The Government has had second thoughts on the concessions it is to give to the prospective investors in casinos — euphemistically called ‘strategic investment projects’; but has not abandoned the bigger issue — the opening of big-time casinos. The voices of religious leaders opposing the setting up of casinos are muted now; the mainstream Opposition [...]


Look before you leap, casino ills run deep


The Government has had second thoughts on the concessions it is to give to the prospective investors in casinos — euphemistically called ‘strategic investment projects’; but has not abandoned the bigger issue — the opening of big-time casinos.

The voices of religious leaders opposing the setting up of casinos are muted now; the mainstream Opposition is so down and out that there’s hardly a squeak from it and the opposition from within the Government is not being taken too seriously. The decision to open high-end casinos has come to stay and it seems the Government is far too committed now to pull back on the deal.

The two Gazette notifications giving wide-ranging tax concessions running upto 10 years seem to be on hold. There’s however, no word yet as to what, if any, are the amended concessions that are on offer to the local blue chip company and the Australian whose family business is in the gaming industry.

Those who questioned the Government on the tax holidays that were originally to be given on a platter to these investors (the local company however said they would waive the tax concessions insofar as the gaming component went) ask why such tax holidays were being given. Was the Government so desperate to open these glitzy casinos to spice up its flagging tourist industry, or was it the lure of dollars rolling in to the state coffers through high-spenders flocking to Colombo to play at the roulette and blackjack tables and the slot machines a.k.a. the one-armed bandits.

Casinos are winners all the way to the bank — for their owners. Those who have knowledge of their profit margins refer to the ‘killings’ they make at the expense of the gambler and point out that they will self-finance their million dollar investments in next to no time. So, why then these freebies?

Quite apart from the financial aspects, where is the Regulatory Authority? The Treasury Secretary is on record saying that the Government ‘intends’ introducing Singapore-style regulations that will govern the casino industry.

The Singapore Casino Regulatory Authority has reams of regulations that monitor, inspect, govern the casino industry and punish offenders of the Casino Control Act. This came about after a lengthy debate in the city-state which six years ago took a concerted decision to open casinos because its limited tourist industry was running out of ideas. Singapore had a public debate on the issue, not like in Sri Lanka where most things are done covertly.

Has the Government put the cart before the bull in giving the green light to casinos, almost as if in an indecent hurry, before a Regulatory Authority is in place?

All this, of course, is over and above the fundamental question — how much is Sri Lankan society including political life going to get corrupted and compromised by this industry and the long-term impact it is going to have on the life of its people.
In Singapore, which is being looked at as the example, efforts are already being made to strengthen provisions of the regulatory mechanism to contain gambling related social ills.

These include gambling restrictions on locals and keeping a tighter tab on illegal ‘junket activity’ by middle men operators. Already, various devious methods are being used of giving credit to gamblers on commissions bypassing the city-state’s monetary system. They are suggesting penalties of 10% of the gross gaming revenue for those who breach the regulations and more accurate definitions of casino related crimes and streamlining taxation.

All this points to just one thing; Singapore is facing problems with the casino industry. Even such a tightly administered administration as Singapore, finds these operators know how to creep through loopholes and exploit the system. This Government is going into this murky area with it eyes open, blinded though by the El Dorado that it hopes will be ushered in with the casinos.

Not to get distracted by TN theatrics

Just when one thought last week that the Indian Prime Minister, in all probability, was going to buckle down to the domestic political pressures of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and skip this month’s CHOGM in Sri Lanka, a ray of hope has emerged from the dark clouds over the Indian sub-continent. The Indian PM may, despite the opposition, turn up.

If he does, it is indeed a thundering slap on the Tamil Nadu State Government and even its State Assembly which recently passed a unanimous resolution asking India to totally boycott CHOGM in Sri Lanka. It seems that the Central Government is unwilling to have one state hold the nation to ransom and dictate its foreign policy.

Reports reaching Colombo say the Indian Ministry of External Affairs won the day arguing that India cannot sit out of a multi-lateral conference over what is a bi-lateral problem with Sri Lanka. It is also a lesson for Sri Lanka’s Ministry of External Affairs’ mandarins that engagement with opponents is the crux of foreign policy. Disengagement and boycotts have to be the last resort when diplomacy has failed.

Then again, anything is still possible with the Indian PM’s visit. Tamil Nadu will set itself on fire probably, in protest, but these theatrics must not detract Sri Lanka from its outstanding, long dragging bi-lateral issues with India.

India has probably two grievances with Sri Lanka; this country’s excessive cosiness with China and Tamil Nadu’s pressure. On Sri Lanka’s side there are a host of issues ranging from nuclear fallouts from India’s reactors in the south to arguably the single most critical of them all – the systematic and organised poaching in Sri Lankan waters by Indian fishermen.

We are informed that the Sri Lankan fisheries officials have been asked to tone down their protests so as not to offend India on the eve of CHOGM. That is a very unfair policy decision.

The Tamil Nadu shrimp export industry is plundering Sri Lanka’s resources, as its fishermen watch like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle — dazed, frightened and incapacitated. In this instance, it is by the armada of Indian fishing boats that come thrice a week. The threat of retaliation by India has entrapped the Sri Lankan Government in a diplomatic bind and into meek submission.

Sri Lanka cannot so easily surrender the moral high ground it has on this vexed issue.

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