Is it time to legalise betting?

By N.K.A. Ballal, Retd. Sr. Vice-President, ITDC

India-England cricket matches have started from July 3.  There are betting shops in England where one can go and bet on any match. But in India, betting is illegal and banned. So what happens? Hundreds of betting shops open up and betting goes on. Occasionally Police do arrest some! What is required is a TV, smartphone and a small room. One can bet on the full match or even on the number of fours and sixers scored in a match. All cash transactions. Open secret. We Indians revel on double standards. One for the public and one private. Just like prohibition, which is a complete failure wherever enforced. Betting is also an addiction, which is not just enforceable.

That is the reason the Law Commission, in spite of its reservation on this touchy subject which is a taboo, has recommended to the government that it is time we legalise betting both in cricket and other sports. Gambling and betting is going on online and the government has absolute no control over this activity. They have recommended that betting should be allowed both in direct and indirect tax regimes. They have also reasoned out that this will strike at the underworld control over the illegal and unregulated betting industry. They have suggested that the use of pan card and Aadhaar cards for betting be made mandatory so that the marginal and poor can be kept out of this vice. Strict rules and enforcements can be in place. As done in China and Great Britain, the money collected by way of tax is ploughed back to sports. In Singapore for instance, the casinos charge 100 dollars from all Singapore citizens as entry fee to discourage them from entering the casinos. Whereas for all other tourists the entry is free.

India has a history of people who bet big, like our own Yudhistira,  the Pandava King who did not think twice before betting his brothers and even his wife in the dice game against the Kauravas. It is another matter that “match-fixing” was prevalent even  in Dwapara Yuga.

Doha-based international centre for sports security has estimated that nearly Rs. 9.9 lakh crore is the amount spent by Indians on illegal betting.  A kpmg study has estimated that the current online gaming market is at 360 million dollars which is expected to rise to a billion by 2021. Even ficci has estimated that the government can mop up something like Rs.19,000 crore as taxes if betting is legalised. Tempting for Jaitley ! The current account deficit can be reduced dramatically.

Gambling is a bailable offense and hence however much the State tries, it cannot be stopped. So why not try to regulate them with strict laws to ensure that the poor and the marginal earner is discouraged from this vice?  It is worthwhile to have a look at the systems and the laws in place at Great Britain, who have legalised betting.  A food for thought. The Law Commission also has noted that illegal betting and gambling would lead to exponential growth of illegal trade and commerce and corrupt practices such as match-fixing, spot-fixing in sports, specially cricket, the most popular sport of India. Giving an example, it has noted that between 2016 and May 2018, the Delhi Police alone has registered 2,916 cases under the gambling act.

Some States like Kerala and Mizoram run small time lotteries and earn a tidy sum. Kerala  has earned a  sum of Rs. 1,690 crore on lottery sale last year and this amount  was  better used for some good social  cause. Lots of States allow horse-racing and earn a good amount as taxes too. However, these race courses were given long ago in prime lands, which are now worth crores,  now being eyed by the politicians. Example BTC and MRC. Betting industry is a big source of income for all the illegal trade and mafias in the country and if legalised it can squeeze their source dry, resulting in gradual elimination of these groups over a period of time.

But the basic  moral question would crop up, “How can one legalise an act of gambling, a vice which has ruined millions of people all over the world ?” But it is also a fact that many a poor African countries too have legalised betting. Has betting destroyed the social fabric of those underdeveloped countries? Worth a study. Would the government bite the bullet and that too in an election year? I doubt it.

[ananthballal@gmail.com]