Nepal’s billion-rupee casino industry faces trouble

Kathmandu, Nov 11 (IANS) Nepal’s casino industry, the oldest in South Asia and one of the top revenue-grossers in the country, is in deep trouble — thanks to laws that stakeholders say are archaic and prejudiced.

When Casino Nepal, the first casino in Asia, was started in 1968 by then king Mahendra’s younger brother, it was open only to foreigners on the ground that if Nepalis were admitted, they would gamble away all their money.

Nearly five decades later, though other sweeping changes have overtaken the former sleepy Hindu kingdom, transforming it into a federal secular republic, the restriction still remains in place, to the protest of hundreds of Nepalis and the industry.

A Nepali gambler or anyone else gambling illegally faces a fine of nearly NRS 200 for a first time offence, a short imprisonment if found guilty again and a year behind bars for erring a third time.

The eight casinos in Kathmandu – making Nepal the casino capital of South Asia – are raided frequently by police to arrest Nepali gamblers and this week, for the first time, police filed cases against the officials of five casinos in the capital, saying they regularly flouted the ban on Nepalis.

‘We are in the service industry,’ says an aggrieved Shalini Wadhwa, director of Nepal Recreation Centre (NRC), which runs five of the eight casinos.

‘How can we keep Nepalis out when the police and fear of raids can’t? We wish the government would then post police at the casinos.’

The sixth casino, Casino Royale, where Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao had had a flutter and yesteryear’s alleged serial killer Charles Sobhraj was arrested in 2003, was wrested away from the NRC by deposed king Gyanendra Shah’s son-in-law Raj Bahadur Singh.

Police superintendent Bhog Bahadur Thapa said a warrant has also been issued for the manager of Singh’s casino.

The newest casino in the capital, Casino Venus as well as an older one, Casino Rad, are run by a group new to the industry, Valley Links Pvt Ltd, that also owns a third outside Kathmandu, Pokhara Grande.

The sunny city of Pokhara has another casino besides the Grande, taking the country- total to 10.

After a 10-year Maoist insurgency that eradicated night life in Nepal, a protracted political turmoil and a bitter legal tussle in the NRC itself, the casino industry is now facing unprecedented police action.

‘Actually, there’s no law to govern the casinos,’ says Wadhwa. ‘Casinos don’t fall under the old gambling laws. Besides, they are discriminating, like Hitler’s regime that did not allow Jews to walk on the same side of the road as Germans.’

A senior official at Casino Rad, who does not want to be named, says Nepal’s gambling laws go against the norms in other countries.

‘In India, one has to be above 18,’ he says. ‘In Malaysia, there is a restriction on Muslims on religious grounds as gambling is considered against Islam. In some countries, you have to be a tax-payer. But none puts a blanket ban on its own nationals, like Nepal.’

Police say the crackdown on casinos is also due to the rising incidents of crime and violence like shootings and robberies enacted by desperate gamblers to pay off gambling debts.

But the industry, that is also one of the biggest employers in Nepal and a prime tourist attraction, says the raids on casinos will dim Nepal’s attraction to tourists, especially from India and Bangladesh who seek the casino packages.

‘Nepal will celebrate 2011 as tourism year planning to bring in one million tourists,’ says Wadhwa, whose husband and NRC chief Rakesh Wadhwa had in the past run casinos in Sri Lanka. ‘We were planning night packages like we had in Colombo to attract tourists. We wish we knew what the government is actually thinking.’

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