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Panjim Becoming The Las Vegas Of India?

India, Nov. 30 -- Ever wondered why airfares from big cities like Delhi and Mumbai to Goa soar at week-ends and public holidays? Indian tourists flocking to Goa no doubt; but a special type of tourist - big time gamblers. Just as single males in their SUVs flock to Goa every week-end and more so on long week-ends because liquor is cheaper in Goa than in their State, the bold and the beautiful, rich and powerful fly down to enjoy a flutter in the casinos. Goa's capital, Panjim, is fast becoming the Las Vegas of India.

Goa has five off-shore gambling casinos, anchored in the middle of the Mandovi river. They claim to be off-shore, which means 12 nautical miles from the coast, even though they are about 100 meters from the bank. Then there are many on-shore casinos in five star hotels around Panjim. The difference between off-shore and on-shore casinos is supposed to be that live gaming is permitted only in off-shore casinos and on-shore casinos have only electronic, slot machines. But that distinction is gradually breaking down as there is no real regulatory body that monitors the on-shore casinos, nor the off-shore ones for that matter. In fact casino gambling in Goa is unregulated for the bold and the beautiful, the rich and the powerful; while ironically, the Goa government and police are more concerned with the aam admi's favourite form of gambling - matka.

Of course, another distinction is that the entry fee for on-shore casinos was fixed at Rs 500, while the off-shore casino entry fee was Rs 2500. This was purported to prevent locals, especially Goan youth, from getting addicted to gambling. But the clout of the casino owner Jaydev Mody is so great that he "persuaded" the Goa government to cut back the entry fee of the off-shore casinos and bring it on par with the on-shore casino. Rigging the entry fee in the absence of meticulous monitoring of the number of people who frequent the off-shore casinos, is easy. Mody knows the Goa government is dependent on the license fee, the renewal fee and the luxury tax imposed on the casinos, to cover the shortfall in government revenue caused by the suspension of mining industry. So he can call the shots on the entry fee and in fact, anything to do with his off-shore casinos.

Many perks for the out-station gambler

The off-shore casinos provide many perks for the big-time, out-station patrons. If they deposit a minimum of rupees one lakh with a particular casino, they are entitled to free accommodation in an on-shore five star hotel. A lot of businessmen take advantage of this offer of a complimentary room, to park their wives and families there, while they spend their time gambling. The casinos are open every day, around the clock.

Another big perk is the presence of many hawala operators in the casinos, who provide patrons with money laundering facilities. Politicians and government officials enter the casinos with plastic shopping bags full of currency notes. Seldom do they play any games of gambling. But when they leave, their bags of "black money" are converted into "white money".

Hawala traders are enterprising businessmen. They help transfer money from one place to another. They are very handy when businessmen want to bribe politicians and government officials to make pay-offs. It is no coincidence that the hawala dealer - one of the main accused in the infamous Louis Berger deal involving former Congress party ministers, Churchill Alemao and Digamber Kamat - is a frequent visitor to off-shore casinos.

Another "service" the hawala trader provides is for businessmen who are uncomfortable with carrying large sums of money from their home to the casino. The businessman deposits or establishes a line of credit with a hawala dealer in the city where they stay; the dealer then arranges the supply of cash or chips at the casino to the limit already agreed on.

World-wide casinos are involved in a wide range of illegal activities, including trafficking in women. Whenever there are males flush with money, prostitution will flourish. The casinos in Goa are replete with scantily clad young women who are obviously neither the wives nor daughters of the men they hang out with. One of the three casinos that Jaydev Mody owns is called a Flotel - a floating hotel with rooms for hire, attached to the casino. Another kind of package the casinos provide its patrons is not only a room for the night, but also a female companion.

Panjim transformed within a decade

In the last decade, Panjim has been transformed from an old fashioned, heritage town into the bustling, gambling capital of the country. A decade ago, there was only one relatively small casino called the "Caravela." It is suspected that the owner Sunder Advani used his influence with the then Vajpayee government in Delhi over the Parrikar led BJP government in Goa, to secure the license for the first ever off-shore casino in the country. For five years Caravela enjoyed a monopoly on off-shore gambling. No permissions for any new off-shore casinos were issued till the BJP came back to power in 2012.

It will be recalled that at the swearing in ceremony of Manohar Parrikar as BJP led government Chief Minister in 2012, Jaydev Mody was prominent in the first row with BJP patriarch LK Advani. He enjoys excellent rapport with the BJP central ministers in Delhi. So neither CM Parrikar in the past nor Parshekar in the present, can touch him. They are left squirming between doing Mody's bidding and facing the wrath of the local activists who vehemently oppose the casinos.

The activists proffer many examples of locals whose families have been ruined by gambling as the main reason for their opposition. There have been repeated demands from Aam Admi and Aurat, an organization demanding the abolition of casinos. When in the opposition and in run up to the 2012 elections, Parrikar promised to have the casinos removed from the river where they are a hazard to river cruise boats, barges and even ferries that ply people to different destinations along the river. He also promised not to renew their licenses once their term expired in 2015.

Although the term of the licenses of the off-shore casinos has long since expired, there is no sign of their moving out of the river Mandovi. Feeble attempts have been made by the present CM Laxmikant Parshekar to move the casinos elsewhere, but certainly not far from the coast. All the efforts have failed because of stiff local people's opposition to have the casinos moved near them. Four spots on the rivers of Goa were selected, but in vain. This left the CM with no other choice than to plead helplessness and happily leave the casinos where they are anchored on the Mandovi river. Of course, he also extended their licenses.

Casinos are supposed to provide a source of employment to many local youth. But a visit to the casinos gives the distinct impression that outsiders from Nagaland and Nepal, who blindly follow orders, are preferred over local youth, who may spill the beans on the goings-on in the casinos.

The real difference between casinos in Macau and Las Vegas with those in Goa is the strict supervision that prevents cheating, particularly from the side of the casinos owners, who easily rig the electronic gaming machines. Even during live gaming, rigging of the roulette wheel, for instance, with a little extra air blown when it is in motion, can produce very different results. If casinos are promoted as a game of chance, there should be no manipulations permitted to cheat the patrons.

From sedate capital to sin city

The transformation of Panjim from a sedate capital to sin city has occurred within the last decade. At a recent exhibition a multimedia artist presented photographs of the Mandovi river front clicked a decade ago and then a year ago. A decade ago the river front provided a peaceful promenade for senior citizens to walk and lovers to cuddle on the parapets beside the river. Recent photographs present garish lights and vulgar hoardings, advertising the casinos that are parked in the middle of the placid river Mandovi. It gives the impression of gambling capitals like Macau and Las Vegas.

Will Panjim suffer yet another metamorphosis in the next decade, from sin city to smart city, since it has been selected as the only smart city project in Goa?

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.

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Publication:Indian Currents
Geographic Code:1U8NV
Date:Nov 30, 2015
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