The recent controversy surrounding cricket in India and the Indian Premier League has once again brought to the fore two issues about sports betting in India which inevitably get intermingled, but which must be addressed separately. The first relates to the illegality of gambling activities and betting on sports. The second concerns spot-fixing or throwing away the game because of a prior understanding with a bookie, short for bookmaker.
As a general matter, most forms of betting when it relates to games of chance, as opposed to games of skill, are prohibited in India. Hence, even a friendly wager on the outcome of a game is illegal and will classify one as a gambler. Add to this illegal activity the criminality of also manipulating the outcome of the wager and it will earn one the title of a fixer. The time may have come to permit gamblers to operate in a legal and regulated environment. But there needs to be zero-tolerance towards fixers and those abetting their acts and strong laws need to be introduced to curb their rise.
To elaborate, betting and gambling fall in List II, being the State List, of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. This gives States exclusive powers to legislate on matters pertaining to betting and gambling and States also have the freedom to decide the tax they wish to levy on such activities. Consequently, at present, 13 States have legalized lotteries and the States of Goa and Sikkim also permit other legalized forms of gambling. In fact, Sikkim even permits online gambling within the state and in its regulations the list of approved casino games includes sports like cricket, football, golf and permits placing bets on their outcome. In essence, online sports betting in the state of Sikkim is legal.
A question that needs to be asked is whether the Entry’s in List II also permits states to legislate online activity or whether a state’s exclusive law making powers are restricted to its physical territory? Our courts are still to examine this issue, but with the rapid growth of the internet this issue is sure to draw judicial scrutiny at the highest level.
Till that happens, it may be worth noting that online gambling is so popular with Indians that some of the popular bookmakers from the United Kingdom permit Indians to deposit, wager and withdraw in Indian Rupees. Setting up an account with one of these bookmakers is extremely easy and placing bets even simpler. Technically, placing bets on these overseas online sites violates Indian laws even if the websites are legal in the country of their registration. But with Indian law enforcement authorities not having the requisite resources to check online gambling most of this betting on foreign websites goes undetected.
Historically, the reasons to restrict gambling activities in India were ideological and driven by societal factors. But one needs to accept modern day reality, and rather than a blanket ban on betting, it may be worthwhile for the Government to permit limited betting activities under a strict regulatory framework. It’s unregulated betting which breeds corruption. Legalising it will reveal details of the high rollers and will also ensure that tax from regulated betting, which can be quite substantial, and which is currently lost to overseas online betting sites, stays within India.
But legalising betting doesn’t address the issue of spot/match-fixing which are serious matters that involve dishonesty and cheating. It’s heartening that the Government has decided to enact a stand-alone legislation to deal with such dishonest practices in all sports and introduce strict legislation to punish offenders. Asides from lifetime bans, the proposed legislation should penalise erring sportsmen with rigorous sentences which will deter others tempted by the lure to cross-over. The proposed legislation will most certainly also cover individual sportsman, asides from team sports like cricket, and therefore the definition of dishonest acts needs to be broad.
But the key is always in implementation and for that we should use this opportunity to give serious consideration to de-politicising Indian sporting organisations. One had expected steps being taken in this direction after the International Olympic Committee suspended the Indian Olympic Association because of Government interference. But after some initial activity this matter has once again gone into cold storage. It’s time to revive that call and fire that bullet to cleanse all sporting activity in India. Else the race will commence, other sporting nations will sprint ahead and India risks being the lone one still standing at the starting line.
Satvik Varma is an advocate based in New Delhi & an Aspen India Leadership Fellow.
First Published in The Economic Times.