Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Upping the stakes in Goa
Overseas, December 2006

Sun, sand, sea and…gambling. Once a hippy haunt, later a raver’s paradise, Goa may now become a gambling den. On September 5th, the Goan government announced that it would allow 10 off-shore casinos to operate in Goa. Goa, a former Portuguese colony with a reputation for liberalism, is the only Indian state to allow casinos. The tiny state has a population of just 1.2 million, often outnumbered by tourists in high season.

With such a small tax base, Goa is often short of revenue. The government claims the casinos will lure rich foreign tourists who usually gamble in Kathmandu and Sri Lanka. Public gambling is illegal in Goa, but the government has twice amended the law to allow slot machines in five-star hotels, and a lone floating casino. Some think the move from backpackers to blackjack is inevitable. “Beach resorts and backpacker tourism will not sustain us forever,” says Valmiki Faleiro, a local businessman, journalist and former politician. “If we are going to target high-spending tourists, then casinos and golf courses are the only way forward.”

Others think the casinos will create more problems than they solve. “Licensing 10 casinos will promote prostitution, moneylaundering and gambling centric tourism”, says Manohar Parrikar, the leader of the opposition and former chief minister. Many Goans agree. “We may need revenue, but we don’t need it so badly that we have to barter our land at huge social cost,” says Frederick Noronha, a local journalist. “What we need is schools, roads and jobs; not haphazard growth with no vision.” “Are we inviting more and more degenerates to come to Goa?” demanded the local Oheraldo newspaper in a passionate editorial titled ‘Demise of Goa.’ “We are giving an open invitation to drug dealers, prostitutes, crooks and assorted criminals who will descend to fleece people who visit and reside in Goa.”

The government claims that the casinos will help regulate underground gambling by bringing it out in the open, with fees high enough to deter locals. Locals are sceptical Illegal gambling is already rife in Goa and often ignored by the police. “There are already a lot of addicted local youngsters pawning their wives’ jewellery so that they can squander their money on slot machines. This is nothing but a money laundering exercise,” claims Albertina Almeida, a lawyer and activist. After stinging criticism from political allies, the government is wavering. Chief Minister Pratapsinh Rane now claims that the government is “not keen on casinos” and that the prohibitively large investment required will ensure that only two or three casinos will actually be set up. However, an earlier government advertisement stated that six well known hotels and property developers had already paid the processing fees to set up casinos.

To some extent, the government’s indecisiveness reflects the mood of Goa’s people. Tourism brings in big bucks, but Goans have begun to question the wisdom of the government’s tourism-first policy, which many feel comes at the expense of local culture. In August 2004, the national investigative newspaper Tehelka revealed that the government had ignored evidence of widespread paedophilia by foreign tourists. Many locals also resent the alleged bending of rules for thousands of foreigners who have bought property in Goa. “Resorts and hotels benefit a few people, but the benefits do not trickle down to those who really need it. Meanwhile, local businesses and agriculture have been badly affected, and the Goan population is below replacement level,” says Almeida.

Rumours of Goa’s demise may be greatly exaggerated, but some fear Goa may go the way of Macau. Also a former Portuguese colony, Macau is now a gambling Mecca, with its casinos raking in more money per customer than Las Vegas. Gambling has brought prosperity to Macau, but it has also brought crime, gang warfare and prostitution. Macau’s Portuguese legacy is virtually invisible.

Goa has always prided itself on its tolerance, but it has now become a prisoner of its own image, say many Goans. “Goa has been converted into a postcard image of fish, feni (the local liquor) and football. It's almost as if Goan identity is expected to cater more to the tourists than to itself,” says Rajdeep Sardesai, an expatriate Goan and head of national news channel CNN-IBN. Casinos or no casinos, Goa’s biggest challenge will be to look beyond tourism and find its own place in the sun.