The cricket spot fixing scam in the India Premier League (IPL) has become a media sensation. Bollywood actors, cricketing stars, bookies, highly connected gamblers, underworld dons and even a Pakistani umpire have added masala to an already spicy scandal. Outraged analysts are demanding a crackdown on all betting, the jailing of not just the fixers but of all VIP gamblers, and even the banning of the IPL.
This is ridiculous. If individual judges are corrupt, do you ban the judiciary? No? Then why ban the IPL because a few cricketers were corrupt? If you ban the IPL, the very same bookies and cricketers will shift to one-day cricket and Test cricket. Will you ban those too? If you do so, bookies will shift to other sports, and to elections. Will you ban elections too?
The real lesson from the spot fixing scandal is that, by making cricket betting illegal, we have driven it underground and allowed underworld characters to dominate betting outcomes. The answer is to make betting legal and well regulated.
The government allows, regulates and gains enormous revenues from speculative bets on the stock market. It should follow the same logic for cricket, elections and many other forms of betting. Betting on horses is legal, but not on cricket. How irrational can you get?
Legalising and regulating cricket bets cannot eliminate all fixing, but can definitely check it, since bookies and betting will come into open view. This will create thousands of legal jobs, generate enormous tax revenue, bring huge sums of black money into the legal arena, and deprive the underworld of a lucrative monopoly, eroding its malign influence on society.
Indian courts distinguish between games of chance (which are prohibited) and games involving skill (like poker or rummy) that are allowed. Picking winners in horse races is also regarded as requiring some skill, and so is legal. But picking winners in elections or cricket — which definitely requires some skill — is currently illegal. Silly!
Gambling in most societies is viewed as immoral, and often banned. But the experience of liquor prohibition should be a warning to us all. In the USA, prohibition was enacted in 1932 with massive support from churches, temperance societies and women’s organizations. This aimed for the high moral ground. Alas, it generated massive bootlegging, huge black profits, and gangster wars led by the likes of Al Capone. So, US prohibition was soon rescinded.
In India too, many states tried imposing prohibition, found this impossible to implement, and so gave up. Liquor sales are now legal in almost all states, but regulated. This generates enormous revenues for governments, thousands of legal jobs for workers in the industry, and satisfaction for millions of consumers from what others regard as illicit pleasures.
Gambling is another such pleasure, and needs to be dealt with accordingly. True, liquor has some very undesirable side effects. Gambling too can in some cases lead to addiction and ruination. But driving such activity underground creates far more problems than it solves.
Betting on sports is entirely legal in many countries. Britain has thousands of betting shops on street corners. Bookmakers in Britain are not shady underworld characters but highly respectable companies, the three biggest being William Hill, Ladbrokes and Coral. They contribute around five million pounds per year to fund research and education on tackling addiction to gambling and other issues, and a special levy for the same can be mandated in India too.
Nobody knows exactly how big illegal betting is in India. The police estimate that betting on just the IPL — which lasts only six weeks — is Rs 20,000 crore. Betting on all sports and elections is perhaps 10 times higher. If such betting is legalized, and subject to a tax of say 20 per cent, it will generate anything up to Rs 40,000 crore per year in tax revenue. Over and above this will be income tax paid by the bookmakers, all workers in the gambling industry, and by lucky winners. Gargantuan sums of black money will turn white. The rule of Dawood and other gangsters will be replaced by legitimate business. Most, though not all, fixing will be checked.
Madam Sonia, it is impossible to imagine any other single measure that can do so much good and eliminate so much harm. Please make the legalization of betting an immediate priority. It may not win you the coming election, has so many positive features that it can only help.
Instead of chasing bookies and VIP gamblers, focus immediately on legalizing them. At a time when the police lack the manpower to check even rape and murder, diverting scarce police resources to chasing bookies and gamblers is almost a crime itself.