Once again, the state government has given a go-by to its promise of shifting the offshore casinos on the river Mandovi. It has granted them yet another six-month extension. Of course, the phrasing of the cabinet decision on extension sounds quite stern: the casino operators will have to give an unconditional undertaking that they will shift their vessels whenever an alternative site is finalized by the government or by September 30, 2019, whichever is earlier. The casino operators have been, without any worry, giving such an undertaking for almost five years now, and surely this is not going to be the last time they would be doing it. The government had announced plans to shift casinos out of the River Mandovi five years ago. It proposed sites on the river Chapora, river Sal and off Ribandar, but they were rejected by the casino owners. Local residents also objected to location of casinos near their habitation. As a result, the casinos have remained where they were: on the river Mandovi, right facing the promenade of Panaji. The casino operators seem to have fallen in love with the site as it keeps them in the light and within easy access of customers.
Extension has become just a ritual both the government and the casino companies have to go through, for the sake of keeping up the illusion of moving as and when an alternative site is found. The real story is: no one wants to find alternative site. The BJP had promised to move the casinos as far back as in the run-up to the Assembly elections in 2012. It had demonized the Congress for bringing casinos to the state. Manohar Parrikar, who led the campaign against casinos and became chief minister, vowed not to touch a penny from the revenues generated by casinos for developmental purpose. The narrative changed soon thereafter and the government went on giving extension to casinos every six months and giving promise to people that they would be shifted elsewhere within six months. The people have by now lost count of extensions. Given the revenue generated from casino operations and dependence of the government on it, casinos operators have begun to dictate terms to the government. It shows in the state government taking no serious steps to find an alternative site. It shows in the poor and weak oversight and regulation of casinos, including the sizes of the replacement vessels and volumes of business. It shows in the casino companies turning almost proprietorial about Panaji riverside space – in taking public space for parking, in putting up flashing advertisements without approval of the Corporation of the City of Panaji.
The reason given by the government for the latest extension is that the potential site identified by the Captain of Ports was found to be “non-feasible” – an explanation which comes as a critical commentary on the expertise of the Captain of Ports! In August 2018 Parrikar informed the Assembly that his government was working on a casino policy that would help the shifting of offshore casinos to a designated land area. The idea was to grant each casino operator a licence of 10 to 15 years validity as an incentive to help them recover the investment needed for setting up a land casino. The policy remains under veil. The government has been promising appointment of a gaming commissioner to oversee the functioning of the casino industry without appointing any. Yet another promise that remains unfulfilled is to bar entry of Goans into casinos. The government reiterated the assurance last August, saying from January 2019 no Goans would be allowed to gamble in casinos, but the prohibition still eludes.
With the election code of conduct on, to be followed by monsoon, the government will have a ready excuse to have not done anything on looking for an alternative site. It can be easily assumed that the casinos would be given yet another extension after September 30, 2019. The people can only hope that the state government does get back to work on the casino policy after the elections to the Lok Sabha are over. It is intriguing that the government is taking as much infinite time to appoint a gaming commissioner and establish a strict regulatory regime as to identify an alternative site. As the state government deals with casino operators indulgently, its law enforcers also take a paid holiday. The problems created by offshore casinos to the residents and businesses of Panaji in the vicinity – encroachment of private and public spaces, prostitution and lack of peace and quiet even in the night hours and so on – are only getting more and more obnoxious and obtrusive.