Is Goa's casino industry fuelling gambling addiction?

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Five of Goa's 15 casinos are located in ships anchored on Mandovi river

India's popular beach resort of Goa has seen a rise in gambling addiction in the past decade after the state opened its first casino, writes Goa-based journalist Mayabhushan Nagvenkar.

Matias Vaz, 65, has spent the last 10 years of his life paying off debts that his son ran up while gambling in the former Portuguese colony.

He says he sold off his land, dipped into his savings and mortgaged family gold to repay over 6 million rupees (about $97,000; £59,500) that his son borrowed from debtors to finance his gambling habit. His wife and his son's daughter-in-law were murdered after a dispute involving the sale of a family plot to settle debts.

Mr Vaz, who once owned a thriving publishing house where his son helped him, now makes a meagre living translating documents from Portuguese into English and making photocopies in a shop in Goa's capital, Panaji.

"I worry when it's a Sunday because I have to close my store. It means nothing is earned that day," he told the BBC.

'Lost everything'

Iqbal Munaf, a cloth merchant from Margao, lives in a sparse two-room apartment - his last remaining possession after he ran up huge losses gambling in casinos.

He says he sold off his clothes shop, emptied out his savings and sold family property to repay his gambling debts.

"I used to gamble in casinos almost every night after closing my shop. I first raised money from my bank account and then dipped into my business funds to gamble. I stopped when I realised I had lost almost everything that I had," says Mr Munaf.

Image caption,
Matias Vaz has spent the last decade paying off debts that his son ran up gambling in the casinos

Mr Munaf and Mr Vaz's 42-year-old-son are among a disturbing rise in the number of residents of Goa who have become victims of a gambling addiction.

"Gambling is surely on the increase in Goa. The kind of money which is floating because of the casino industry around is unbelievable," says Apa Teli, a recently retired police superintendent.

Goa is the only state in India where live gambling is legal. The first casino opened here in 1999.

Today, the state's 15 casinos - five of them offshore, located in ships anchored on the Mandovi river - receive some 15,000 guests every day, according to one estimate.

The government earns more than 1.35bn rupees ($22m; £13m) in taxes from the thriving casino industry - this money, say officials, is very useful at a time when government revenues have dipped after India's Supreme Court banned mining in Goa last year, depriving the state of taxes.

Political parties have railed against the casino industry, saying they have a "corrupting" influence on local culture, but successive governments have used taxes earned from casinos to justify their existence.

When the present Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in the opposition, he said casinos were "criminal-oriented, prostitution-oriented and gambling cannot deliver good tourism".

At a public meeting this July, Mr Parrikar said: "Although I am personally against them, how will I be compensated if I close them?"

Goa received three million tourists last year and casinos have become a major draw for many of them.

Harming tourism

"Many tourists come to Goa specifically to play at the casinos. Others visit them as a part of their 'must-do-while-in-Goa' list. Our casinos are destinations of entertainment, food, fun and a culmination of things that make for a great night out," says Jaydev Mody of Delta Corp Ltd, which operates three offshore casinos.

But many local travel operators say the "tourism-casino overlap" is harming tourism.

"If we don't have a proper, cohesive tourism promotion campaign then the only activity which we will end up promoting is casinos. And that is not a good advertisement for Goa," Ralph de Souza, chief of a travel operators' group says.

But for tourists like Mumbai-based accountant Atul Shah, a visit to a casino is a must-do.

"You don't even realise if the sun is setting or rising outside the boat. On the [casino] floor it's great atmosphere, lights, free food, drinks, music and one can just keep going on and on if you have the money," he says.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Tourism operators feel casinos are harming Goa's reputation

Many residents, however, are demanding a clampdown on the casinos.

Sharda says she has petitioned the chief minister several times asking him to pass a promised law banning local residents from entering casinos.

In February, she wrote to Mr Parrikar saying how her husband, who is addicted to gambling, often returned home drunk and abused her and their 12-year-old son.

Mr Parrikar emailed to say the law "will come into force approximately in one month's time after the rules are notified", she says.

It's been eight months - and Ms Sharda is still waiting.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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