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To Move Or Not To Move Casinos

WITH the state government deciding to wind up the committee headed by the Captain of Ports formed to suggest alternative sites for relocation of offshore casinos, the five casinos would continue to be on the river Mandovi for an indefinite period. They would soon be joined by another casino, whose management has applied for renewal of its licence and also paid fees for conducting gaming operations. Having accepted the fees from the new casino, the government is bound to give it approval, though in  order to absolve itself of any charges of wrongdoing on the eve of elections it has tried to pass the buck on to the advocate general to seeking the ‘way forward’ on the approval issue.  The grant of licence might now be a mere formality before the code of conduct comes into effect. The Bharatiya Janata Party rode to power promising removal of casinos from the Mandovi in 2012.  Manohar Parrikar, who actively participated in anti-casino agitations and took over as chief minister, set December 2015 as the shifting deadline. Dubbing the income from casinos as sin money, he vowed not to use it for developmental purposes. Now, casinos are likely to stay on the Mandovi until an alternative site is selected, as the decision would now vest with the new government after elections. Shifting to alternative sites also has to factor in the willingness of the casino companies, for they can plead that they would not get as much business as on the Modovi at the new site. The companies can scuttle shifting by litigation.

While many in the state, including politicians from the opposition have criticized casinos for promoting an undesirable culture of gambling, the state government has been ‘compelled’ to consider them as ‘necessary evil’ because besides generating employment, they have been contributing revenue to the state exchequer and supporting allied business activities. Some in the government actually consider them as a blessing in disguise as they have helped the government tide over the tight financial situation arising out of mining shutdown and general economic slowdown.  They see opposition to casinos as attempts to kill the goose that lays golden eggs. The BJP accuses the Congress of having brought the casinos to the state and thus having no right to criticize them. However, the BJP, which promised to undo the decision of the Congress government, came to depend on the ‘sin money,’ so much so that it facilitated operation of the sixth casino by accepting the fees for renewal of licence and conduct of gaming operations. The BJP-led government failed to fulfill its promise of appointing a gaming commissioner to regulate the gaming activities on the casinos. It did pass a law for regulating casino business but the appointment of a gaming commissioner has remained a verbal promise, much like the promise of removal of casinos from the river Mandovi. It is unlikely that any regulating body would be in place before the end of the term of the present government.

With the alternative sites suggested by the committee headed by the Captain of Ports having been found unsuitable for relocation of the casinos, the issue would come up before the new government that is going to assume office late in March. As the sites within the territorial waters have been found unsuitable for relocation of casinos, the only option left for the government appears to be high seas, other than the option of not renewing their licences to close them down. Such decisions would have to be taken after a careful study of social and economical issues. If the new government decides to close down the casinos, such a choice should not only be to please a certain section of society opposed to the casinos but also take into consideration the effect on those employed on casinos and the impact it would have on the allied businesses. Any ill-considered decision could involve a long legal battle that should be avoided at all costs, as the government has a history of losing court battle to private parties in the courts. To avoid any legal fight the new government should study the possibility of putting strict regulations in place if the casinos cannot be shut down altogether. Whatever might be the decision of the new government it is necessary that the vessels are removed from the Mandovi which is bearing the brunt of not only gambling activities but also facing threat to marine life and ecology. It is also providential mercy that no mishap has occurred despite there being so much congestion there. It is necessary that the new government takes a well thought-out decision on the issue.

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