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Panaji’s Political Roulette

Political candidates have time and again given assurances to shift the offshore casinos from River Mandovi. A look at how the casinos first came to begin operations in Goa, and whether a change in location could indeed happen

U D Kamat

Come elections and candidates turn into redeemers!

When the campaign to Panaji by-poll was at its peak, the voters were showered with promises. I was however amused by the promises by all to shift the six off-shore casinos from River Mandovi. Interestingly, both the major parties, the Congress and the BJP blame each other for permissions to off-shore casinos.

I thought of sharing some background on the issue. I was director of tourism when Churchill Alemao, who was my minister in the PDF government headed by the late Luis Proto Barbosa during 1990-91, became the first minister to float the idea of starting casinos in Goa. I said that will require permission from the Government of India, to which his response was: ‘Draft a letter on my behalf (chit kor).’ Accordingly, a letter signed by Alemao seeking permission of the Government of India was dispatched to Arun Nehru, the then Union Minister for Tourism in V P Singh government. Promptly came Nehru’s reply: “As a matter of policy, the Government of India has decided not to permit casinos anywhere in India”.

To the credit of Alemao, who is often regarded as “Utracho Munis” for keeping his promise of stepping down from the coveted position of Chief Minister within 18 days (March 27, 1990 to April 14, 1990) in favour of the late Luis Proto Barbosa, he did not raise the casino issue again during his short lived one year tenure as Minister for Tourism.

After a lull of two years, some wise legal brain gave this brilliant idea to Ravi Naik, who headed the Congress Government from January 25, 1991 to May 18, 1993, to amend the Goa, Daman & Diu Public Gambling Act, 1976 in such a way that nowhere the word “casino” should figure, so as to circumvent the negative reply received from the Government of India. Accordingly, the Goa Legislative Assembly enacted the Goa Public Gambling (Amendment) Act, 1992 (Act No 11 of 1992 enforced from September 17, 1992) “authorising any game of electronic amusement/slot machines in five star hotels”. The Licensing Authority specified for the purpose is the Under Secretary (Home) so that the Chief Minister, who always doubles up as the Home Minister, can have direct control over this activity, for obvious reasons.

Thereafter, the Congress Government headed by Pratapsingh Rane which assumed the reigns of office between December 16, 1994 and July 29, 1998, carried out further amendment namely The Goa Public Gambling (Amendment) Act, 1996 (Act No 13 of 1996 enforced from September26, 1996) authorising “Any such table games and gaming on board in vessels offshore”, without bothering in the least to define the offshore limits.

As of today, there are 31 five star and five star deluxe hotels in operation in Goa. However, as of date, only eight hotels offer onshore gaming facilities. In fact, some of the hotels who had opted for such facilities have since backed out due to exorbitant license fees charged by the Government. It is therefore obvious that majority of five star and five star deluxe hotels are not interested in gaming facilities for various reasons, including high license fees. As regards offshore, six vessels are presently in operation in River Mandovi. The annual recurring licence fee for land based casinos in a five star hotel is related to the area of operation, and varies from `10 crores for area up to 100 square metres, to `40 crores for area above 1000 square metres. Likewise, for offshore casino, the annual recurring license fee depends upon the passenger capacity of the vessel, and it varies from `25 crores up to 200 passenger capacity to `40 crores above 400 passenger capacity (source: Government Notification dated March 27, 2018 published in Official Gazette Series I No 51 dated March 28, 2018).

My information reveals that during Financial Year 2018-19, the license fee collected by the Government was nearly `300 crores. The entertainment tax (which has since been subsumed in GST) collected on the services and facilities provided during Financial Year 2018-19 was to the tune of `200 crores. With the mining operations in limbo, it is obvious that revenue generated on casino operations in Goa in a way substantially contributes to the economic development of Goa.

Admittedly, the late Manohar Parrikar, while in the opposition, had vehemently opposed the continuance of offshore casinos on River Mandovi and had even promised to shift them elsewhere. However, once in power this was not to be, as he realised that without this revenue, it would not be possible to sustain the tempo of development.

Goa and Sikkim are the only locations in India which offer gaming facilities to up market domestic tourists who otherwise used to make Kathmandu in Nepal as their weekend destination. Although not regulated by the Goa Registration of Tourist Trade Act, 1982, as a tourism related activity, the fact remains that it has tremendous multiplier effect on the Goan economy. In addition to the actual manpower employed on the vessels, the other arms of the tourism industry like air travel, hotel accommodation, tourist transport, conducted sightseeing tours with guides, river cruises, adventure sports, etc, sustain and thrive on the gaming facilities. It is not for nothing that during weekends, Goa- bound air tickets from leading metros like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru soar high. Same is the case with the return tickets from Goa on Sunday evenings or Monday mornings. In fact, the longer the weekend, the more cascading effect is felt on the economic activities listed above.

The vessels in operation on River Mandovi are basically river going vessels and as such they will not sustain the monsoon weather if they are relocated to the high seas. At one time, the former chief minister was even toying with the idea of shifting them to Sancoale Bay in River Zuari and later to Britona. However, he had to give up due to stiff opposition of the locals. Against this background, it is not understood as to how and where a political party or politician can shift the six offshore casinos from River Mandovi.

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