Against the Tide
Goa’s Manohar Parrikar government finds itself cornered by its own allies as well as activists over controversies besetting offshore casinos
S DUSK SETTLES OVER THE PANAJI skyline, the shores of the Mandovi river swarm with crowds of players flocking towards the entrance of Asia’s biggest floating casino, the Deltin Royale. Among them is Akshay Mahadik (name changed), a trader in his late twenties who has come from Kolhapur, Maharashtra. Visibly excited, Mahadik announces, “I will recover my losses today.” He means the Rs 7,000 he lost to the house the previous night.
A feeder boat carries Mahadik and other 20-odd players to the floating casino, a three-storey ship anchored at around one km in the river. There are around 600 players, and several gaming options—Poker, Baccarat, Casino War, American Roulette, Indian Flush (Teen Patti), Blackjack, money wheel and slot machines. No one seems to be interested in the slot machines. For the next two hours, Mahadik and his friends stay put at the table of Casino War where two players from Andhra Pradesh join him. At 1 am, when he decides to pack up, he has lost the entire Rs 20,000 he had placed as a bet. “Luck didn’t favour me even today. I
will return tomorrow,” Mahadik says.
Gambling is a hot topic in Goa of late—ever since two prominent leaders of the Manohar Parrikar-led coalition government went public with the demand that the government follow its common minimum programme on shifting five offshore casinos from the Mandovi. The issue has highlighted the instability of the government and its dependence on the support of the Goa Forward Party, Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party as well as independents—all of whom favour shifting the casinos. Revenue minister Rohan Khaunte, an independent from Porvorim who had strongly opposed the offshore casinos while in the opposition, says the government is firm on shifting them. “The ruling dispensation is serious on this matter; it’s just a matter of several days,” he says. Town and country planning minister Vijai Sardesai, who leads the Goa Forward Party, backs Khaunte. “It is an important issue in our common minimum programme,” he says. “We won’t compromise on this.”
Under pressure, chief minister Parrikar, who also holds the charge of home department, has announced that the government will duly shift the offshore casinos into deep sea. There is no legislation in place obliging the casinos to relocate, but the government is considering proposals to relocate them 12 nautical miles off the coast.
Of the five offshore casinos in the state, three—Deltin Royale, Deltin Jaqk and Deltin Caravela—are operated by the Mumbai-based Deltin Group, headed by Jaydev Mody. The other two—Casino Pride 1 and Casino Pride 2—are owned by Delhi-based Ashok Khetrapal.
An official from the home department, which issues licences to casinos, says the casinos are understandably reluctant to move to the sea. “Except the Deltin Royale, no other casino vessel would withstand rough seas,” he says. Mody too finds it unviable. “Loading, unloading in deep sea is risky,” he says. “There is no security in the high sea. The government has recognised it. There is nothing in the gaming act that casinos have to be in deep sea.”
While the beleaguered floating casinos face this political onslaught, Goa’s politicians are less exercised by the 20 onshore casinos in the state’s northern and southern parts. This may be because onshore casinos are largely restricted to operating slot machines and do not offer the variety of gaming tables or floor shows of the more glamorous floating operations. In this sense, the floating casinos may have become victims of their own success as their opponents—populist politicians and moral crusaders—accuse them of everything from undermining public morality to fouling the Mandovi.
The latter accusation has gained some traction given the increasingly polluted condition of Goa’s largest river. A report by the Goa State Pollution Control Board (GSPCB) states that the Mandovi has become unsafe for
Casinos contribute about Rs 150 crore a year to Goa’s exchequer. “It’s only 1 per cent of the budget. There are other ways to bring in revenue,” says revenue minister Rohan Khaunte
recreational bathing, water sports and fishing because of high coliform bacteria. It has submitted the report to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which will hear the matter in September.
Floating casinos are mandated to dump human excreta and other wastes into deep sea. GSPCB officials say the rule is not being followed. It has complained to the state government that the offshore casinos do not submit details of sewage and solid waste. The NGT in April prohibited the casinos from dumping any material in the river and has asked GSPCB to file a report on their waste disposal on September 30.
Mody rubbishes the allegations of environmental pollution. “People who say this should go through the NGT order. They have given us a clean chit on this,” he says. “This is a political matter. Neither our ship nor our competitors are polluting the river.”
The casinos also face opposition from fishermen, who complain the pleasure boats interfere with their livelihood. Harshad Dhond, president of the All Goa Purse Seine Boat Owners Association, points out that the government has rented out a jetty to casino owners, resulting in a burden on the fishing jetty. “This jetty can handle only 100 ships, but we are handling 300 ships because of unavailability of space,” he says. Ramakant Naik, another leader of the fishermen, sees the casinos as a dangerous obstruction in the crowded waterway. “There is always a danger of collision of vessels, especially at night,” he says. “Our boats are strong but not the casino vessels. The gamblers at the casinos face the maximum threat of drowning.”
Ironically, it was Parrikar who may have fired the first salvo at the offshore casinos in his days as an opposition leader. The first offshore casino came to Goa in 2007, and by 2012 Parrikar became their most prominent critic,
vowing to drive them out of the Mandovi. However, he and his successor Laxmikant Parsekar did nothing to close down the casinos when the BJP came to power in 2012.
For two years, Parrikar delayed a decision on casinos although he did ban the transfer of casino licences and restricted entry to only tourists—a rule generally flouted (when india today visited the casinos, we found no ID cards were being checked to determine whether the visitors were tourists).
Amid the BJP’s flip-flop, three social organisations, Bailancho Saad (Women’s Voice), Aam Aadmi Aurat Against Gambling and Goenchi Mati (Goa’s Soil), an umbrella group of 55 outfits, have stood firmly against the casinos. Sabina Martins, founding member of Bailancho Saad, alleges the BJP and other parties are funded by casino owners. Parsekar denies the charge: “The casinos in Goa are the creation of the Congress.”
Martins says casinos are also damaging the state’s socio-economic fabric. “There is no system to monitor this addiction,” she says. Martins’ campaign has the ring of a moral crusade. She claims entertainment shows on offshore casinos have changed the tourists’ outlook towards Goan women. “I am not against wearing shorts and skirts. But when someone projects a woman as a sex object, I will definitely oppose it,” she says. Activists like Martins believe the many amendments to the Goa, Daman and Diu Public Gambling Act of 1976 are evidence of the casino owners’ ability to pressure the government to tweak the rules. The act saw four major amendments in 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2012.
Now, new rules by the state government will introduce specific definitions of casinos, electronic gaming, live gaming, offshore casinos, onshore casinos and passenger capacity. But even a decade after offshore casinos began operations, the state government is yet to appoint a gaming commissioner to regulate the games. Mody says casino owners would welcome the move.
For now, Goa’s casino industry shows little signs of giving up the fight. Two more offshore casinos are trying to enter its waters. The Essel Group, led by Subhash Chandra, is looking to revive the Maharaja Casino, which has been defunct since 2009. It has not yet succeeded in obtaining a licence. Given the conflicting pulls and pressures, it’s not unlikely that the Parrikar government will continue to hedge its bets on the issue.
PLEASURE BOATS A composite image of offshore casinos off the Panaji shore
THE GAME IS ON
(Top) Players busy on board Casino Pride 1; a dance show on the ship
Casino vessel TURBULENT RIDE on the Mandovi river