Matias Vas has reason to be angry with Goa’s casinos. In 2013, he lost two members of his immediate family to a stabbing incident in a property dispute. "Finally, it was all connected to gambling," he concedes, tears in his eyes, as he sits in his one-storeyed villa in the village of Santacruz, four kilometers outside Panjim.
"The addiction began in college and grew to the extent where jewellery was pawned, ancestral property had to be sold to redeem loans, flats were disposed and, even parts of the family printing business was sold to feed the habit," he says. "Why did the government bring this evil to our doorstep?"
The 1976 Act was first amended in 1992 to permit electronic slot machines in five-star hotels, making Goa then the only such destination in the country then. Pic/AFP
Though his tragedy is extreme, there can be no getting away from the fact that locals with money to spare and even those without, are increasingly attracted to the blinking lights on the Mandovi river. It’s perhaps why additional secretary home Sanjiv Gadkar’s said recently that the home department approved draft rules that will bar local residents from entering casinos, while also barring entry to anyone under the age of 21 years, regardless of place of residency.
While serious gamblers take the late flight in and out of Goa for a package weekend of gambling, and the walk-in Indian tourist takes a short cruise, it is the locals who have easy and continuous access. Lawyers and women’s groups assert that gambling addiction at the casinos is a family problem that comes to their offices in divorce and marital discord cases.
Goa is one of only three Indian states that permit casino gambling and its 15 gaming operations — four of which are located on boats on the Mandovi river — collectively attract around 15,000 visitors per day. PICS/Fredrick Noronha
"A couple of women with family problems have shared that investment of time, as well as contribution to family expenses, suffers due to the gambling addiction of their husbands or sons. Just about everything gets pawned, with the dream of finally making it big and retrieving it all," lawyer Albertina Almeida, a human rights activist, tells SUNDAY mid-day. Arvind Bhatikar, former IAS officer who once headed the state’s Port Trust, is a strident critic. "One government brought the casinos to Goa, another saw it as a golden goose. A lot of people in Goa are dead against casinos, but no government is willing to do anything,"
The BJP came to power in 2012, having made promises to shift the casinos moored on the Mandovi river, where four ships are currently operational, to a different location.
In June 2012, the government passed an amendment to the Goa Public Gambling (Prevention) Act, 1976, debarring Goans and those below 21 years from gambling at casinos. But up until now, rules had not been framed to allow implementation.
Gadkar says the time lag was due to the long consultation process that needed to be undertaken before the draft rules could be framed. They will now go to the law department for whetting.
Founding member of anti-casino group Aam Aurat aur Aadmi against Gambling (AAAG), Panjim businessman Anand Madgavkar scoffs at the explanation. The 1976 Act was first amended in 1992 to permit electronic slot machines in five-star hotels, making Goa then the only such destination in the country. A 1996 amendment permitted offshore vessels, the first making its appearance in 2000. More licenses followed over the years, some shifting operations to Goa from Nepal.
Talks of appointing a gaming commissioner have been rverberating in the corridors of the home department for at least a decade. Yet, the mechanism is still not in place.
"In the bargain, Goa is getting a horrible image. In every casino destination, casinos tend to take over the entire place. They become a power unto themselves," says Madgavkar. He dismisses the government’s move to bar only Goans from gambling as a "farce", that will be difficult to implement. Xavier Vaz, director operations at land based Casino Carnaval is not happy with the no-Goan rule. "These are knee-jerk reactions to satisfy certain groups. Can you deny a Goan businessman entry to the casino? They add to the ambience of the place and come to spend leisure hours here."
"The government should realise that casinos give employment and revenue. Come up with proper regulations instead," he adds. Locals make up a quarter of the clientèle at his casino. No live gambling is permitted on land-based casinos, though. Attempting to find an alternate site to locate the casinos and move them out of the crowded Mandovi river, the government recently got an indicator of how popular the casinos are. Citizens and villages around every proposed site vehemently expressed their objection, leaving the ships in the Mandovi itself, where they currently occupy government jetties.
Residents of Panjim face the brunt of the problem. "Panjim does not have the infrastructure to deal with this," says former
corporator and civic activist Patricia Pinto. Staff vehicles and taxis on call park for hours on end, until the early hours of the morning outside residences and business establishments, blocking the city’s narrow streets. "It is a nuisance, but the authorities are not concerned. They do not even get charged a parking fee, while it is an obstacle race even for
the agile, let alone senior citizens," says Pinto.
Even Goa’s traditional family based tourism trade is worried about the growing influence of casinos. A prominent hotelier says the positioning of Goa’s brand as a safe, family holiday destination is threatened with the systematic marketing and advertising machinery of the casinos, that tend to dominate the tourism imagery here.
Neon billboards apart, a sizeable marketing budget gives them the edge, to draw customers, said the hotelier. Casino owners investing in land and hotels in Goa are indicators that this segment has settled into the Goa market, despite objections from citizen groups and the wariness of other hoteliers, selling beach, adventure, hinterland and spa holidays.