Against the Tide

Goa’s Manohar Par­rikar gov­ern­ment finds it­self cor­nered by its own al­lies as well as ac­tivists over con­tro­ver­sies be­set­ting off­shore casi­nos

India Today - - BIG STORY - By Ki­ran D. Tare in Panaji

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.

BANDEEP SINGH

PLEA­SURE BOATS A com­pos­ite im­age of off­shore casi­nos off the Panaji shore

Pho­to­graphs by MANDAR DEODHAR

THE GAME IS ON

(Top) Play­ers busy on board Casino Pride 1; a dance show on the ship

BANDEEP SINGH

Casino ves­sel TUR­BU­LENT RIDE on the Man­dovi river

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