Should Meghalaya Have A Casino?

By Avner Pariat

In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging moneySo he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” John 2:14-15

The economy of Meghalaya is in dire straits according to this (and earlier) governments. There is virtually no source of income to fund the various developmental and welfare activities needed by the state. Manufacturing is almost non-existent and the exemption of Meghalaya’s tribal people from the Income Tax Act means that no taxes may be levied upon the population to bolster the Public coffers. The only discernible sources thus far have been from the challans issued against the ecologically-devastating extractive industries like limestone and coal mining. Oh, and let us not forget the income generated from sale of alcohol.

It should come as no surprise therefore that some egg-headed advisors had suggested to the Conrad Sangma government that the best way to expedite a smooth and steady source of bountiful income would be through the creation and operation of a casino somewhere along the border areas with Assam. I think many of our MLAs have been enjoying Macau and Las Vegas a bit too much, it seems they don’t want to lose the euphoria and thrill of those places when they come back home. What better way then to re-live those neon memories than by having a casino right in one’s backyard!

The casino advocates imagine that gambling would somehow revive the state’s fading economy. The casino will create jobs they will no doubt promise. They probably envision an entire sub-division dedicated to this pastime and for High-class retail outlets and swanky restaurants to line the boulevard outside the casino. They think that this proposal will allow an entire economic ecosystem to thrive. But as numerous studies have shown (all easily available on the Internet) money that comes into a casino, stays within the casino. The boulevard will be filled only with broken dreams instead. Liquor stores and pawn shops will mushroom all along its length.

The impact of casinos on local property rates is “unambiguously” negative. Again this data is easily available online. Casinos do not revive economies. They act as parasites upon them. Communities located near a casino will have to deal with severe issues like gambling addiction. And once that happens, economic distress and domestic violence will not be far behind. These are all linked together. As a student studying abroad, I saw firsthand the damage that gambling can wreak on the lives of people. A few of my housemates would go out almost every weekend and their nights would invariably lead them to the large casino downtown. It was as though something magical pulled them towards that building. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, a few of them eventually had to return to their home-countries because they ended up in so much debt that their families could no longer afford to pay for their tuition and stay. They returned empty-handed with no certificates or diplomas to show for. But I still consider them lucky to have had such support systems in the first place. Their friends and families pulled them back from the brink though it was at great financial loss and personal sacrifice. I do not want to see that happen here in my own (already) problem-ridden state.

The casino advocates will no doubt make all sorts of excuses for their idea. They will probably say that the vices associated with gambling will never be allowed here, that they will somehow beat the odds and regulate it properly. This is hogwash and cannot be done. The very nature and design of the gambling industry itself targets those who can least afford to lose and earns most of its living from people for whom gambling has become an addiction. Researchers have suggested that 75% of casino customers who play occasionally provide only 4% of casino revenues. It’s clear that the 96% comes from the gambling addicts who serve as the backbone of any casino.

Perhaps the casino advocates might also say that no “real gambling” will take place on the premises. Only “soft”games like slot-machines and similar devices will be allowed. But modern slot machines are highly addictive psychologically-alluring devices. Today a majority of casinos earn more money from slot-machines than other games on a daily basis. To maintain a state of euphoria, players prolong their time on the machines until they run out of money. And then they end up borrowing more and more and more. Casinos, far from being economic answers, are the mothers of major social calamities. Gambling weighs heaviest upon the poor, the elderly and the lesser-educated.

In addition, there is a very real danger of this casino becoming a criminal’s paradise. Crime is a major concern in most gambling hotspots. This is because addiction at its most fundamental level is the same no matter the substance. A person addicted to gambling is more likely to also be drawn to the highs associated with consumption of contraband, risque sex and other illegal activities. And again, higher incidences of prostitution leads to higher incidences of venereal diseases like syphilis and AIDS. It is all connected.

Lastly, casinos, all over the world, are often used by criminals to launder money. Many of our own MLAs belong to different vested interest groups such as the coal, limestone and construction lobbies. Ok, lobby is too nice a word, they’re mafia. Mafia is the correct word. This proposed casino could be a dangerous tool for them to “whitewash” their dirty ill-gotten money. By depositing large amounts of cash, playing for a while and exiting early, these mafia-men could approach the casino for a cheque which renders the dirty money totally legitimate as it comes from a seemingly well-regulated organization. This could have a devastating effect on local politics.

Instead of banking all their hopes on a casino, the government should concentrate on getting money from the tax defaulters who are costing our state millions. They are contributing nothing towards our development. It would be far better to give the Industrial Parks and Special Economic Zones over to sustainable and scalable local initiatives. In addition, they might also want to impose a Wealth Tax on the creme-de-la-creme who earn over a certain amount per year. Of course this would mean that many MLAs would also get caught up in such a snare but so be it ! These are the radical ideas (which are not so radical) which your Dhar, Pala, Hek and Sangma will never bring up in the Assembly!

( email:  [email protected])

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