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Govt Plays Roulette With Offshore Casinos

THE state government has given yet another six-month extension to the operation of the five casinos in the River Mandovi. This is the seventh extension granted to the offshore casinos since March 2016 and is unlikely to be the last one. The government had promised to shift them elsewhere but five years down the line the government has not been able to find any alternative site. Every time extension is granted, the government justifies its decision on the ground that relocation would be done by the time the extension ends but does not make any serious effort to identify and finalise an alternative site. The Bharatiya Janata Party in its election manifesto in 2012 had promised to shift the offshore casinos out of the River Mandovi after their lease came to an end in 2014. Before coming to power the BJP had led a big protest against the casinos. On coming to power, Parrikar had also vowed not to use a penny from casinos coming to state treasury for developmental purposes as he considered the revenue as ‘sin money.’ However, with coffers running dry after mining suspension, the government had to rely on the ‘sin money’ which is now being used for all purposes. The first U-turn on the issue was made by the BJP-led government in 2014, when it decided to extend the term of the casinos till 2016. Since then extension after extension has been given at the end of three or six months.

Though the government had identified four alternative sites in 2014 for relocation of the offshore casinos in the River Chapora, the River Sal, the River Zuari and the Aguada Bay, it had to abandon its plans following strong opposition from the people living around those sites. Ever since then no sites have been shortlisted, surveyed and identified. Even the latest extension has been granted conditional upon the willingness of the casino companies to move their operations away from the River Mandovi. The shifting has two components: one, that the government must find an alternative site, and two, the site must be ‘feasible’ for casino operations. In other words, even if the government identifies an alternative site, the casino companies can stonewall the shifting on grounds of ‘unfeasibility.’ There is the third component too – that of local opposition. For once, local opposition would be welcome to the offshore casinos that do not want to move away from the River Mandovi. And there is nothing of the kind of opposition by political parties and NGOs that Manohar Parrikar had set up when the Congress, which brought the casinos to the River Mandovi, was in power. There is fourth obstacle. Even if the government chooses a site and decides to relocate the casinos, it will be next to impossible to shift the casinos at the end of the latest extension. After finding the site, the government would take time to complete the process and ensure that the new site has adequate infrastructure to facilitate relocation of casinos.

Whatever the obstacles, the government has a responsibility to find an alternative site for the offshore casinos. Wherever the alternative site is found, clients would come to the offshore casinos. Las Vegas is not next to the White House and Capitol Hill or in the middle of Washington. Yet the casinos there do astounding business. The government could have found it easier to regulate casino business if they were located in one place. But the government has handled it very casually. It has no casino policy yet. The government has been making assurances to frame a casino policy. The latest assurance was given in the monsoon session of the Assembly by the Chief Minister who promised the policy by August end. Two months down the line there is neither a policy nor any of the officials connected with framing it has been directed to prepare one. Besides, the government is yet to appoint a gaming commissioner, though promises to that effect were given years ago. While shifting of casinos could be a dicey issue with local people opposing it, there is no opposition to the appointment of gaming commissioner, except perhaps from the casino lobby.  Why is the government shying away from taking decisive actions on locating and regulating casinos? The absence of proper mechanism to regulate casino operations makes the motives of ministers and officers suspect. Goans at large expect that the government takes firm decisions and comes clean on casinos.

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