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Casinos become a political gamble in Goa

Despite opposition, state says revenues are badly needed

<p>Casino boats anchored in Goa's Mandovi river</p>

Casino boats anchored in Goa's Mandovi river

  • Bosco de Sousa Eremita, Panjim
  • India
  • August 20, 2013
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India's largest floating casino opened recently in Goa, reinforcing a longstanding idea by state authorities to make this former Portuguese colony the country’s own Las Vegas.

The four-deck vessel which can accommodate some 400 people is now one of six casinos anchored in Goa's Mandovi River, with another eight situated on shore in plush hotels.

The western coastal state known for its palm-fringed beaches was considered an ideal place to locate casinos when proposals were first mooted in 1997, because it attracts thousands of tourists from India and abroad. The first were up and running by 2000.

State authorities see them as a potential gold mine which provides many employment opportunities, but local people see things differently and have opposed the casinos on the grounds that the make people habitual gamblers, promote crime and are generally more trouble than they're worth.

“Casinos are actually a curse. My neighbor is having a tough time bringing up her kids because her husband has become such a compulsive gambler in these casinos. Their house is now up for auction," said Severina Pegado, a local resident from Santa Cruz parish.

Surendra Furtado, mayor of the state capital Panjim, has been leading protests against the casinos since June this year, saying government efforts to promote gambling ignore people's interests.

Much of his ire is directed at the casinos on the river. Not only are they morally wrong, they are posing environmental hazards, he says. 

The corporation does not collect garbage from these casinos, which means they are dumping it in the river. "Fish consume this garbage and we eat this fish," said Furtado.

Some fishermen have admitted to having stopped fishing for personal consumption in the river because of the sewage being dumped in the river.

The State Pollution Control Board takes no action. “Licenses were given for so-called offshore casinos but they continue to remain docked in the river," lamented Agnel Nazarth, a Mandovi fisherman who says he has hung up his nets.

The government had originally intended the casinos to operate 12 nautical miles offshore, but the vessels are anchored in the river.

Alexio Reginaldo Lourenco, a state-elected representative, said the casino boats were not employing local youth as claimed by the government and demanded those who do not help local youth should be banned.

“The government is setting low governance standards by depending on casinos, dance bars and the drug trade for revenue. These are the new components of tourism under the government," he said.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims it’s not a fan of the casinos but says the state needs them at the present time.

Chief minister Manohar Parrikar recently told the media that casinos bring in US$25 million annually and that the state needs that money.

"If I close [the casinos] overnight, who will replace this money,” Parrikar said recently.

However, the BJP's own coalition partner, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, also opposes the casinos.

“Casino culture or dance bars in no way define our tradition", even if they are supposed to contribute towards the state exchequer, party spokesman Lavoo Mamledar said earlier this month.

Goa People’s Party leader Satish Sonak questioned whether the money generated was worth the "crime, prostitution, alcoholism and social tensions" that casinos generate.

But there are signs the state government might be finally responding to the criticism being leveled against it. Only last week the state cabinet decided to place a ban on new offshore casinos and those already operating would be given two years to relocate after their licenses expire next year.  

With widespread local opposition to the casinos offset by the large revenues they bring, it remains to be seen which will tip the balance for BJP fortunes when election time comes again to Goa.

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