states. Many casino owners too, are migrants.
All of this put together makes casinos dispensable — their closure would not adversely affect the resident electorate.
Challenges like prostitution and drug addiction have grown around the gambling. Residents of Panaji Assembly constituency, where the casinos are concentrated, have, therefore, backed a ban on them. Panaji has been Parrikar’s home turf, the seat from which he became CM, and winning it is a prestige issue for all three parties.
If casinos were to shut down, a section of the 3 million tourists who visit the state annually will be disappointed. But parties have proposed replacement incentives. AAP, for instance, is promising for Goa’s tourism the same “ease of business” measures that its government has taken in Delhi. Its main poll plank of a corruption-free government aims to help the tourism sector with easy approvals for regularisation of hotels and guesthouses that currently often involve the payment of hefty bribes. It must also be noted that tourism is the mainstay of only three (Panaji, Calangute and Siolim) out of Goa’s 40 Assembly constituencies.
The anti-casino sentiment also resonates with the state’s environment conservation lobby that has been crying hoarse over the indiscriminate pollution of the Mandovi River. In previous years, the Goa Pollution Control Board has had to intervene and seal casinos under the Hazardous Waste Management Act.