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The Tricky Business of Sports Betting in India

There has been much publicity surrounding sports betting in India, particularly since the dawn of cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2007. It was not long after this event that the practise of cricket betting was hit by controversy. In 2013, India saw a high-profile match-fixing case with the arrests and subsequent bans of IPL players Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan for their involvement in ‘spot-fixing’.

Spot-fixing relates to a purposeful attempt by a player or official to influence a specific sequence of play or an eventual result, such as bowling a no-ball or wide ball at a specific time during the match. Unusual betting activity around these events is then analysed and an investigation might ensue.

The main issue with sports betting, aside from the corruption it can encourage, is that the practise is in fact illegal in most of India. The country’s sports betting market is thought to be worth around $150bn a year showing that, if legalised, it would be an incredibly lucrative industry.

Legal Framework

The only place in which sports betting is legal in India is in the north-eastern state of Sikkim. Elsewhere in the country, the Public Gambling Act of 1867 reigns supreme. Despite being 150 years old and making no specific mention of gambling, the Act outlaws venues where ‘risking’ money is to take place, or even to visit such places in which it is carried out. In being so old the law does of course does not cover the internet, from which a vast proportion of sports betting is operated.

Online betting is subsequently a grey area in Indian law. Placing bets with online bookmakers is technically illegal, but the legality of online poker sites, for example, is less clear-cut. Operating under the justification that poker is a skill game rather than a form of gambling, most of the big online poker sites can be accessed in India.

The main problem with sports betting and online gaming in general is that the law is quite unclear and outdated. There is nothing which gives businesses or gamers clear advice on what they can and cannot do. This is where legalisation will assist the country.

Gambling exists – should India now embrace it?

Very recently, the European Sports Security Association (ESSA) has advised the Law Commission of India that the financial boost to the economy through regulating sports betting would far outweigh any cultural reason to keep it outlawed.

The current sports betting regime, being largely illegal, feeds into the hands of criminal organisations in the country and diverts tax revenue away from the government. The ESSA’s report also stated that, as it currently stands, unregulated sports betting is a “detriment on sport, related investment and public revenues, whilst also denying consumer demand and access to a regulated product.”

It will be the latter point which could influence the government heavily. With one of the biggest populations in the world, India will undoubtedly produce one of the most significant gambling markets if allowed to flourish.

The concern for some is that there might be an increase in match-fixing – particularly, as we have seen above, in the highly popular sports such as cricket and horse racing. However, the ESSA has argued that placing harsh restrictions on gaming will undermine genuine and balanced attempts to regulate it.

The Lodha Panel, a specialist judicial advisory board set up in the wake of the 2013 match fixing scandal, recommended in its report of January 2016 that sports betting should be legalised, but that players, match officials and cricket administrators should be precluded from participating. Much like the rules imposed in professional football in the UK, whereby players, officials, managers, coaches and any person linked in any capacity with a club or body are not allowed to partake in gambling relating to their sport.

This is a pragmatic and modern approach to a growing area of debate, and one which brings the country into the present day. Adapting to the internet is one thing, but also allowing businesses and individuals to take advantage of this globally popular pastime and revenue generator could prove crucial.

Combating corruption or stifling freedom?

The 2013 IPL bans were for life, handed out by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which is the country’s national governing body for the sport. But despite these heavy penalties, the sport in India has been beset with corruption allegations and persistent issues related to gambling. In 2010, it was international cricketers from Pakistan who were sanctioned for their involvement in spot-fixing, showing that it was and is clearly a problem plaguing the sport.

With the country’s obsession with cricket well known, the All India Gaming Federation (AIGF) has recently recommended that all sports betting be classed as ‘games of skill’. The AIGF therefore also recommended the drafting and implementation of Online Skill Gaming Act, which will be designed to regulate the process of betting of all types, but particularly in sport. The irregular patterns of bet placing associated with spot-fixing and match-fixing will be combated (as it is being in Europe and elsewhere) via a system of checks and balances designed to identify and eradicate corruption.

All in all, regulation seems both the best way forward. It’s certainly the approach that is advocated very affirmatively by the relevant organisations. Wanting to embrace the industry rather than push it into the underground appears to be the preferred route by most, but many complicated issues, as well as adamant opposition, will have to be addressed before that becomes a reality in India.

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