After over four years of loud proclamations to remove casinos from the state, Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar has for the first time gone on record to say that his government would not be able to go through with the promise, either in case of onshore casinos or offshore ones. He has also gone so far as to acknowledge that the state’s economy depends on casinos for employment and for revenue generation.
Among other leaders, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, then an opposition leader in the state, had promised to end casino activities if the BJP was brought back to power. Apart from Goa, only Sikkim and Daman and Diu allow legalised gambling in the country.
Since taking over as CM from Parrikar in 2014, Parsekar has at least twice given extensions to the casino business, in August 2015 and March 31 this year.
Officials estimate that a single casino annually contributes Rs 35-40 crore to the government in entry fees, direct and indirect taxes, besides permit fee to serve liquor. “After the closing of the mining sector in Goa in 2012, and a significant drop in the arrival of foreign tourists, casinos are major contributors to the state’s revenue,” a state finance department official said.
The hike in the entry fee for casinos, from Rs 700 to Rs 1,000 per head, in the 2016-17 budget was seen as acknowledgement by the BJP of the importance of casinos as revenue earner. While listing his compulsions regarding the casinos — including that an abrupt closure would send a wrong signal to investors and hurt the economy — Parsekar’s defence was that they were a legacy of the previous government.
Even the promised amendment of the Goa Public Gaming Act, 1976, to restrict Goans from gambling at casinos, has not come through. Chief Secretary R K Srivastava says even the draft is not ready four years after the BJP government promised to bring it.
The Goa government has also remained non-committal on appointing a gaming commissioner to monitor casino activity. Questioned about this, Parsekar only assured that a decision would come soon.
It was in the early ‘90s that the then Congress government first allowed onshore casinos in the state. Later, in 2005-2006 and 2007-12, offshore casinos were allowed by amending the Goa, Daman and Diu Public Gambling Act. But with the promise to remove casinos seen to have popular backing, state Congress chief Luizinho Faleiro in June said his party had made a mistake in bringing them to the state.
The fast-growing Aam Aadmi Party in the state has also made casinos an issue.
Today, alongside the four offshore casinos, there are seven functional onshore casinos in Goa. That’s two less than the total 14 licences issued by the government.
Sabina Martin of the group Aam Auraat Aaadmi Against Gambling says, “Everyone knows that the government claims of employment and attracting tourists are bogus. The casinos have increased crime and promoted anti-social activities.” Social activist and advocate Advocate Aires Rodrigues argues that even if the government brings in a law to keep Goans out of casinos, it would not stand the test of law. “The proposed rule being discriminatory is against the right to equality; it cannot face legal challenges. The law is just a temporary means for the government to derive political mileage,” he says.
While casino owners are reticent to divulge the footfall at their establishments, the establishments that run round the year say over 60 per cent of their visitors are domestic, coming from Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and parts of north India.
Managing Director of Casino Pride Srinivas Naik, two of whose casinos have had to be shut down, told The Indian Express that the stakeholders in the casino industry were not opposed either to a law to keep out locals or to a gaming commissioner. However, he said, some of the demands made by local NGOs were irrational and unfeasible for casino operations, including that offshore casinos be relocated to the high seas.
“While now we charter patrons to offshore casinos, located about 200-300 metres from the port, on feeder boats, we may have to stretch up to 3-5 km for the high seas, which is very risky at night,” Naik said.
He added that the growing tax in the luxury segment had already made things very difficult for casino operators like him.
“Close to seven onshore casinos have discontinued their operations due to financial implications. Casino enterprises have begun mulling setting up business in Sri Lanka,” Naik said.