After Fighting Against Goa's Casinos, Parrikar Gives Them
What They Want
BY DEVIKA SEQUIERA ON 07/08/2017
The floating casinos are
expected to be relocated to
Mopa and will help BJP sell its
controversial new airport
A floating casino off Panaji in Goa. Credit: Devika Sequeira
Panaji: Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar recently made an
announcement in the state's legislative assembly: all
offshore casinos would have to shift to land-based operations
within three years if they wanted to continue doing business
in Goa. The decision, long expected despite the stock
denials, is what the big players in the casino industry had
been betting on all along, and it exposes the BJP's
doublespeak on the gambling business in Goa.
There are currently six offshore and ten land-based
casinos in play here, but live gaming (with dealers
opposed to slot machines), where the stakes can go
really high, is permitted only on the floating
casinos, which makes the transfer and renewal of
their licences such a lucrative business.
Jaydev Mody's Delta Corp Ltd is the biggest player in the Goa
casino business. It runs three offshore casinos, Deltin
Royale, Deltin Jaqk and Deltin Caravela as well as the
onshore Deltin Suites Casino Hotel at Nerul. The Ashok
Khetrapal fronted group is the next big casino operator with
Casino Pride and Casino Pride 2 anchored in the Mandovi.
Pride also runs the land-based Casino Paradise at Porvorim
and Casino Palms at Baga.
Faced with mounting protests over the BJP government granting
permission for a sixth offshore casino in the River Mandovi
after the party had earlier campaigned against them, a
providential occurrence spared Parrikar's blushes in the
monsoon session of the Goa assembly. On July 15, a new casino
vessel M. V. Lucky Seven, fully outfitted to commence
business as the Big Daddy Casino, drifted off course in
stormy weather and ran aground at Miramar beach (near Panaji)
where it is currently stuck, turning into a photo-op for
tourists. Operations to refloat and tow it away are currently
Lucky Seven is promoted by the controversial former
Haryana minister Gopal Kanda. The Tanzanian flag
passenger vessel was brought to Goa by Golden Globe
Hotels Pvt Ltd (GGHPL), a company started as a
subsidiary of Kanda's defunct MDLR airline. There's
very little information to be found on GGHPL or its
businesses, but sources in the company said that
Kanda, his son and son-in-law hold a majority stake
in it and in their current interest in the casino
business in Goa.
Kanda's foray into casinos here goes back to 2009 when he
bought the Leela group's Casino Rio for a reported amount of
Rs 30 crore. Leela had managed an offshore gaming licence in
2006 but the business never set sail. Neither did it under
Kanda, and in 2013 the government towed away the abandoned
vessel for owing the authorities Rs 12 crore in casino
licence fees. The fee with fines had mounted to Rs 50 crore
This in itself should have been grounds enough to
not renew Kanda's licence. But the Parrikar
government renewed it all the same, using the ruse
of a court order to justify the decision. In
reality, however, it was the state's advocate
general who told the high court of Bombay at Goa
that the government would "favourably consider" the
Kanda company's application for renewal.
All the casino licences in Goa -- both off-shore and land
based ones -- were dished out by gung-ho Congress
governments, with former chief minister Pratapsingh Rane and
former home minister Ravi Naik being the key players in this
high stakes game of licence roulette. This uncomfortable
fact, as much as the Congress' role in the mining scam,
provided the BJP its biggest ammunition for the 2012 state
assembly election which it won with a clear majority.
Parrikar would turn up at anti-casino protests with RSS
supporters, and doing away with casinos went to the top of
his party's 2012 manifesto, even as behind the scenes
assurances were reportedly given that they would be allowed
to carry on with business as usual.
Once in government though, the commitment by the BJP to move
the casinos out of the Mandovi and regulate the trade was
never seen through. The promise to set up a gaming commission
has not seen the light of day even five years later. What the
government did in effect, is facilitate more opaque
operations, allowing the state's Captain of Ports, rather
than the Centre's Director of Shipping -- as was the case
previously -- to licence the casino vessels, most of which are
not even seaworthy.
In 2014, the BJP also reversed the law it had
brought in to ban the transfer of casino licences
when it allowed the Pride group to take over the V.
M. Salgaocar & Bro Pvt Ltd owned Casino Carnival.
The government collected a fee of Rs 5 crore for
the transfer, and the deal went through for an
unconfirmed amount of Rs 80 crore.
More recently, Parrikar has argued that casinos have brought
jobs, revenue and also enhanced the state's tourism industry.
Doing away with them would hurt investor sentiment. Though he
was "serious" in his "opposition to casinos", it was the
government's duty "to ensure there is continuity in
policies," he told the Goa House. Parrikar bolstered his
arguments with figures of revenue earned from casinos: a
total of Rs 743 crore was collected over the last three years
from commercial taxes and licence fees paid to the home department.
But how close is this to their actual takings?
Inconsistency and flip flops have been the hallmark
of government policy on casinos in Goa. The
intended confusion has not only encouraged, but
practically endorsed an unregulated conduct of the
business, and allows politicians to collect a
"recurring monthly fee", as a casino operator puts
it. The government currently charges between Rs 10
crore to Rs 12 crore as a yearly fee for off-shore
gaming, depending on the passenger capacity of the
vessels. Land-based casinos pay Rs 4 crore a year.
But industry observers say this is peanuts in the
serious gambling business, given there's no
authority to monitor operations or even determine
the number of footfalls.
On any given night, the streets of Panaji, near the city's
jetty, are packed with parked vehicles -- a visible hindrance
to those who live in the area. This no doubt is clear proof
of how busy the casinos are. While the bigger vessels pack up
to 1500 gambling enthusiasts a day in what's become 24×7
operations, particularly over the weekends, the smaller
vessels crowd in some 800-1000 passengers, says the source.
The over-crowding has been overlooked for years.
The principle reason for bringing in floating casinos -- the
Congress had argued when it allowed the first one here in
2001 -- was to keep the gambling off limits to locals. A kind
of out-of-sight-out-of-mind policy. An attempt by the
Parrikar government to ban the entry of locals in the casinos
has never been seriously implemented either. In 2012,
Parrikar had brought in major amendments to the Goa Public
Gambling Act, 1976 to ban the transfer of casino licences --
it was then revoked by his government in 2014). Only tourists
with valid permits were to be allowed, not locals, but no
such permits were ever issued, nor are IDs asked of anyone
walking into a casino.
Under the BJP government, Delta Corp was also given a
dedicated jetty for its offshore operations in Betim.
Mody, who is a familiar figure in Goa, was among the
front-benchers at the swearing in ceremony of the new
government at Raj Bhavan in March this year, after
the BJP's controversial takeover of power. The Delta
Corp chairman now also owns FC Goa, after he bought a
65% stake in the football team that was jointly held
by Dattaraj Salgaocar and Srinivas Dempo.
All we've learnt so far from the chief minister's assurances
in the state assembly is that a "comprehensive policy" on
casinos will be out within three months and that offshore
casinos would be moved to a "designated entertainment zone"
on land within three years.
Sources in the industry said they'd been told they would have
to put up high-end casino hotels at Mopa, North Goa, where
Goa's controversial new greenfield airport is to come up. The
BJP and its recent ally Goa Forward -- whose ambitious leader
Vijai Sardesai has also done a U-turn on casinos -- no doubt
see the move as politically and economically advantageous. It
would help them justify the construction of the new project
as well as give the casino industry in Goa a permanent base.
But will it go down well with the public?
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