Fugitive Indian casino king seeks truce with Nepal

February 28th, 2011 - 3:31 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, Feb 28 (IANS) A controversial Indian businessman who enjoyed monopoly over Nepal’s multi-billion rupee casino industry but had to flee the country after growing disputes with the government has sought a truce, his lawyers and trade union groups said.Rakesh Wadhwa, whose Nepal Recreation Centre once owned seven of the 10 casinos in Nepal but who fled to New Delhi last year to avoid being arrested for non-payment of royalty to the government, says he is ready to return if the warrant is dropped and a conducive environment created for negotiations.

The 53-year-old former chartered accountant, whose kingdom shrank to five casinos in Kathmandu after skirmishes with other entrepreneurs, still owes the Nepal government NRS 244 million.

The fate of the casinos and his plea could be decided Monday by a parliamentary committee that last year asked the government to crack down on the casinos for non-payment of dues as well as creating a law and order problem.

Wadhwa’s lawyer Sushil Pant and leaders of the casino employees’ trade unions have told the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee that Wadhwa is willing to return to Kathmandu and negotiate the payment of the dues.

However, a section of the MPs remains hostile to the Indian businessman, who also owns casinos in India’s Goa state, and says Wadhwa himself could have created a conducive atmosphere for talks had he sent the money he owed to the government.

The MPs have also shot down the tourism ministry’s proposal to bail out the ailing casino industry by paving the way for Nepalis to gamble.

Nepal’s laws prevent Nepalis from gambling and make it clear the casinos are intended only for tourists. However, Nepalis continued to enter the casinos with the connivance of the operators, resulting in recent raids by police.

A new draft submitted by the tourism ministry proposed that well-heeled Nepalis, who were registered as taxpayers in the Large Taxpayers’ Office, be allowed to become members of a “casino club” and be allowed to gamble in the casinos.

However, the proposal was shot down by the parliamentary committee Sunday that also flayed the government for not obeying its order to scrap the licences given to four mini casinos.

In December, the committee had also asked the government to cancel the licences of all casinos that failed to clear their dues within 35 days.

Following the directive, all but two casinos owned by Wadhwa - Casino Anna and Casino Nepal, the oldest casino in Nepal where Bollywood icon Dev Anand shot part of his blockbuster film “Hare Ram Hare Krishna” - paid up their dues by last week.

Meanwhile, trade unions reminded the committee that the casino industry employs nearly 8,000 people and its closure would create an unprecedented unemployment crisis.

Also, tourism ministry officials fear the casinos could go to court, leading to a long-drawn legal battle.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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