According to a 2021 ENV (Esse N Vidari) Media study (bit.ly/ 3lkZxt4), Indian gamers spent some $1.73 billion (₹13,000 crore) in online sports betting alone. There are estimates that India’s overall gaming market has the potential of being worth nearly $4 billion (₹30,000 crore) by 2024.
Coming as the ban does months after the recent pronouncements of the high courts of Punjab and Haryana, Bombay, and Rajasthan, that the Indian home-grown online fantasy gaming platform Dream11 is a game of that involves ‘skill’ and not only chance and is, thereby, legal – and the August 3 Madras High Court judgment (Junglee Games India Pvt Ltd v State of Tamil Nadu), whereby a February 2021 amendment to the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, 1930, lifted the ban on all forms of online gaming in that state – Karnataka joining Telangana and Andhra Pradesh is regressive.
The rapid growth in digital infrastructure, communication technology and the internet signalled a boom in the online gaming industry. Yet, like the other ‘sindustries’ like alcohol and tobacco, the legislation and governance regarding gambling in many states has been hypocritical. It was Victorian Britain, in the form of the council of the governor general of India, that introduced a Bill that was to become the Public Gambling Act (PGA), 1867. This law continues to be on the statute book today, and serves as the blueprint for other anti-gambling laws in various states.
PGA introduced a distinction between games of ‘skill’ against those of ‘chance’. The latter were treated as tantamount to gambling, and provision was made to punish those indulging in such games, while establishments that facilitated these were outlawed. A reading of the debates that took place in the council at the time reveal that at least part of the object was to ensure that the Indian citizens of British-ruled India who were in the direct employ of colonial households did not ‘while away’ their time indulging in play, rather than serving their employers.
Of course, the British India law ensured that ‘elitist’ pleasures continued unobstructed by the introduction of a separate legislation legalising horse-racing. Fervent appeals by the citizenry demanding that other betting sports like cock-fighting be placed in the category of horse-racing was declined. Much like beauty lying in the eyes of the beholder, so it seems does skill. At a basic level, this problem with the current regulatory framework continues to this day.
Even as many other states have seen reason by allowing online gaming, the artificial basis for the classification between games of ‘skill’ and those of ‘chance’ remains intact. This is coupled with the fact that a majority of state governments continue to be disinclined to legalise gambling, even as they, ironically, run their own state lotteries. Also, in some states where gambling is legal, governments like in Goa continue to push the idea of banning ‘locals’ from entering casinos.
It is time to revisit the whole ‘skill vs chance’ false binary test, instead. After all, the point is modern legislations – as opposed to theological laws and religious scripts usually quoted to prohibit gambling – should treat adult Indians as informed adults.