Chronology Samajhiye. After campaigning stridently against casino “dens of vice” in 2012, and winning big to install the political order that still holds ten years later, the late Manohar Parrikar was inaugurated as chief minister of Goa with the country’s biggest gambling operator sitting in the front row of his dais. Immediately afterwards, the entrance fee for casinos was reduced from Rs 2000 to just Rs 500, and it became perfectly clear the power structure of India’s smallest state was already succumbing to this notoriously shady “industry”.
That episode sheds considerable light on this week’s announcement by the GST Council under Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman that Goa’s government – represented by Mauvin Godinho – seeks “preferential” status for casinos, objecting to the tax rate of 28% (by contrast it is 40% in Macau) recommended by the advisory Council of Ministers. In Sitharaman’s own words, “the Goa government, while presenting its case, said that casinos needed different treatment.” It’s another moment of absolute clarity: just one decade from Parrikar’s inauguration, his hand-picked successors have capitulated entirely to the gambling lobby.
It's important to remember Parrikar’s precise logic at the time: “I am strongly against gambling. We don’t need them.” He said “bad money” taxed from casinos would be used only for social welfare, such as homes for the aged, and solemnly promised the “offshore” gambling dens crowding the Panjim waterfront would be removed by the end of his term: “I will ensure that.”
Since then, of course, it has only been more broken promises: Parsekar’s firm 2016 assurance that “the file has been moved” to appoint the sorely needed Gaming Commission, Parrikar’s own 2017 declaration that all casinos would be on land in three years, Sawant’s 2020 pronouncement about “stopping all the original Goans from entering casinos. They will be banned.” Again, “I have already moved the file.”
The most surreal episode in this shameful charade occurred during the 2019 Panjim by-election, when the current city MLA – then with the Congress – took a page from Parrikar’s handbook by galvanising voters with the pledge to get rid of the reviled “offshore” casinos (in reality they are virtually tethered to an ever-expanding footprint on land) within 100 days of being elected. First one opponent, Subhas Velingkar agreed: “casinos have destroyed Panjim city by their sheer presence and the social ills which they propagate. I promise to do away with them.” Then, literally unbelievably, the ruling party followed suit with an identical promise, without explaining why it had not implemented this most popular of public mandates despite so many years in office.
In that moment of unlimited hot air being emitted in every direction, the “Chief Visionary Officer and Mentor” of a casino shared some painful home truths with IANS: “you now have Babush Monserrate who is saying within 100 days I am going to get casinos out. We heard that before from Parrikar. Parrikar used to stand outside the Caravela with a marshal.” But nothing was going to actually happen, because “the people that speak against us, come with us.” Goa has been thoroughly fixed: “awarding a licence to any operator in any other state, it could topple the government, because there is still public resentment against it. So most (other) governments are very wary.”
This underlines a curious paradox defining Goa’s 21st century politics across party lines. Candidates do appeal to voter sentiments during elections, but once elected they machinate entirely opaquely, and their actions are almost never in the public interest. The High Court of Bombay pointed this out in its stunning 2018 rebuke (it was about mining, but applies to casinos as well). “We are surprised at the vehemence at which the state has asserted the right of [this industry]. We got a feeling that the dividing line was blurred. A neutral, balanced and measured response by the state would have been more appropriate and commensurate with its role. (This dereliction of responsibility) is too stark for us not to notice. We write it here because it pains our conscience."
That kind of impunity for the already disreputable gambling lobby – with no consequences whatsoever – has resulted in a dangerous free-for-all in Goa, that is quickly killing every quality aspect of its once-stellar tourism brand. Families are driven away. Hordes of single men pile in. Highly inappropriate - and overtly sexual - advertising blankets the airport and highways, as though casinos are the state’s primary attraction, and the capital is overwhelmed by similar come-hither seediness. Meanwhile, complicit officials keep handing over precious public assets – the latest outrage swallowed half Panjim’s ferry wharf – all the while pretending the proliferation is temporary. Paying lip service to this transparent fiction in 2021, the cabinet granted casinos yet another “extension” to October 2022, “subject to the condition that they shall shift out of the Mandovi, whenever an alternative feasible site is finalised by the government.”
That line alludes obliquely to the grand fantasy of Goa’s gambling lobby, which is to go city-scale like Las Vegas in the vast tracts of Pernem that have been strong-armed from smallholding farmers for the (itself highly dubious) “second airport” project, which sprawls over an astonishing 2,271 acres in contrast to India’s biggest travel hub at Mumbai, which is only 1,450 acres. It looks likely to happen too. Last September, the state investment promotion board approved plans by the dominant casino operator for “an integrated resort” spread over 100 acres very close to Mopa.
But make no mistake. Another infestation of new casinos does not mean the old ones will be closed, or moved, and there’s certainly no indication the Goa government will ever pursue any of its promises to do either of those things. Instead, what we do know is there is far more pressure on the way for the Mandovi and tiny Panjim, because that same usual suspect – its chairman was the one on Parrikar’s dais – is bringing in a gargantuan new casino that will more than double its current capacity. Will it ever depart? Don’t bet on it.
(Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature festival)