Let’s get this right up front.
Isn’t gambling a vice? Yes, it is. Isn’t gambling a social evil that destroys lives? Yes, of course, it has ruined the lives of millions from the times of the Mahabharata. Is it illegal to gamble money in India? Yes, indeed, unless it is on horse racing or playing rummy, betting on which was sanctified by a Supreme Court judgement in 1967.
Despite all of the above, do people still gamble? A resounding yes, as the recent arrests for betting on IPL matches prove. Has the law been equal to the task of eliminating this vice? Absolutely not as the recent IPL events show.
The stark reality, whether we like it or not, is that betting is common and it is not just on IPL matches that bets are taken. The underground betting industry bets on everything from sports to politics, especially during elections, and even the weather.
Faced with this reality, what options do civil society and the government have? There are just two — one, crack down on gambling and betting with strict laws and stricter enforcement to ensure that the evil is curbed, if not eliminated altogether. Or two, accept that it is not possible to eliminate it and thus recognise its existence and frame tight laws to regulate it, the idea being to curb illegal activities associated with betting.
Going by experience, we have failed in exercising the first option. For various reasons the government has not succeeded in preventing betting, especially in sports, as the frequently surfacing scandals prove.
It is neither practical nor possible for the law-enforcement agencies to deploy adequate resources to curb betting when it has to tackle serious crimes such as terrorism, murder, rape and robbery.
Outrageous as it might seem, the fact is that in the order of undesirable activities in society, gambling comes after the other serious offences listed above and mainly because it is inflicted on oneself. In the end, it is a vice as much as drinking or smoking is, not a crime like murder or rape. While it is the responsibility of the government to curb this vice it is obviously not its priority.
Let’s now look at the alternative option. What if the government allows betting on games of skill (as opposed to games of chance such as the roulette wheel or the gambling machines seen at casinos) with properly framed rules and regulations and a regulatory body to oversee the activity? Countries where gambling is legal, as the U.K. for instance, have well-thought-out laws and regulations including a regulator in the Gambling Commission. Why, even in India, Goa and Sikkim recognise gambling.
We need to be careful about the distinction between fixing and gambling. The former can never be a legal activity just as insider trading cannot be in the stock markets.
Recognising betting as a legal activity is indeed risky, so what can the benefits be? First, by mandating clear book-keeping and watching the transaction trail, we can ensure that illegal money or mafia funds do not enter the business. Such funds are typically cash-based and the law should prohibit cash-based betting beyond a fixed limit.
Second, with close supervision from the regulator, unfair practices such as fixing of outcomes can be controlled. Today the activity is not policed.
Third, the money raised through licensing of betting houses and tax on profits from betting transactions can be used to fund a public campaign to create awareness on the ills of betting and gambling. The government need not count the taxes and licensing fees as revenue sources but it will certainly not hurt if money flows into the public coffers through this route to be used for development.
There is an important caveat to all this. To balance the legal sanction which can be misconstrued as promotion of gambling by the government, the latter should simultaneously unleash a campaign highlighting the ills of gambling and clearly warn gamblers of the ruin that it can cause to them. This is similar to the warnings on cigarette packs and liquor bottles.
The message to citizens should be clear: yes, betting on sports is allowed as a legal activity but remember, betting/gambling is a vice, and society and the government will continue to look down upon it.