A private member’s bill recently introduced in parliament is expected to give fresh impetus to the debate on legalizing online gaming and sports betting in India, potentially unlocking one of the world’s largest sports betting markets.
The bill was introduced by politician Shashi Tharoor, who belongs to the main Indian National Congress opposition party.
According to experts, including legal practitioners who have studied it closely, the bill is well timed and could be an important step towards legalising or regulating betting and gambling activities in India.
Based on the recommendations of the Justice Chauhan Commission report last year, the bill proposes the establishment of an overarching body to regulate online gaming and sports betting in India. It criminalises sports fraud, including match-fixing and aims to put a check on the flourishing online gaming market in India, which is operating mostly in a legal grey zone as the central government has not made any laws for its regulation.
The Supreme Court is yet to give a decisive verdict on the subject, although state-based High Courts have handed down decisions that have legalised some online activities.
In Kolkata, for example, poker is legal and poker websites such as Adda52 have established offices there, while Sikkim, a mountainous state in the north-east of India, has a separate law for online gambling and sports betting.
“While a private member’s bill has a slim chance of being accepted as law by the parliament as it is not backed by the party to which the said member of parliament belongs, it often leads to debates in the house, as well as in the media and other public forums. The bill has lapsed as the parliament is not going to have more sessions. But it can be reintroduced when it convenes again,” said Tanisha Khanna, a lawyer with Nishith Desai associates, a Mumbai-based law firm that looks closely into gambling-related issues.
The Indian Parliament is expected to reconvene after general elections in May this year.
Roland Landers, who heads the All India Gaming Federation, which is working on creating awareness about gambling in India, welcomed the bill. He said the organisation would take it up with Mr Tharoor to ensure the bill gets re-introduced.
"It will be good if the debate continues in parliament. This will help MPs get an understanding of the issue."
“The debate on the bill will help MPs know that a lot of revenue is lost due to the gambling being illegal in the country. Some of this money is also laundered and ends up financing terror activities. This can be checked with legalisation,” he said.
Speaking to AGB, Ranjana Adhikari, a lawyer also with Nishith Desai, said that such a debate would be beneficial for the sector and that it has already started with the report of the Law Commission headed by retired Justice Chauhan.
As a fast-growing and relatively new sector in India, Adhikari argues that the central government should be the one to draw up regulations. At present, under the Indian Constitution, individual states are responsible for legislation on land-based gambling.
“The central government has been focusing on the digital India campaign so they can consider it too.”
On the issue of sports betting overall, Adhikari said that it was a game of skill on which bets are made, similar to poker or rummy that are very popular in India. “Horse racing is legal in India and it involves placing bets on what is considered a game of skill. Likewise, cricket for example is also a game of skill and so it should be legal to place bets on the outcomes of cricket matches.”
According to Adhikari and Khanna, the issue remains a moral one. They pointed out that in February a High Court judgment on the issue of gambling in the southern state of Kerala had cited the scriptures for prohibiting it. “We need to realise that those texts were written hundreds of years ago and that with time, society and its customs and morals also undergo changes. It has happened in the case of homosexuality and marital rape in the country before,” Adhikari said.
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