Tuesday 25 September 2018

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Economy | Tourism

Goans in dark over nature of casinos

 

Goa is planning to be a pioneer in India to set up casinos, to begin with offshore ones, despite stiff opposition to bring it in reality.

Goa government's decision to allow casinos on board in vessels offshore is considered to be a milestone in developing the international tourist destination further, to embrace "high-class" tourists. But the opponents denounce it as an onslaught on rich Indian traditions and culture.

It has thus given birth to a new controversy with most of the opposition parties as well as environmental and women's groups flexing their muscles against the local Congress government.

The Pratapsing Rane government, in the recently concluded Assembly session, has amended the Goa Public Gambling Act, 1976 "empowering the government to authorise table games and gaming on board in vessels offshore, subject to conditions".

The locals however are still in the dark over the nature of offshore casinos, as the rules are yet to be framed by the government. Government sources disclose that the American model of casinos, found offshore in New Orlience of Louisiana state, would be adopted.

"The gambling will take place offshore, at least one km away. The government will charge Rs 10 million as the licence fee as well as five per cent over the turnover annually. No Indian would be allowed there unless he produces income tax certificate signed by the authorised chartered accountant", says chief minister Rane.

In an attempt to win over the locals, the chief minister has also announced that the millions of rupees of revenue the government would earn on it could be utilised for social welfare schemes for widows and helpless womenfolk.

"The rich foreigners and creamy layer of Indian society would spend the money here in the gambling. Why not make best use of it to develop the Goan society instead of going into so called moral arguments", argues Mr Rane.

"It's an economically bankrupt proposal. The Congress government is obviously doing it for the kickbacks they would get out of it and not for the welfare of the society", alleges veteran environmentalist Dr Claude Alvares.

According to him, the people visiting these casinos would be all blackmarketeers, who have accumulated black money in an immoral manner. They are not normal citizens like us. Inviting them would mean inviting all other vices like prostitution, drugs and Mafia trade.

"Is everything fine without casinos ?", asks the chief minister in an attempt to counter these arguments. Gambling has become order of the day, he feels, adding further that horse races prevalent in the country are nothing different from it.

Mr Rane however justifies his opposition to the proposal of his predecessor to introduce one-digit lottery in the state, stating that he was not in favour of involving the common man into gambling. This is a plan to earn revenue with "high-class gambling".

"It is deterioration of his own belief. He (Rane), as a law minister in the MGP government, had enforced the Gambling Act in 1976, to control all sorts of gambling. The same man is now diluting it step by step", points out Dr Alvares.

Dr Kashinath Jhalmi, the state opposition leader belonging to the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), strongly objects to the passing of the bill without explaining the circumstances in moving the amendment, required as per the norms. Describing it as a "perverted act", his party is now planning a state-wide agitation over the issue.

The bill is presently pending before the state governor, the charge held additionally by Maharashtra governor Dr P C Alexander. Both the MGP as well as the BJP have appealed to the governor not to give his assent to the bill as "it would malign rich traditions and culture of our country".

While the BJP feels he should refer the matter to the President of India, the MGP feels it should be outrightly rejected and sent back to the House. Both the opposition parties have charged the ruling party of passing the bill with the force of "brute majority".

Union Minister of State for Law and Justice Adv Ramakant Khalap, belonging to the MGP, also disapproves it stating that it is "corrupt money". But he expresses helplessness in interfering into the state matters in the federal kind of structure of the country.

Notwithstanding, his fellow Parliamentarian, controversial South Goa MP Churchill Alemao, has wholeheartedly welcomed the bill. As known to have been representing the five-star lobby in the state, he has gone a step forward demanding full-fledged casinos, on the shore.

"Gambling is a World phenomena. Instead of curbing it, we should see how government can earn revenue out of it, rather than taxing the common man to fill the government coffers. With casinos, the government could even sell rice for Rs 2 without burdening the state treasury", feels Alemao.

While accepting the criticism that even a common Indian could fall prey to the casino culture, he suggests a remedy to levy membership fee of around Rs two lakh for Indians to enter the casinos or to play on the slot machines installed in the five star hotels. He seemed very critical of the five star hotels charging only Rs 250 to enter the mini-casinos, having slot machines.

This is the second instance in last two years to amend the Gpa Public Gambling Act. The earlier amendment allowed the five star hotels to introduce slot machines, dismissing charges that the Congress government is allowing entry to the casinos through the backdoor. While passing the second amendment now, the same government claims that casinos are allowed as slot machines had no adverse impact on the Goan society, as was feared.

But the reality at the five star hotels is not the same. There are more domestic tourists and young local entrepreneurs seen playing the electronic amusement games, blowing off their hard-earned money. The foreign tourists, on the contrary, compare slot machines with the video games the kids play.

"The slot machines are more busy during the off season while there is less rush when foreign tourists come", discloses an employee in the South Goa-based five star hotel. As the entry fee is hardly Rs 250 while one coin costs Rs 10 each, local youth are sometimes seen playing here till six in the morning, he reveals.

Goa Renaissance Resorts, belonging to Ramada International, was the first five star hotel to introduce 20 slot machines at "Goa Nugget". It has now also introduced games on electronic roulette machines and is planning to install 20 more slot machines.

Leela Beach Resorts also has 40 such machines in "Las Vegas" while Cidade de Goa has been sanctioned 20 to start "Chances". Following this, Fort Aguada Beach Resorts is planning to install 80 machines while Majorda Beach Resorts and Bogmolo Beach Resorts are also following the suit with 20 each.

With a licence fee of Rs 500, security deposit of Rs 5000 and Rs 6000 towards recurring fees every year on each machine, the government however would earn only Rs 25.30 lakh initially and Rs 13.20 lakh annually, against a turnover of millions of rupees.

In the same light, the government is being criticised for charging only Rs 10 million annually as licence fee to the offshore casinos when the ships could make a business in billions. Government sources disclose that the ships would come back to the shore to pick up more clients at least four to five times a day, with a gap of four to five hours.

Deputy Chief Minister Dr Wilfred de Souza, also the tourism minister, frankly admits that Rs 10 million is a negligible amount, but prefers to maintain silence over it, for the reasons best known to him. "It should be minimum Rs 30 to Rs 40 crore", opines Alemao.

As the South Goa MP claims, one foreign party was prepared to set up a well-equipped hospital on the lines of Jaslok hospital with free of cost medical facilities, 500 ambulances for the state and sponsor all major sports events, provided he was allowed a full-fledged casino in Goa.

Top secrecy is maintained in the government circles at whose initiative the amendment bill was hurriedly passed in the Assembly, at the fag end of the 15-day long session. Dr de Souza also declines to reveal any details, except that some foreign parties have approached the government, besides the existing five star hotels.

"We will definitely consider setting up one such offshore casino. It would help us a great deal in competing with other tourist countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia etc. Even the Indian tourists regularly visiting Kathmandu casinos could be tapped", states Joe Mascarenhes, manager of Fort Aguada Beach Resorts.

Dismissing the criticism that it would boost prostitution and drug trade, he feels these fears could be done away with by imposing stringent guidelines. "The ships should not have other rooms than a bar and restaurant and gaming tables. Even the entry should be restricted to the people above 21 years", he suggests.

Bailancho Saad, a women's organisation, on the other hand is taking initiative in forming a united front of all the NGOs to fight casinos. "The disregard of successive governments to pamper the tourism lobby by twisting or amending the laws relating to excise and gambling stands exposed. The lifestyle of these gamblers will have a demonstrating effects on the locals with drastic consequences", states Adv Albertina Almeida, a woman activist.

Jagrut Goenkaranchi Fouz (JGF), fighting against ill-effects of tourism, however is not in favour of waging agitation immediately on the issue. They are planning an awareness campaign, especially in the coastal belt, as the coastal settlements would be hit directly with it.

"It's a part of the plan to reshape Goa as a mega-city for tourism and export-oriented industry with setting up of electronic assembling units, software technology park (STP), international airport, superhighways, international conference facilities and other recreational facilities like casinos, golf courses etc. It's a modified version of free port, planned under acute pressure from the international market", states Roland Martins, the JGF leader.

The state government also does not deny the fact, but in the name of liberalisation and globalisation. Its other infrastructural plans like the STP, international airport and superhighways have been welcomed by majority of Goans.

The only opposition it faced was for the golf courses, mainly on the issue of short of water resources. Casinos are second in the line, on which mass protets cannot be ruled out if one assesses the discontent brewing up slowly through the local media and the environmental circles.






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