The more things change?...
Some weeks ago a lawyer-activist Aires Rdodrigues commented ironically, after the Laxmikant Parsekar government granted a seven-month extension of licence to four casinos operating on the River Mandovi: "This government which is on the payroll of casinos won't move them even if the Mandovi goes dry". There's more than a modicum of truth in his words.
A?bout 15 years ago when the Congress government rolled out the red carpet for casinos to come and set up shop, no one believed that they were not here to stay. This, despite the BJP in the run up to the 2012 assembly elections getting its khaki knickers in a twist declaring that casinos promoted vice, gambling and immorality and would be banished when it came to power. It did in March 2012 but casinos have stayed and flourished, with some darkly hinting that they are fronts to launder money and make cash registers jingle, particularly on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year when patrons fly in from all over the country to gamble.
Two years ago, during Manohar Parrikar's reign as the CM, he thundered that casinos would be sent out of the River Mandovi by September 2015, but that too has been merely BJP's attempt at grandstanding. It has been accused of chanting the u-turn mantra on many issues including on casinos.
Now the new refrain that Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar and others including union minister for Ayush, Shripad Naik, repeat to justify all the going back on the big talk earlier is "we cannot send wrong signal to investors". Parsekar says that the government gets Rs 125 crore annually as revenue and with mining revenue drying up for almost 3 years, this government, whose revenue deficit is climbing annually, needs all the money it can get. He said this week, "I have to check all aspects, you cannot close it down (referring to casinos) all of a sudden." Thus it was that the four offshore casinos were given extensions by the cabinet late last month till March 31, 2016. You can bet that next March a way will be found for casinos to stay.
?Actually, the casino story gets worse. Consider the escape clause that this government has armed itself with: ?t?ill alternative locations are finalised for the casinos to operate at, or whichever is earlier. Alternative locations had been identified at four areas; Aguada Bay at the mouth of the river Mandovi, two locations in the River Zuari, east of the bridge and west of the bridge in the South; and in the River Chapora in the North.? ?
Here again there are different aspects. First, Parsekar's words — "If there are objections, we will not forcibly push the vessels to those sites." So, groundwork was laid for the casinos to stay right where they were. He also says none of the four sites have ready infrastructure. The question has been asked why the government should spend tax payer's money to build infrastructure (approach roads and jetties) when village roads and such like are crying out to be built.
Parsekar took another tack, pointing to the petitions from about 2,500 casino employees and also the objections it invited after notifying the four alternate locations — three objections against the Aguada bay site, seven against the Chapora location, three opposing casinos altogether and two demanding status quo.
Coastal village uprisings have been heard over the last few weeks with village gram sabhas and panchayats making it clear they do not want casinos in their backyards. Villagers are worried casinos will release sewage and garbage directly into the river, polluting it and destroying the river's biodiversity, pose a serious threat to the livelihood of fishermen apart from the worry about the social impact of gambling in their backyards.
A first person account
Interestingly, Joe D'Souza, an environmentatlist, calls it a "fake revolt" that has been orchestrated by the "casino lobby" which he says is totally opposed to shifting from Panaji on the Mandovi. Living in Panaji's Latin quarter, he has often expressed angst at being a virtual prisoner on the weekends because all streets, including the one on which he lives, lead to the waterfront from where feeder boats take you to the casinos that are moored in the middle of the river.
He seems dismissive of being in contempt of court saying, "The justice system, in Goa particularly, is blind to the interests of the common man, and thus is malleable to suit the interests of casinos owners and their political partners." His clarion call is, "Panjimites, please wake up to ensure casinos move out or else we will suffer perennially and will never grow into a ‘smart city'.
But Panaji was selected among the 100 "smart" cities in India and can look forward to Rs 500 crore over five years for various infrastructure projects.
Margao, which is seen as Goa's commercial capital, and Vasco-da-Gama, the port city, have taken it badly and its politicians are currently embroiled in finger pointing. "Betrayal" is a word that has been bandied about for both these towns losing out to Panaji, which is the seat of power — the secretariat is about 3 kms across the river — and therefore had the edge. But with elections to local bodies due in a few weeks a cacophony was bound to occur from the losers.
The fact is that while Vasco has a train terminus and an airport nearby, Margao has a train station which networks Goa to the north and south, Panaji has neither and has become a traffic nightmare, and in fact, recently converted 17 of its roads into one-ways. Margao is also a small city with shops chock-a-bloc whereas Vasco is a more planned city (infrastructure created by the Portuguese), but often discounted because historically, its PSU (Goa Shipyard Limited) and Indian Navy nearby has attracted talent from outside Goa and therefore is seen as less-Goan, in a manner of speaking.
On September 4, Goa lost one of its most honest, feisty, intelligent politicians who was a Chief Minister thrice in the revolving door politics that Goa had become in the nineties. Wilfred de Souza was 88.
There was virtually no party that Willy, who was a skilful surgeon with a double FRCS, was not associated with, except the BJP/MGP, because his forthright and combative nature did not allow for him to settle down.
Twenty-six years ago when I came here as correspondent of a newspaper, Willy was riding high as one of Congress' many leaders. Used to politicians who never mean what they say or say what they mean, Willy — who played host to the press in his consulting room in Azad Maidan, Panaji — was like a breath of fresh air and also sometimes, a slap in the face. He never suffered fools gladly and was fond of riposting about some statement made by a politician, "You ask him". Remember those were more gentle times when in-your-face TV cameras did not follow a newsmaker around. So it is safe to say that Willy was not everyone's favourite politician, especially his party's, and saved his bedside manner for his patients who swore by his magic scalpel.