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Bookies, punters, odds — the murky world of sports betting and the perks of legalising it

Illegal betting in India, especially in cricket, has spawned ills such as spot-fixing & match-fixing. In this world cup season, ThePrint revisits calls to legalise it.

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New Delhi: Anchit Jain, 22, is a former bettor who stumbled into the world of bookies, odds and wagers through a friend. “I started betting in college as a hobby; a friend introduced me to it,” he tells ThePrint.

And like most punters across the country, Jain placed his money on cricket, particularly the IPL. He says his bets would go as high as Rs 2.5 lakh on a single match and that he relied on a bookie, a partnership entirely dependent on trust as betting and gambling on cricket and other sports are illegal across the country.

“There are times when I didn’t pay the bookie or he did not pay and we settled it later,” he says. “My bookie mainly places bets on football and cricket matches but I know other bookies who place bets on basketball and tennis matches.”

While betting and gambling are illegal in the country, there is a growing underground market for them, primarily revolving around cricket. According to ESPN, which quoted the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the Indian betting market is valued at over $60 billion, with cricket accounting for 80 per cent of it.

Such is the fixation around cricket that bettors put their money on all sort of matches.

“In the World Cup match Wednesday, I put my money on New Zealand beating England,” says a consultant in his mid-20s, who did not wish to be identified. “If they had, I would’ve won Rs 1.5 lakh. They did not and I lost the Rs 27,000 I wagered.”

The sheer size of the illegal industry and the resultant ills it has spawned, such as match-fixing and spot-fixing, has now led to calls for legalising betting, most famously by the Supreme Court-appointed Mudgal and Lodha committees, FICCI and even the Law Commission of India. All of them have based their opinions on a similar premise — that the best way to regulate the illegal industry is to legalise it.


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The law vs the numbers

Countries such as Australia, Ghana, United Kingdom, Philippines, South Africa, Nigeria and Mexico have all legalised betting. But in India, under the Public Gambling Act of 1867, most forms of betting or gambling are illegal. Gambling, a state subject, is heavily restricted except for activities such as horse racing and lotteries.

There are, however, a few exceptions. Goa, Daman and Diu and Sikkim have operational casinos, while states such as Odisha, Telangana and Assam have banned all forms of betting and gambling.

Over the years, the jurisprudence on the issue has revolved around whether betting should be allowed in ‘games of skill’ as opposed to ‘games of chance’. Games of chance are those in which the betting outcome is entirely dependent on sheer luck and the result is completely uncertain. Whereas in games of skill the betting outcome is dependent on the training, expertise and knowledge of the punter.

In R.M.D. Chamarbaugwala versus Union of India (1957), the Supreme Court ruled that when the betting on a sport has a certain element of skill involved, it would not be regarded as gambling. In 1996, the apex court ruled that betting on horse-racing required skill and therefore would not fall within the ambit of gambling. The court has also acknowledged that by nature such betting is a combination of both skill and chance, and has therefore emphasised that in such situations, skill should be the predominant factor of skill.

“The case for legalising gambling in games of skill as opposed to games of chance stems from a moral argument that in games of chance one is putting a substantial amount of their wealth on something which they have absolutely no control over, whereas at least in games of skill, one can analyse and use their expertise while betting their money,” explains Jay Sayta, a corporate lawyer and founder of glaws.in, a website that examines the gaming industry and monitors gambling law developments in India.

Where there is internet, there is a way

In India, betting laws are circumvented because there is no specific legislation that disallows online gambling in the country. “People get onto offshore websites where they create accounts and start betting; they usually pay by e-wallets,” Sayta explains. “The online sports betting industry is worth over $130 billion.”

There are websites that act as mere guides or intermediaries to facilitate the activity. Take indiabet.com for instance. The website does not take bets but enables prospective punters to get in touch with international online bookmakers.

There’s onlinecricketbetting.net, a guide to the world of online betting in India and one that recommends other websites to place bets, such as Betway, Betrally, 2Bet and Dafabet. In addition, it also simplifies the online payment system.

In 2009, the Sikkim government issued a memorandum known as Sikkim Online Gaming (Regulation) Rules, which allowed online betting and provided rules and regulations for it. While at the same time, there is a PIL pending before the Delhi High Court to block all betting websites in India.


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Benefits of legalising betting

The Mudgal Committee, appointed in October 2013 to look into allegations of betting and spot-fixing in the IPL, told the Supreme Court that India’s investigative agencies lack the tools to track bookies and detect sporting fraud without adopting techniques such as phone tapping.

In light of these problems, the investigative agencies stated before the Mudgal Committee that, “legalising sports betting would reduce the element of black money and the influence of the underworld”.

Former Delhi High Court judge Mukul Mudgal, who headed the Mudgal Committee, told ThePrint: “The three main reasons for legalising betting are that if legalised, a large amount of revenue would come to the government. What is caught is just the tip of the iceberg. Secondly, currently, most of the money from betting is black money and goes to the underworld. If legalised, this could potentially become white money. And lastly, legalising betting would create a system of computer programmes that can track unusual betting patterns, and action can be taken accordingly.”

In January 2015, the Lodha Committee, another Supreme Court-appointed panel that was asked to improve the functioning of the Board of Cricket Control for India (BCCI), recommended the legalisation of betting, with strong safeguards and opined that a regulatory framework would enable the government to distinguish between betting and match-fixing.

In July 2018, the Law Commission of India report titled Gambling and Sports Betting, including in cricket, recommended that betting and gambling should be allowed but must be regulated to check money-laundering and fraud. The report stated that the regulation of betting would enable the government to prevent gambling by minors and crack down on the generation of black money through illegal gambling.

It further recommended that income generated through betting should be taxed and there should be a cap on the amount an individual can “legally gamble”. It added that to ensure transparency and state supervision, the betting or gambling should be limited to only money and with a link to a PAN card and Aadhaar Card.

Sayta agrees that legalising and regulating this activity would enable agencies to identify match-fixing more easily, and software and algorithms would make investigations and tracking activities much more efficient.

“Irrespective of the ban, betting is still continuing. If brought within the ambit of law, it can at least be a part of the money flow,” he said. “If the money from betting is taxed it would conservatively bring in at least tens of thousands of crores.”

On 28 December 2018, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor introduced the Sports (Online Gaming & Prevention of Fraud) Bill in the Lok Sabha, along the lines of the Law Commission of India report. The Bill focused on penalising match-fixing and the manipulation of sports events and creating a national regulatory and licensing framework to oversee online betting in the country.

“The case is clear — my bill would regulate gambling, squeeze out criminality, end match-fixing, increase revenues for the state and preserve the integrity of sports,” Tharoor wrote in The Week then. “It will not pass in the limited time available in this Parliament’s life. But I hope that putting it on the table will provoke a discussion that eventually will bring about change.”


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